“This is not stuff from off the shelf. There’s some genuinely new stuff up there.”
Paul Kieve is describing the magic effects he has designed for Ghost: The Musical, and he speaks from experience. As the theater’s leading illusionist, Kieve has made things (and people) float, materialize and disappear for more than 100 productions, not to mention such film projects as Hugo and Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban.
But as promised, Ghost — the new musical version of the Oscar-winning 1990 film, now playing at the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre, represents a whole new level of onstage trickery, one that such prestidigitatory peers as David Copperfield and Teller (of Penn & Teller) have hailed as groundbreaking.
In both the film and the musical, Sam Wheat (Richard Fleeshman) struggles to make sense of his own premature death and try to warn his girlfriend, Molly Jensen (Caissie Levy), when her own life is imperiled. Along the way, he walks through doors, levitates objects (at normal speed and in slow motion) and appears out of nowhere, only to vanish just as quickly.
These dazzling sequences begin slowly and gradually pick up in terms of both frequency and intensity. “Jerry Zucker once said it’s a story of two parts: everything that leads up to the end and then the end,” Kieve says, referring to the director of the 1990 film. And Kieve is eager to credit his own Ghost director, Matthew Warchus (with whom he has also collaborated on The Lord of the Rings and the Broadway-bound musical Matilda), with giving him first the time and then the space to work his own magic.
“In a show, 95 percent of the effects are invisible, as they should be,” says Kieve, who owns more than 2,000 books about magic dating back to the 17th century and has also written his own, Hocus Pocus.
“And that only happens when a hundred other things are in place, and there are very few directors who are willing to accommodate all those things.”
This process took place over two years, including two weeklong workshops devoted just to the magic. In fact, Warchus says he recently gave this advice to the creative team currently developing a musical about Harry Houdini: “Don’t worry about anything else – not the book, not the songs, nothing else – until you’ve worked out your key illusions.
“I would say 80 percent of Ghost is accommodating an illusion one way or the other,” he continues, “whether one right then or one 10 scenes away that is being established.”
And while dozens of men and women are involved every night with executing these effects, a great amount of the responsibility falls on the four leading performers. (Along with Fleeshman and Levy, Bryce Pinkham and Da’Vine Joy Randolph costar as Sam’s morally compromised coworker and the flamboyant psychic he seeks out for help.) “The actors are really incredibly restricted at times,” Warchus says, “and it’s to their great, great credit that they’ve been so willing to do it and so good at it.”
How do they do it? You won’t find out from Kieve or from his Ghost actors, who have joined the time-honored tradition among magicians’ circles of refusing to divulge their secrets. “They are sworn to secrecy,” Kieve says. “And by the time they see how much work is put into it — it’s much easier to get wrong than it is to get right — they understand why.”
Both Warchus and Kieve say some ideas were cut not because they didn’t work but because they pulled people from the story. One of the film’s key effects involved a floating coin, and while Warchus says his collaborator was able to transfer the effect to the stage, “I was afraid it would impress the audience the wrong way. You can’t let the tail wag the dog, and so Paul and I were desperate not to have it feel like a magic show or a string of tricks.”
This focus on telling the story – Warchus describes the main factor in terms of keeping or dropping an illusion as “whether it had the right emotional color to it” – became, paradoxically, an advantage for Kieve.
“I’m lucky because the thing people care about most is the story,” he says. “And so it’s a much softer landing for the magic because people aren’t sitting there working out how we did it.”
By Eric Grode