by Eric Gelb
Flying in theatre is absolutely magical. Just imagine, as Mary Poppins sings her last few words as she lifts off the ground and into the haze-filled stage rafters. But imagine if she leaped off the lip of the stage and flew over the heads of the audience? That’s just what she did 8 times a week when the show ran on Broadway. Or consider the Broadway classic “Cinderella”. While not nearly as complex as Mary Poppins, at the end of the magical “It’s Possible” Cinderella’s Fairy Godmother flies above her horse-drawn carriage in a magical flight. While these moments are quick and seemingly easy, it’s so much more than that.
First, imagine the amount of safety and precaution that must be taken. You are hoisting a performer in the air! It has to be the top-of-the-line equipment to keep everyone safe. This racks up quite a hefty bill for the production for one small effect. But if the script truly calls for it, it’s a necessity. Aside from making it happen, think of the logistics. When someone like Mary Poppins flies over the heads of at least a thousand people each night, not only does it have to be super-safe for the performer, if she’s flying above people, it has to be super-duper heavy-duty! But, as they say, it’s all for the show. While it is expensive and logistically complicated, it’s a huge part of what makes the show so magical and special. This particular effect was omitted in the Second National Tour, which further tells you — flying is expensive and logistically difficult. In that particular instance, it could be reasonably inferred that the producers opted to not have to spend the immense amount of time of prep, maintenance and break-down of Mary Poppins flying over the audience.
But don’t be fooled by the grandeur of Mary’s flight – even the smaller flying effects require an immense amount of work and planning to accomplish. Aside from the logistics, it’s not a wild question to ask who “flies”, as in who does it? Well, there’s a few options. If you’re thinking of community or regional theatre, there are even more. Oftentimes they’ll opt to make their own “flying” contraptions that might work or be serviceable for the run but not safe. But the option that’s open (as in ready for hire and open to bookings) are the two big names – ZFX Flying and Flying by Foy. Both companies, while offering similar services, do an exceptional job. It’s like hiring someone to come and cut your lawn — they charge you a fee, and they come in and do it for you and work with you and your performers. It’s much, more more than just attaching someone to strings. Hiring a company to come fly your performers is a process – it’s expensive, and you have to sort out housing, the actual equipment that they’ll bring, the rehearsal period and things of that nature.
Imagine producing a production of Willy Wonka, and you need to fly your performers for the “Fizzy Lifting Scene” and adding a flying company into the mix of squirrel costumes and Oompa Loompa wigs. But it’s all in the name of magic! There’s no shortage of flying nowadays, of course, (if you recall “Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark” which incorporated similar flying effects as Poppins, albeit much more abundant).
Earlier this month, Peter Pan Live aired on NBC on the tails of last year’s Sound of Music Live. A part of the continuing “live-on-tv” trend of musical theatre pieces, Pan incorporated live flying throughout the broadcast. This is a little different than flying in theatre. In the theatre, a set amount of people see it each night. So if a flight is a few moments late, you can fix it for the next performance. But the whole country saw it, so the flights were as close to as perfect as possible because they won’t ever be done again after the broadcast. While stressful and surely costly, the precautions and preparation taken for the magical flights that all of America was treated to was more than magical.