Broadway Magic

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Drama critics often use the words "magic" or "magical" when reviewing a play or a performance. But there have been many literal displays of magic on Broadway over the years, as well.


The famed Harry Houdini played Broadway in 1925 at the 44th Street Theatre. He awed critics and audiences with such dazzling feats as Palingenesia (taking a living man apart and putting him back together) and The Whirlwind of Colors (pulling yards and yards of silk from a glass bowl). The New York Times found his Famous Chinese Water Torture Act "inexplicable and unpleasantly dangerous."

Another celebrated illusionist, Howard Thurston, starred in a magic show on Broadway in 1927. He was known as "the master magician" and his aim was "to mystify rather than deceive." His illusions included fire eating, sleight-of-hand tricks and making a horse and rider disappear in midair. Another of his more lauded tricks was hypnotizing a live goose.

In 1940 a Danish-American magician named Dante appeared in a spectacular show called Sim Sala Bim at the Morosco Theatre. One critic wrote that Dante looked like "a combination of Mephistopheles and Monty Woolley." Among his specialties were the Mystery of the Disappearing Woman, the Mystery of the Bottomless Barrel and the Mysterious Globe. He spiced up his show with chorus girls in Chinese costumes.

In 1980 Harry Blackstone performed his magical feats at the Majestic Theatre. Among them were the Vanishing Birdcage, Oriental Mysteries, Incredible Buzzsaw and Floating Lightbulb. His popular show ran for 104 performances. The most successful magic show ever produced on Broadway was undoubtedly The Magic Show (1974), starring the splendid Doug Henning. This was an unusual show because in addition to Henning's spectacular magic, it had songs by Stephen Schwartz and a book by Bob Randall. It ran for 1,920 performances at the Cort Theatre.

Henning returned to Broadway in 1983 in a book musical called Merlin. He played the titular medieval wizard opposite Chita Rivera, who portrayed a treacherous queen. His acting was panned, but his splendid magic was cheered. The show ran for six months.

Two shows, A Little Like Magic (1986) and A Little More Magic (1994), were produced by Famous People Players, a Canadian black-light theatre company that features developmentally challenged performers.

Dreams and Nightmares (1996), a magic show created and performed by the brilliant David Copperfield, had spectacular visual effects and ran for 55 performances at the Martin Beck Theatre. It was described as an intimate evening of grand illusion.

In 1981 Woody Allen's The Floating Light Bulb was presented at the Vivian Beaumont Theater. The play was about a young Brooklyn boy who dreamed of being a magician. Brian Backer won a Tony Award as Best Supporting Actor for his work in the show, which ran for 62 performances.

Sometimes magic is created in the theatre without benefit of smoke and mirrors. At the March memorial tribute to Wendy Wasserstein, held at Lincoln Center, William Finn performed a song called "Magic," dedicated to the late playwright. One featured lyric: "I don't know what you did/but you did it to everyone, like magic."

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