Imagine you're at the office. Suddenly the lights go out, burly construction workers appear and begin dismantling cubicles while employees strip down to their undies; then there's an explosion. Is it a nightmare? A lawsuit in the making?
If you're backstage at Aladdin, it's just another day at work. At every performance, the cast of 26 dash into the wings to join over 50 stagehands and dressers in a choreographed melee just as intricate as anything onstage.
"Safety runs the show," says Clifford Schwartz, Aladdin's production supervisor. "If it can't be done eight times a week safely, it can't be done." Schwartz, a backstage Broadway veteran for over 30 years, essentially directs a show the audience never sees, but one that Playbill witnessed firsthand.
Stagehands in baseball caps — not a requirement, but they all seem to wear them — do-si-do with wardrobe crew wearing headlamps to oversee the show's many quick changes. The quickest takes less than ten seconds, which Schwartz describes as "a lifetime." Moreover just 19 ensemble members wear the majority of the 337 costumes.
Schwartz's team of stage managers carefully maps out traffic patterns to ensure there are no collisions. During a scene change, a small building the size of a beach cabana rolls offstage where it waits for a song to cover the whirring that accompanies its 15-foot rise into storage above. Once airborne, a pair of palm trees glides across the stage on an automated track.
Command Central for all this movement is the stage manager's desk, a cramped perch with five video monitors that looks like a security desk. Shortly after Aladdin opened, Schwartz bequeathed this post to production stage manager Jimmie Lee Smith. From here, Smith "calls" the show, cueing light and set changes, including the ominous-sounding "Warning — pyro" that precedes fireworks.
The machine-like precision of so many people darting around one another calls to mind the cuckoo clocks in Disney's "Pinocchio," especially during the production number "Friend Like Me." In the space of just nine minutes, Smith gives over 150 cues, an average of one every 16 seconds. His longest break is during the applause, which often lasts over 30 seconds, literally stopping the show.
Throughout Smith keeps an eye on the monitors: one for each side of the stage, one full view in color, the other full view in infrared to see what's happening during the blackouts, and the "conductor cam." Note to those of you sitting front row center: The stage manager can see you.
But he's not the only one. In the orchestra pit, conductor cams the size of index cards are attached to the music stands so each of the 18 musicians can watch the conductor, music supervisor Michael Kosarin — and you.
With Aladdin now running over a year, "Koz" doesn't need to cue his musicians, but he does make eye contact with each on various musical entrances, particularly if there's a sub in the pit; each pit player has up to five different subs available, enlarging the musician talent pool to over 100.
The pit at the New Amsterdam is equipped with a drop-down seat for the conductor to rest between songs. Two mini-fans blow "winter, spring, summer, fall," Koz explains, because "I'm jumping around a lot." This aerobic workout explains why conductors presumably live longer than most: "It's all that activity above the heart."
The conductor's music stand is equipped with two blinking lights, each connected to a separate phone line — one to the stage manager, the other the sound engineer. "You don't want to see either light go on during a show," he reports. "No one's calling to say, 'Hey, what are you doin' after the show? Want to get a drink?'"
Besides, the real fun lies in the show itself. Aladdin is particularly satisfying for the orchestra because the music hardly stops. No sooner has a player put down an instrument and glanced at an incoming e-mail when along comes another musical cue. In addition to the 21 musical numbers, there is incidental music to cover scene changes, underscore a scene, or, in the case of a five-second interlude, accompany the maniacal laugher of the evil villain Jafar and his sidekick Iago.
The atmosphere in the pit resembles that of backstage: calm and efficient, due in no small part to the veterans in charge. Like Schwartz, Kosarin made his Broadway debut over 30 years ago, starting the day after his college graduation as a rehearsal pianist on the original production of Nine. From there, he worked his way up as a music director and arranger. After Disney's Beauty and the Beast opened, composer Alan Menken told him, "You're my guy," and he's been Menken's music director ever since.
Not to be outdone, Schwartz got his start as an assistant stage manager running lines with a forgetful Eve Arden before she was fired from Moose Murders. "I still have the moose head," he reports. "It's gathering mold in my in-laws basement." He went on to stage-manage the original productions of Assassins and the now-legendary revival of Chicago. Like Kosarin, Disney Theatricals sends him around the globe supervising its productions.
While both men have spent much of their careers cramped into small, dark places, there's no place they'd rather work. "The rehearsal studio is my home," Schwartz says, "the theatre my temple."