Top Ten: Awe-inspiring Stage Special Effects

With Ghost The Musical now opening in London, following its debut in Manchester, I thought it would be fun to have a look at the magic of stage special effects. We all have those moments in the theatre where we’re left thrilled and asking ‘how did they do that?’ The theatre has given us everything from helicopters landing on the stage to walls of fire and people vanishing. Hollywood may be able to do far more with its CGI and camera trickery, but there’s really nothing better than seeing something live.

So here are my favourite onstage illusions:

1. Ghost The Musical

So many fabulous illusions to pick from this show, a rare treat where a show can be as strong on music, book and performances as well as its SFX. One of the more understated illusions to look out for in is in the second act: a solid coke can is placed on the floor, however, within seconds we see Richard Fleeshman’s hand going straight through it. Very clever and combined with the rest of the wonderful illusions, this makes Ghost one of the most successful musicals to pull this off.

2. Carrie The Musical
Though an infamous musical flop from the Royal Shakespeare Company, in between the awful direction and head-scratching costumes were some neat moments. At the end of Act One, Carrie, who has the power of telekinesis, defies her mother and pins her to a chair. After the stage floor cracks open, we see Carrie’s hands burst in to flames (yes, her hands are really on fire). Now I’m not sure why her hands set on fire, maybe they got confused with the other Stephen King novel Firestarter – either way it looked fantastic. Perhaps that illusion will also make an appearance in the new production of Carrie that opens Off-Broadway later this year.

3. Merlin
Another flop, this musical was supposed to be a star vehicle for illusionist Doug Henning but ended up folding on Broadway after only 199 performances. Again, overall the show was a mess (cancelling its opening night many times), but it did feature some incredible illusions. The biggest occurred during the number “Put a Little Magic in Your Life”, in which Henning rode on to the stage on a white horse and galloped straight into a gigantic box. The box was then raised into the air and opened up only to reveal … nothing, it was empty. The horse and rider then materialised from the other side of the stage. Audiences gasped in delight, but soon forgot the magic when they had to sit through the rest of a dreadful evening that lacked the real magic.

4. Mary Poppins
The Disney musical promised magic and certainly delivered, from flying to walking up walls, Mary Poppins has it all.  Early on in Act One, there was one effect that really had the audience scratching their heads asking ‘how big is that bag’. Mary places her bag on a table as she talks to the children and proceeds to pull out everything but the kitchen sink – including a full size coat stand. Now that’s the kind of bag we all want.

5. Dracula the Musical
Yet another Broadway flop (from Frank Wildhorn, who knows how to write a flop). The show itself was almost sleep-inducing with a terrible score and a wobbly book, but the one thing it did have were some nifty on stage illusions. It’s hard to pick one out of the bunch so I won’t. There was all the flying to characters’ hair changing colours in a split second and the lead actresses clothes getting blown off. Still, no amount of effects or onstage nudity could save Dracula and he went back to his coffin after only a few months on Broadway. Wildhorn’s latest show Wonderland has also just flopped on Broadway.
6. Legally Blonde
The pink piece of confectionery that is Legally Blonde had a fantastic and fun stage effect in the Broadway production that was sadly cut for the UK. In the opening number, a girl in face mask, rollers and scruffy clothes appears atop the upper level shouting for the other girls to wait for her as they go out to meet Elle Woods. She slides down a fireman’s pole only to be fully dressed, perfect hair and no face mask as she hits the bottom.  Simple trick but very effective, much like the sudden dress change for Elle in the first song.

7. Scrooge The Musical
This festive offering, which is normally on somewhere in the country as Christmas approaches, may not be the best show in the world, but it’s still quite charming and features some nice stage effects that get your attention. The best is when, after a 360 degree turn, the empty chair in Scrooge’s bedroom is suddenly occupied by one of the ghosts. There’s another wonderful moment with a door and a ghost – magic enough for a festive fright.

8. Spider Man – Turn Off the Dark
Yes, this most expensive Broadway musical of all time has become a walking punchline (has now reopened after major reworking), but it boasts some spectacular flying sequences. We’ve seen plenty of flying before – in the likes ofMary Poppins, Wicked and Peter Pan – but never to this degree. With speeds up to 50 miles per hour, leaps from the balconies on to the stage and mid air-fight sequences, the action really has had people screaming in delight. Such risks carry consequences though, and a few actors have sustained injuries. Hopefully, producers have worked out those problems now.
9. Beauty and the Beast
Another Disney musical – the first big one – and more stunning effects. This time it’s the big transformation scene from beast to man that leaves you gasping – wire work and clever lighting make this work a treat. This show would set the bar for all future Disney stage musicals, from The Lion King and Mary Poppins to less successful offerings like Tarzan and The Little Mermaid.

10. Rent Remixed
Take one of the most loved and most successful stage musicals in Broadway history, employ Kylie’s tour director to change it all by adding disco beats, losing the rock score and confusing the book and you have the ingredients for the dreadful Rent Remixed that haunted the West End for a few months before dying never to be seen again. So where was the ‘oh my God’ moment?  Well it’s how it ever got on stage in the first place that left many scratching their heads and rubbing their eyes in disbelief – me included.

So there you have it, some of the best work of magic and illusions on the stage. What would your picks be? Did I miss out your favourite? 

On a personal note, I just want to say a big congratulations and the best of luck to the cast and crew of Ghost. Manchester enjoyed having you. This wonderful show it deserves to be a smash hit in the West End.

– Craig Hepworth

Ghost The Musical receives its gala West End opening on 19 July 2011 (previews from 22 June) at the Piccadilly Theatre, London, having had a seven-week tryout at the Opera House, Manchester. This piece was originally written for Whatsonstage.com/Northwest.