Bringing Broadway Spectacle Back to Life

On March 12, 2020, Broadway went dark. Curtains down. Ghost lights on. Doors locked.

The actors scattered. A lucky few retreated to vacation homes, a lot of newbies moved back to mom and dad’s, and many hunkered down in New York, waiting for the pandemic to pass.

But what happened to the other stars of the show — those visual effects that bring the dazzle to the razzle?

Here’s how five returning shows are making sure some of their signature spectacles are ready for prime time. Warning: spoilers ahead.

‘The Phantom of the Opera’

Eight times a week, for 32 years until the pandemic struck, a giant chandelier swooped over the audience and crashed on to the stage as the first act of “The Phantom of the Opera” ended at the Majestic Theater.

The one-ton, 6,000-bead chandelier is not only Broadway’s most famous stage effect, but also its oldest. The one time that the crew seriously considered replacing it with a more modern model, “superstition won out,” according to the show’s production supervisor, Seth Sklar-Heyn. So the original remains.

Just how attached is the “Phantom” family to its famous fixture? Let’s just say that chandelier has a name, Ruthie II. It’s named for Ruth Mitchell, who was the assistant to Hal Prince, the director of “Phantom.” (The Ruthie I hangs in London; on the world tour, the chandelier is named “Hal.”)

“It has become a character in many ways,” Sklar-Heyn said. “One of the first times I called [cues for] the show the chandelier stalled — she didn’t want to move. And I remember thinking, it’s essential that she come to life.”

After the final matinee last year, the “Phantom” crew lowered the fixture to the stage, plugged it in to recharge, and then hoisted it halfway up between the floor and the ceiling, thinking they’d be back in a few weeks.

And that’s where the chandelier spent the next year plus, waiting for a cue that never came.

Early this summer, the crew returned to check in on Ruthie II and to give her a tuneup. She got fresh cables, a welding inspection and motor upgrades.

The first time the crew hoisted her, they moved slowly, looking for reassurance that she was ready to fly. She was, and now they’re waiting for the show’s first post-shutdown performance, on Oct. 22.

“On the first night,” Sklar-Heyn said, “I think it will get more applause than anything else.”

‘Tina — The Tina Turner Musical’

At first, it seemed fine to let the “Tina” costumes hang. They were in dressing rooms all over the Lunt-Fontanne Theater, sweaty from that last performance, but it wouldn’t be long till they were in use again.

As weeks turned into months, the musical’s crew reconsidered. Those dressing rooms were uncooled, and fabric could be damaged by dry rot, or mildew. So in the summer of 2020, the wardrobe team gathered up the period outfits and moved them to air-conditioned wings and a nearby quick-change room.

Of special concern: the show’s signature “Proud Mary” dress, a short, sleeveless, bugle-beaded gold number, with fringe and sequins, that the actress playing Turner (who, before the pandemic, had been Adrienne Warren at most performances) wears during an emotionally raw sequence at the end of Act One.

The dress, one of 18 the character dons over 160 minutes, is too heavy to hang — it might stretch or tangle — so the wardrobe supervisor, Linda Lee, wrapped it in a soft gold towel (“I’m a little crazy”) and laid it in a basket.

“Beaded gowns and dresses are very fragile, and she doesn’t wear this dress in a fragile way,” said Lee, who has worked in costume departments on Broadway for 40 years. “She shimmies a lot. That dress takes a beating.”

As reopening rehearsals neared this summer, Lee and her team returned to retrieve the costumes and send them out for dry cleaning (to Ernest Winzer Cleaners, whose theater expertise won it an honorary Tony Award in 2018).

And then the restoration began, as the show readies for an Oct. 8 restart. Lee put the dress on a mannequin and set about repairing the neckline, where some beads were missing. Later her team would work on the rest of the dress. “The only thing that needs to happen is some repair work to make it perfect,” Lee said, “which is what we want it to be.”

‘Hadestown’

The first song in “Hadestown” is called “Road to Hell,” so it stands to reason that the set’s central element is just that: a passageway to the underworld.

The show is a retelling of the Orpheus and Eurydice myth, dividing its time between the world above and the world below. How to get from one to the other on a Broadway stage? An elevator, of course.

Actually, it’s called a lift, and it’s a large section of the stage floor that, controlled by push chains and a 15 horsepower motor, can carry actors or objects eight feet below the stage floor, and two feet above it. The platform descends through a cylinder at varying speeds — it maxes out at about 12 inches per second during the show — and at the bottom is a door through which actors can enter or exit.

When Broadway shut down, the “Hadestown” crew left the lift level with the floor, so anyone wandering around the theater in the dark wouldn’t fall through a hole. The four chains sat extended below the deck for nearly a year and a half.

“There wasn’t a massive discussion about what we should do to preserve it,” said Spencer Greene, the assistant carpenter, “because we all genuinely believed Broadway wouldn’t be down for this long.”

When the crew finally came back this summer, they were unsure what they would find. They set about cleaning the chains, re-oiling the machinery, and then testing, testing, testing. They ran the lift with no one on it. It seemed fine. Then the head carpenter rode it. Still fine. A few more people. And, after the string of safety tests, actors were allowed on board.

“Hadestown” resumed performances on Sept. 2. At that first show, the audience was rapt when, early in the first act, Hades escorted Persephone on her annual trip to hell. As the pair disappeared beneath the stage, the crowd cheered.

‘Harry Potter and the Cursed Child’

Harry Potter is a wizard who lives in a world of wands and spells, so, obviously, “Harry Potter and the Cursed Child” is filled with magic. Some of the illusions are familiar to Potterheads — the show opens with the sorting hat, which assigns wizarding students to houses at Hogwarts, while others are new to the plot of “Cursed Child,” and we’re not going to tell you about those because we’re keeping the secrets.

Jamie Harrison, the production’s chief illusionist, said some equipment — particularly anything that generates flames or fire — will have to be replaced because of potential degradation before the show, consolidated from two parts to one, returns Nov. 12.

But he is not particularly worried about the technology. Instead, he said, he is most concerned about the human challenges: retraining actors emerging from a long and decidedly non-magical stretch.

“It takes hundreds of hours of rehearsal to get some of the effects in the show up to performance standard, and it takes the performers a lot of discipline to stay in character and do very tricky or contrived things with their bodies or their hands,” Harrison said. “So the biggest part of breathing life back into the illusions is the rehearsal of the performers.”

They, of course, are mostly trained as actors, not magicians. “It can be really daunting when they first arrive,” Harrison said. “You can see the terror in their faces.”

And is magic a skill you don’t forget?

“My sense is it will be like getting back on a bicycle,” Harrison said. “But some of these sequences in ‘Cursed Child’ are very technically complicated for the performers, and they need to get to that point where they can do it without having to run it through the gray matter. We might be having to start again, but I’m confident that we have enough time to get it back to our high standards.”

‘Moulin Rouge! The Musical’

Derek McLane is a big-time set designer, who works regularly on and off Broadway and has designed the set for the Oscars six times. He’s also a New Yorker, and there’s this one rat he sees so often, he calls him Joe.

So after more than a year away from the Hirschfeld Theater, where “Moulin Rouge!” was and will be playing, McLane had one gnawing (sorry) fear: “My fantasy was that maybe rats had eaten parts of the set.”

Happily, it was not so; when McLane finally made it back to check out his handiwork, there was still confetti on the floor from the final performance 18 months ago, and the set seemed just fine.

The “Moulin Rouge!” stage is exuberantly red, much of the action takes place in a heart-shaped frame, and there are eye-catching nods to the 19th Century French cabaret in which it is set: a windmill, an elephant and, hovering above, a 22-foot-wide, two-layered neon sign spelling out the show’s title.

The sign is displayed at various heights during the show, rising up as the action begins, cued by a gesture from the show’s handsome hero, Christian.

“It’s fashioned after the font of the original club from the 1890s, and it’s a font you see in a lot of Toulouse-Lautrec’s posters,” McLane said. “There’s something fun and theatrical about having this neon sign that acts like a show curtain, and it kind of evokes, in a ridiculous way, the chandeliers rising at the Met to start a show.”

When the stage crew returned to the theater this summer, the neon at first didn’t seem to work anymore. “Something happens when it’s not electrified for a while,” McLane said. “But they left it on, and after an hour or two it came back to life.” The rest of the machinery, including the motors that fly in big pieces of scenery, checked out too.

“Moulin Rouge!” is scheduled to resume performances Sept. 24. “There’s a little bit of dusting and vacuuming to be done, but the scenery is basically ready for the cast,” McLane said. “We’ve all waited for this a long time.”

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