Broadway Musical Magic: Remembering The Magic Show and Merlin
Hardly anyone ever speaks of this long-running musical of the 1970s, and a revival of the show most certainly will never happen, but it is hard to dismiss the Broadway success of The Magic Show. Tailored around and to the talents of magician Doug Henning, The Magic Showfeatured a score by Stephen Schwartz (Pippin, Godspell, Wicked) and a book by Bob Randall. Though the Schwartz score has some gems worth listening to, the plot for The Magic Show is relatively thin. This is arguably beside the point, since the real intention of the musical was not to succeed as a musical at all, but to capitalize on Henning’s talents as an illusionist and on his celebrity (which was climbing in the early 1970s).
Canadian-born magician Doug Henning had begun making a name for himself in nightclubs. Determined to return magic to its “glory days”, Henning strove to perfect his craft and gain more experience in theatrical venues. Henning reached out to a college friend, Ivan Reitman (the future director of such films as Meatballs and Ghostbusters, to name a few), to help him shape the endeavor, and, of course, direct it. The result was the musical Spellbound, which had a score by Howard Shore (who would go on to score dozens of films including The Lord of the Rings trilogy and a book David Cronenberg (another promising filmmaker). Premiering at the Royal Alexandra Theatre in Toronto, the piece would tell a dramatic musical story and incorporate Henning’s magic as part of the storytelling. Breaking box office records in Toronto, Spellbound soon found the attention of Broadway producers who thought the show might do well on Broadway…well, sort of…
Producer Edgar Lansbury backed the production, but when Reitman took the show to Broadway, both Shore’s score and Cronenberg’s book were excises. Only Henning’s magic tricks remained intact. Stephen Schwartz, who was the toast of musical theatre at the time with his long-running hits Godspell and Pippin taking audiences by storm, was secured to write the musical’s new score. Bob Randall would write the book. With a cast that included Henning, Cheryl Barnes, Robert LuPone, Anita Morris, Annie McGreevey, Dale Soules, and David Ogden Steirs, The Magic Showopened at Broadway’s Cort Theatre on May 28, 1974 where it played for an astounding 1,920 performances. Henning even received a Tony nomination for Best Featured Actor in a Musical, and Grover Dale was nominated for directing (taking over the reins from Reitman). Among the bandmembers for The Magic Show was Paul Shaffer (David Letterman’s musician sidekick on his long-running late night program) playing keyboards.
The basic plot ofThe Magic Show involves a young magician (named Doug) hired to work in a night club, set to replace the aging Feldman the Magnificent, the pompous, name-dropping star of the establishment who has outstayed his welcome with the owner. Doug’s assistant is the kind and gentle Cal, who is in love him, but he is too busy trying to advance his career. When he decided he needs a more beautiful assistant, he conjures (literally) a new one named Charmin, driving Cal away. Feldman grows jealous of Doug’s growing success and teams up with the club’s rock act Donna and Dina, plotting to destroy Doug by revealing the secrets of his act. The show concludes with Doug realizing that he does love Cal and the two have a happy-ever-after.
Doug Henning did return to Broadway in a second musical that was an opportunity to show off his talents as a magician and illusionist. Merlin, which told the story of the legendary wizard, was just another opportunity to use musical theatre as a framework for Henning’s magic. Merlin, however, was a troubled piece and did not enjoy the same success as The Magic Show. In fact, the show had 69 previews prior to its opening, and almost unheard of number at the time. The show changed directors during the preview (Frank Dunlop traded for producer Reitman) and critics were never invited to the opening. The musical featured a book by Richard Levinson and William Link, and a score by Elmer Bernstein (music) and Don Black (lyrics).
With a cast led by Henning in the title role, as well as Chita Rivera, Nathan Lane, and a young Christian Slater, Merlin officially opened at Broadway’s Mark Hellinger Theatre on February 13, 1983. Christopher Chadman and Billy Wilson choreographed the show. Despite some amazing illusions, which included Henning floated around the stage through a set design purposely crafted to eliminate suspicion of invisible wires, Merlin just didn’t catch on with audiences the way that The Magic Show had. In a particularly lean Tony year, Merlin was nominated for Best Musical, Best Book, Best Score, Best Director, and Best Actress (Rivera), but awards were split mostly between Cats and My One and Only. The show shuttered after 199 performances.