Jim Steinmeyer
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Spring 2015

DISNEY’S ALADDIN

AladdinThis spring saw the one-year anniversary of Aladdin on Broadway; the show was a huge adventure, starting late in 2013 in Toronto, then moving to the New Amsterdam Theatre on Broadway. Those bigger-than-life Disney shows pose a particular challenge and an incredible sense of opportunity. Aladdin is no exception. Director Casey Nicholaw arranged a spectacular confection, including a show-stopping (literally, a standing-ovation-inspiring) number that falls in the middle of the first half.

The mixture of musical and magic is always a challenge, and depends on the incredible work of scenic designers, lighting designers, directors, choreographers, and an incredibly talented cast.

One of the great treats of Aladdin was using classical mysteries in completely new forms, and the planning for these amazing effects took place over the course of a year, from tests to mock-ups to the finished products. For example, when the Genie arrives out of the lamp, he twirls from the floor in a “dusted-off” version of a classical stage illusion, originated in the 1850s, and once used to produce the American actor John Wilkes Booth on stage. The Genii produces a sprinkle of magic, in the Cave of Wonders, with effects re-engineered from classic vaudeville, and even one from the 1880s. And Aladdin’s Flying Carpet is a state-of-the-art, modern technological wonder, based on a classical deception from the early 20th century.

I’m proud to say that audiences swoon. Critics loved it.

“Sly Alchemy from That Lamp… The Disney engineers have provided a nifty bit of wonder for the magic carpet, which appears to float softly around the stage without benefit of any visible lifting apparatus.” NY TIMES

“It made me a believer—of Jim Steinmeyer, in charge of the ‘illusion design.’ This is a show that is massively fun to look at.” —NYTHEATRE ONLINE

“If you’re granted three wishes to make during Disney’s “Aladdin” you’ll definitely want to use one to discover how the musical’s creative genies pull off the magic-carpet ride in the second act. Seriously, it’s amazing.” – NY DAILY NEWS

“Disney magic abounds thanks to the astounding work of illusion designer Jim Steinmeyer. Props and actors disappear, only to magically reappear somewhere else on the stage. Indeed, when Aladdin takes Jasmine on a magic carpet ride, it’s the stuff of dreams. They’re actually flying and you don’t see any wires…. [The moment is] one of the most miraculous on Broadway!” —THEATREMANIA

“The big showstopper isn’t even human… A flying carpet carries our lovers aloft in a nighttime ride, swooping and spinning with how’d they do that wonder. Jim Steinmeyer [is] credited with designing the onstage illusion. It deserves its own curtain call. —ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY

“The magic carpet ride is one of those moments on Broadway that brings goosebumps.” —EXAMINER.COM

Prince and PrincessOn some nights, the Carpet’s flight also stops the show for another standing ovation. It actually does get a curtain call, in a manner of speaking, when it sweeps up the newly-married Prince and Princess.
On opening night in New York, the designers got to take a bow with the cast. That’s me, somewhere in that scrum of “un-theatrical” people in the picture below trying their best to look theatrical.

Opening Night

The next Aladdin companies are now under construction. Hopefully you’ll get a chance to see it soon. But if you have the opportunity, try to see it on Broadway, in one of New York’s most incredible theatres—the New Amsterdam, where Ziegfeld offered his Follies and Guy Jarrett worked onstage.

A little more about Aladdin at the end of this blog.

OTHER STAGES, OTHER SHOWS, UPCOMING PRODUCTIONS

Over the last year, I’ve been involved in a number of intriguing and exciting productions, including Carrie (La Mirada Theatre); Metamorphosis, The Big Apple Circus; The Fantasticks!, (South Coast Rep); Into the Woods, Oregon Shakespeare Festival and Wallis Annenberg, Beverly Hills. And magic shows, too, including my friends: Brad Ross’ show, Unbelievable; Alex Ramon’s show, #NewMagic. I’ve also been developing new effects for Topas, Jason Bishop, and Upcoming: David Goldrake’s Secrets and Wonders; The Disney and Feld updated Mickey’s Magic Show, and Princess Cruises’ Magic to Do.

WHO WAS DRACULA?

Who Was DraculaIn 2013, Penguin published the hardcover version of Who Was Dracula?, an enlightening history of Bram Stoker’s construction of the classic vampire story. For fans of the vampire, and even those who are intrigued by this modern myth, there are plenty of surprises. The actual story is a surprisingly “backstage” one, involving some of the great lights of the late Victorian theatre, including Henry Irving, Oscar Wilde, Walt Whitman, Ellen Terry and even (dare I say it?) unexpected appearances by Jack the Ripper and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. It’s fact, but it really is stranger than fiction. The paperback was released last summer. It’s a small, neat paperback, just over 300 pages. But it packs plenty of surprises.

Here’s what they said!

“A fantastic, well-documented story.” —LIBRARY JOURNAL

“A work of enthusiastic scholarship and shrewd literary detection that will appeal both to Stoker scholars and garden-variety Dracula fans.” —BOOKLIST

“Does a solid job analyzing the birth and development of Dracula and illustrating the character traits Stoker cherry picked from his wide circle of friends.” —KIRKUS REVIEWS

BOOKS FOR MAGICIANS

I’d like to call your attention to the latest in the Impuzzibilities series (Ensuing, and Treacherous); two new lecture notes from my 2014 London lectures (Molecules of Magic and Too Dumb to Ask the Right Question); and a compilation of amazing effects for stand-up performers, Nothing But Mystery. You can find them in the Catalog section.

Too Dumb to Ask the Right Question Nothing But MysteryThe Ghost

And 2013 saw the republication of The Science Behind the Ghost in a pretty new hardcover edition with new illustrations. The book has been out of print for years, and has been highly sought as the only real history (and technical analysis) of Pepper’s Ghost and the development of mirror illusions. The new edition is especially neat, a great look at one of the theatre’s most famous special effects. You can find it in our Catalog.

THE TELEGRAPH

BroadwayWhen a big show opens, it generates all sorts of press. One of my favorites was in The Daily Telegraph (London), an interview with me written by John Hiscock. Anticipating Aladdin’s opening on Broadway, it appeared in March 2014. Here it is.

Jim Steinmeyer: Broadway's greatest stage illusionist.

Jim Steinmeyer created some of David Copperfield's most astonishing tricks and is currently perfecting the illusions for the musical of Aladdin.

When magician Jim Steinmeyer offers guests a drink they cannot be sure what they will get. One of his tricks is to pour a variety of different coloured, multi-flavoured drinks from the same container.

Since he first created it for television, it has become a popular party piece for those in the know. But when he poured water from a jug for me in his kitchen, it was just iced water. Disappointingly, there were no tricks. Although, as someone who has spent his life devising and creating illusions, Jim has plenty up his sleeve.

Some of his latest magical creations will be among the spectacular highlights of Aladdin, the Disney musical extravaganza which opens on Broadway next week.

The show has given Jim massive scope to create startling new effects involving Aladdin, his magic lamp, the genie who appears from it, the villain who becomes trapped in it and, of course, a magic carpet which flies without the use of wires. “Twenty years ago it couldn’t have been done,” he says enigmatically.

The show, which is being directed by Casey Nicholaw who choreographed Spamalot and directed The Book of Mormon, features many of the characters and songs from the 1992 Disney animated movie Aladdin, with more songs added. Aladdin also has three new buddies, but his pet monkey, Abu, doesn’t make an appearance. Although Steinmeyer’s work on the show is now done, he will be back on Broadway for opening night.

His name may not be widely known to the general public, but 55-year-old Jim Steinmeyer is something of a legend in the world of magic. Like a turbocharged Jonathan Creek, he has designed and created illusions for leading magicians, including Doug Henning, David Copperfield, Ricky Jay, Siegfried and Roy and Lance Burton.

For Copperfield he created the now-famous illusion of making the Statue of Liberty vanish, which was featured on a live television special; he has made animals disappear for Siegfried and Roy, whom he calls “the royalty of the entertainment world”; and both Copperfield and Henning have performed Origami, his illusion in which the magician’s assistant steps into a box which folds into a small cube and is penetrated by three swords before being unfolded, whereupon the assistant emerges unharmed.

Alice Cooper used one of his effects on his recent tour, in which the singer was confined in a metal torture device then impaled with a rack of sharp spikes.

Steinmeyer is also a historian of magic with a particular interest in Victorian and Edwardian-era performers and has written dozens of books and papers about magic and magicians, although, he says: “It’s a profession that’s dying. It started dying when vaudeville died and there is a feeling we just missed the good old days.”

He takes me though to his magician’s cave – in reality, a bright, airy office in the garden of his home in Burbank, California, just down the road from the Disney headquarters, where he worked for a while developing theme-park attractions for their Imagineering division.

His office is lined with bookshelves containing books on magic; his many awards, including one from Britain’s Magic Circle, are dotted around the room; posters of old-time magicians such as Howard Thurston, Harry Kellar and the Britons Jasper Maskelyne and Charles Morritt adorn the walls. Intriguingly, two boxes, one metal and multicoloured and the other resembling a wooden coffin, are at one end of the room. Both have been used for sawing a woman in half, although, says Jim, “There are literally dozens of different ways to do that trick.”

Jim Steinmeyer has the look of a magician, with a neatly trimmed, pointed grey beard and piercing eyes, yet he is modest and self-effacing, preferring instead to be the brains behind the stars of the shows.

“I have always had a fondness for stage magic but working with other performers has always been more interesting to me,” he says. “I always felt my job was to support really good performers and I’ve never had a hankering to perform myself, although I’ve done a little bit now and again.”

He first became intrigued by magic when he was seven years old, growing up in Chicago, and his older brother began dabbling in it. Jim began reading books about it and did tricks at school, performing at parties, school shows and clubs.

“I thought it would just be a hobby for me and I had no idea what I would do,” he recalls. “I thought I would find a profession and go into advertising or something like that.”

Then while he was at college he sent ideas for tricks to Doug Henning, who was doing television specials at the time. After several of them went well, Henning hired him.

He worked for Henning for seven years and was the magic designer for the musical Merlin, which starred Henning and was the first time magic had been incorporated into a Broadway musical. Although the show itself received mixed reviews, the magical illusions in it were spectacular. They included a levitating Henning and a horse vanishing in mid-air.

“Tricks are like songs, meaning they have tiny little plots, and when they’re over you feel you’ve seen a complete little story,” Jim says.

He went on to work on the musical Beauty and the Beast, which featured a boy transformed into a teacup and a big finale in which the Beast transforms back into the Prince. He also spent 18 months creating the magic effects for the Cameron Mackintosh-Disney co-production of Mary Poppins, which opened in Bristol before moving to the West End and on to Broadway.

In Las Vegas he created effects for Phantom of the Opera, including Raoul’s “torture cage”, which seemed to trap Raoul and hover in the air around him, threatening him with knife blades.

But when it comes to magic, there is very little new under the sun, he says. Nearly all magic tricks and illusions have been performed before, sometimes centuries ago. The Haunted House in Disneyland uses an illusion based on Pepper’s Ghost, which was first performed in England by Dr John Pepper in 1862. And a woman has been sawn in half on stage ever since British magician PT Selbit did it in January 1921 at the Finsbury Park Empire.

“Magic doesn’t modernize well,” says Jim. “It’s difficult to drag it into a current, fashionable era. Making a coin disappear in your hand isn’t any better if you use a computer chip instead of a coin.”

Although Jim Steinmeyer keeps the secrets behind many of his illusions to himself, in one of his many books, The Conjuring Anthology, he sets out 85 tricks for amateur magicians and reveals how they are done.

For the most part though, he says, “Magicians are guarding an empty safe, because everything is an illusion. The reason I won’t tell you how most tricks are done is because you would be so disappointed.

“You really don’t want to know.”

Spring 2015

Jim Steinmeyer

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