Mary Poppins' secrets revealed
- Mary Poppins and Bert fly over the rooftops with the help of harnesses on computerized tracks. Look closely and you can see the wires in this photo. (Photo by Joan Marcus, Courtesy Disney)
The titular supernanny of Disney's Mary Poppins musical, now playing at the Kennedy Center, is just as much of a magician as she is a governess--and some of her on-stage tricks may leave audiences stumped. Disney declined to fulfill any interview requests about how the hit show astonishes audiences by turning a parrot-shaped umbrella into an instrument of flight. Blame it on the “Disney magic”: The pixie dust that an army of effects coordinators conjure up to make the animatronic stage move autonomously, and objects and characters vanish into thin air. It turns out, many of these effects are outsourced to theater production companies that outfit the stage with illusions and flying harnesses for each production--and they’re bound not to disclose the magic either. But flight production companies that aren’t currently under contract with the Magic Kingdom don’t have any secrets to keep, and with a little cajoling, local magicians will reveal how other tricks are done. Spoiler alert: This entire article is a spoiler. Obviously.
It’s no secret that a stage version of Mary Poppins will include flying scenes, but what makes Disney’s production special is the way it sends her aloft. As Mary, Caroline Sheen not only flies across the stage but also across the entire theater, departing at the end of the show above the audience’s heads and disappearing into the ceiling of the Opera House. She and chimney sweep Bert aren’t the only pieces of the show that go airborne. There are also flying objects to worry about too--no, not the famous floating tea party scene , which was cut from the musical, but one sequence with kites required some extensive aerial choreography.
Even among technical directors, the trick to Mary Poppins’ flight isn’t obvious. In one message board for technical directors in the U.K., those who know were reluctant to “give up the magic,” prompting the moderator to shut down the forum.
How it’s done: Entertainment and event technology group PRG provides the flying effects for the Mary Poppins touring production, but Disney stipulated that in order for TBD to talk to flight director Troy Atkinson, it would have to be able to approve the content of this article. There were no restrictions placed on Joe McGeough, the director of operations for another flight production company, Flying by Foy, which outfitted the Poppins Broadway production (as well as the set of Late Night with Conan O’Brien for a Nov. 30, 2009 performance by Gavin Lee as Bert).
The stage and theater is outfitted beforehand with mechanized tracks for the wires and harnesses, McGeough says. While flying actors have human handlers, much of the heavy lifting is done by computers. It takes a bucketful of tuppence pieces to make that kind of magic go down, and while McGeough couldn’t divulge the price (“Let’s just say that it is not an inexpensive venture”) Disney shells out piles of dosh to keep its actors safe in the air, and make its pixie dust reporter-proof.
Computerizing flight “makes things more precise,” McGeough says. “If you’re flying manually, it could be different every night. Also, less human error is [possible], though you still have to operate the consoles and make sure you have the proper queues on the screen.”
The harnesses fit as a girdle would, with the wires on the side so that the actors can do somersaults. All of the costumes are modified to accommodate the harness and wires, which are black and about 1/8 inch thick. They’re not invisible, but directors have their tricks to conceal them.
“That’s a tip of the hat to the lighting designers,” said McGeough. “We can do all we can to hide things, but if someone shines a light on a wire you’ll see it.”
Another thing you’ll see, if you look in the left rear of the balcony, is how Poppins disappears after her flight across the audience (the theater cuts the lights before she gets to the top). There’s a platform covered in black cloth with a trapeze bar for her to grab and steady herself as she approaches for landing. Presumably an assistant is up there with her to unhook her from her harness and help her catch her balance.
“I think the flying is used very selectively and it fits the story very well. They don’t over-use it,” says McGeough.
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