In theatre, we use scenery and costumes to help tell our story. Backdrops can tell us where we are in the story. Lighting tells us the mood of the story or maybe what time of day. Costuming tells us the time period and maybe a little more about what the person wearing it is supposed to be. There are many costume shops in New York or Los Angeles which boast rows and rows of bolts of fabrics, beads to fill an entire room and needles by the hundreds. Or the huge, warehouse like scenery shops in New Jersey where things are painted and constructed for theatrical purposes. But what about those iconic pieces of theatre? Don’t they get any credit? They sure do. Not only are costuming and backdrops important, props can be just as iconic pieces in theatre, from the banner in Les Miserables to the helicopter in Miss Saigon.
It’s always been my opinion that one of the most undersold parts of live theatre is when there’s a little bit of magic involved. Just think of Paul Kieve, whose specialty is special effects for the stage. Kieve recently created magic for Matilda, Pippin and Ghost on Broadway. Paul’s job requires him to work closely with the rest of the production and creative team to create a seamless but magical effect on the stage, oftentimes the iconic moments.
Consider Miss Saigon – Although the inspiring show boasts a beautiful score and several touching moments, the pivotal scene of the musical is during Kim’s nightmare, when a full-scale helicopter enters the stage. This sort of effect costs thousands (if not millions to create), and often employs a source outside of the production to pull off.
Or in a show like Little Shop of Horrors, you’ve got to manage 3 (or 4) huge puppets to create the illusion of a giant, venus fly-trap like plant growing inside a flower shop. These puppets are often costly and heavy. Like the Enchanted Rose or the Helicopter, these are expensive parts of mounting the show that are necessary and cannot be skipped.
Another great example could be Cinderella’s magical transformation from Ella’s rags to her beautiful ballgown, made by William Ivey Long. This is a prime example, as every single person attending the show is expecting the transformation and looking forward to it. Although it may be expensive and difficult to pull off, it’s unavoidable because it’s iconic! It’s always been my opinion that live theatre is live because everything that happens in front of you is immediate, so when magic or little illusions occur, it’s especially exciting.
Sometimes iconic pieces aren’t so expensive, like the banner in Les Miserables. While it might not have been super expensive, it’s a staple of the show and something that audiences expect to see at the show! The next time that you attend a production that employs an iconic piece, feel free to applaud once the effect occurs. Incorporating those small but pivotal moments into live theatre is expensive, difficult but always very magical.