Friday, January 6, 2012

The first Houdini stage musical, MAN OF MAGIC

With the big news this week of a new Houdini Broadway musical with Hugh Jackman, I thought it would be fun to take a look back at the first big-budget Houdini stage musical, Man of Magic.

Man of Magic was produced by Harold Fielding and opened at London's Piccadilly Theater on November 16, 1966. The £75,000 production starred Stuart Damon as Houdini, Judith Bruce as Bess, and Stubby Kay as Houdini's fictional manager, Toby Kester. It was described as "a musical fantasy suggested by incidents in the life of Harry Houdini."

Magic and escape effects where devised by Timothy Dill-Russell, and included Metamorphosis, the Needles, a buzz saw, three floating woman at once (in a dance routine), and the Chinese Water Torture Cell with Dill-Russell doubling Damon (Houdini fails to escape, as required by the plot).

Reading back on the reviews, it's clear that the highlight of the show was Houdini's suspended straitjacket escape from the Brooklyn Bridge, which was staged using elaborate puppetry by Bill Baird and the Hogarth Puppets. Even Variety, in a generally tepid review of the play, praised the sequence for its "novelty and ingenuity."


Book and lyrics for Man or Magic were by John Morley and Aubrey Cash, with music by Wilfred Wylam. The show included sixteen songs with names like; Floral Sisters, Man in the Crowd, Fantabulous, The Man Who Captures My Heart, Suddenly, Sling the Gin, Conquer the World, Take Your Medicine, Like No Other Man, Don't Bother Me Bub, The Earth is the Lord's, Keep a Good Man Down, Man of Magic, This He Knows, and Say Your Name.

Man of Magic was lavish production that generated lots of press and merchandise (such as the soundtrack LP and Picture Book program seen here). The play was well received in magic circles, with The Linking Ring enthusing, "Man of Magic is a credit to Magic. Let us see that our magic is a credit to Man of Magic." However, theater critics universally panned the music.

Man of Magic closed after only 126 performances. Bill Larsen reported in Genii that there was "talk about it being made into an English movie", but this never happened.

Original Man of Magic soundtrack LP

11 comments:

  1. Being then a very young but professional magician, I attended the opening night by invitation. It has to be said that the musical did not have any real impact, either by didnt of its songs or generally of its magical scenes. The critics were less than impressed and alas the show closed early. I cant help feeling that there is a good musical to be made out of Erich Weiss's (Harry Houdini) life.

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    1. Wow, I've never talked to anyone who actually saw this play, let alone attended opening night! Very cool. Thanks for sharing. :)

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  2. Before opening in London it tried out on Manchester where I saw it. I recall one scene set on the Docks in Southampton where a crowd was awaiting the arrival of Houdini on the ( I think ) Queen Mary .At the rear of the stage came a small model of the liner pulled along by a rope. The model snagged on something and a stagehand had to crawl out to free it.

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  3. Nice to see comments from the audiece. As one of only three women in the pit this was one of my first ventures as a professional musician into th world of musicals. Loved the Manchester try out, the company and learnt lots from the experienced old hands.

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    1. Wow, you were a musician in the pit? That's great. Thanks for commenting. You're part of Houdini history! :)

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  4. I was on a working holiday in the UK in 1966 and met a student working as a stage hand with the Piccadilly Theatre. I was introduced to Harry Pegg "head carpenter" who gave me a job in early September. I subsequently worked as a stage hand throughout the entire production of Man of Magic. One of my most enduring memories is of Stubby Kaye. At one point he entered the stage through a covered wagon the back of which was off-stage. He had to climb about three steps but there was no handrail. One of my jobs was to hold his hand and steady him to prevent a fall.

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    1. That's is cool. What a great memory. Thanks for sharing, John.

      Tomorrow I'll be posting a clip of some music from the play. That might bring back some memories.

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  5. I saw this show in London for my 13th birthday. That's a long time ago now. I had a copy of the original cast recording which I foolishly sold a long time ago. I came across this site while searching for a replacement.
    I still have vivid memories of this production. It opened, as far as I can remember, with a spotlight shining through the gauze curtain, which I think was painted to resemble a Victorian theatre safety curtain, to reveal Stuart Damon as Harry releasing himself from handcuffs and chains.
    My other vivid memory is of the Brooklyn Bridge scene. As far as I recall the scene started with the cast portraying a crowd of onlookers on the bridge itself then just before Houdini is hoisted in the air some stage hands came onstage from the wings holding large spotlights that they pointed directly at the audience. While being blinded for a few seconds the stage was transformed to reveal the large model of the bridge populated with small puppet people and carriages and the puppet Houdini performing his escape suspended form the bridge. I remember the puppet actually shedding his straitjacket. The whole scene was a wonderful feat of stagecraft for the time.
    My other memory is of the Chinese water torture. I remember noticing how the switch was made when Timothy Dill-Russell took the place of Stuart Damon. Chorus girls came on stage with Chinese screens and crossed back and forth across the stage. On one of these passes, Timothy Dill-Russell swopped places with Damon and Damon went off stage behind the screen. Because Timothy Dill-Russell was then hauled upside down to be lowered into the tank it was easy to disguise the fact that it was a different man. It’s difficult to recognise someone when there face is upside down!
    Just seeing a Broadway icon like Stubby Kay live on stage was also so memorable.
    Having owned the cast LP, the tracks you have posted seem really familiar even though I haven’t head them for maybe 30 years. What’s the possibility of posting some more of the tracks? Thanks for bringing back fond memories.
    Alan

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    1. Wonderful memories, Alan. Thanks so much for sharing.

      Not sure I'll be posting any more tracks from the album. Don't want to push my luck with YouTube. They tend to be a little sensitive about music.

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  6. In Glasgow during the late sixties I became friends with Bobbie Willis (daughter of Denny Willis, the famous variety act, mainly in Britain)who appeared in the chorous line when the show was in London. She became famous herself in later year in Scotland. That how I became aware of the show and often listened to her LP of the show. Fast forward now to the mid seventies when I was working as head stage electricion at the Blackpool Opera House theatre. During the various seasons, each sunday there would be a concert show at the theatre provided by Harold Fielding and I had several chats to him about Man Of Magic. One Sunday he arrived from London and gave me a file copy of the L.P which I still enjoy. During our chats he told me of the many things that went wrong during the reahearsals, especially the Buzz Saw illusion which was bought from Abbotts. It's continually kept going wrong and Judith Bruce (who played Bess) finally refused to be a part of that illusion. To try and convince her otherwise, Harold Fielding himself went on it to try it out and I have a press photograph of him doing this. Judith was still not convinced though. In 1977 or 78, I asked Harold if I could buy the illusion but he kept refusing on the grounds of safety issues. I finally managed to persude
    him at a time when he suddenly had to clear his warehouses and eventually it arrived. It was a number of years later before I managed to unpack and build the illusion and soon discovered that it was a death trap and not a good advert for the craftmansip of Abbotts. With the help of an engineer and metalworker we managed to make it safe and once done I sold it on.

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    1. Wonderful story, Karl. Thank you for sharing.

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