L. Frank Baum’s novel has been adapted into a hit MGM film, three silent movies, comics, a Broadway musical and countless other stage and amateur productions, so it was only a matter of time before The Wizard of Oz hit the West End.
Wicked (the ‘untold story of the witches of Oz’) over the road at the Apollo Theatre grossed in excess of £30 million in 2010 and smashed the box office record at the end of last year with the highest, single-week gross in London theatre. Bearing that in mind, there’s plenty of box office potential for the original Wizard to wow the crowds, especially as the shows will be very much complementary when seen in sequence.
So, The Really Useful Group needed to produce a highly-technical show to compete, not just with Wicked but also with all the other bestselling productions in the West End. With the successes of The Phantom of the Opera, The Sound of Music, Joseph and his Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat and The Woman in White, they knew exactly how to put together a winning combination, turning to a host of trusted specialists for set construction, lighting, sound, stage engineering and automation. Stage Technologies and Delstar Engineering were chosen to design, supply and install the control elements and stage mechanics of the show; coincidentally the same partnership that helped to produce the special stage effects for Wicked.
The schedule was staggered and the pressure was on from the very beginning, keeping the production team on their toes. The installation team was on site on November 16th and had only a short period of a few weeks before the Royal Variety Show stopped work. That was followed by another few weeks of non-stop action before the Christmas and New Year holidays began but the crew forged on through the festive period, helping other contractors out where they could to make sure the fit-up was finished in time. As Pete Quinlan, rental services engineer with Stage Technologies, puts it, ‘The schedule made an already very challenging show even more so, on top of that we had to deal with suppliers shutting down for Christmas and the weather disruptions. It meant we had to really work together with all departments to best use the time we did have.’
The result of this collaborative working environment is a technically brilliant show that has more than a few ‘surprises along the way’.
The mechanical equipment from Stage Technologies included 18 counterweight assists, 6 BigTow winches for lighting ladders, 2 BigTows and counterweights for the Wizard’s Chamber and 5 BigTows for a curved cyc. The onstage performer flying scenes use 2 Stage Technologies lift-and-traverse rigs for the monkey flights, Dorothy’s kidnap and the various entrances and exits of the witches. Downstage of the safety curtain, a Stage Technologies front-of-house bridle is used to fly a monkey nearly 20 metres down from the dome of the Palladium.
There are a total of five revolves in the show – the inner ‘yin/yang’ lifting drum revolve, the LED-topped Yellow Brick Road, the tilting frame that the Yellow Brick Road rests on, an outer ring revolve, and the integral revolve of the flying house. Delstar specially manufactured the revolves, the showdeck steelwork, and the flying house steelwork and mechanics at their workshop in Suffolk. The Palladium has what can only be described as a luxurious basement area compared to some West End theatres; even so, the set design required the top five courses of brick in the orchestra pit wall to be removed and a false floor needed to be put in to provide rolling access to the lifts when they were fully descended. As the scenery is bulky, not in height but in width, it meant that the substage space had limitations that needed to be considered at all times.
According to Paul Craven, senior projects manager at Delstar, the two biggest challenges they faced was working with the four revolves in close proximity and getting the most out of the height in the basement. ‘Working down to create a compact double tilt revolve that didn’t need even more orchestra pit wall to be removed and working up with a drum revolve and onboard scissors still had to leave a usable personnel height, which was no mean feat!’
The easy-install control kit comes on long-term hire from the Stage Technologies rental team and is a mix of newly-manufactured and off-the-shelf hire equipment. Eight plug-and-play AU:tour 6 drives are used for the bulk of the system with Illusionist and Acrobat∙G6 desk control. Three additional motor control cabinets provide special control for the lifts and revolves, including a large-capacity cabinet for the revolves and a bespoke unit for control of Dorothy’s flying house. The bespoke unit needed to provide the same reliable standard components and power in a compact enclosure because of the limited space available in the base of the house. The hydraulics control for the drum lifts was integrated onto the lifts themselves to simplify the slip ring mechanism.
Stage Technologies Sculptor programming on an Illusionist desk was used for the performer flying, plotted and supervised by Alex Hitchcock, training development manager. Much of the very complex floor sequences was programmed using the Acrobat∙G6 and previewed in eChameleon using standardised graphics to allow the stage management and creative teams to have a better visual grasp of the effects before they began to come together in rehearsals. The set designer, Rob Jones, had a very strong creative vision and Alex Hitchcock worked closely with him to translate the ideas into practical, programmable show action that retained artistic integrity but could be realistically integrated into a scenario with actors, some of whom aren’t even human!
While the programming and performer flying was being previewed and refined, some interesting challenges for the engineering and control teams came in the form of flying Dorothy’s House and automating the Yellow Brick Road. The tornado sequence, for example, needed to look terrifyingly realistic and the credibility of the flying house is an integral part of the effect. Flying a set piece is a simple affair these days, but creating the effect of a real house being buffeted about by the forces of nature is not an easy task and this was achieved using a combination of mechanical and control techniques. The plate of the base frame of the house is pinned into the stage so that the whole house can be revolved around the slew ring. Two chain-drive elevators that span the width of the house lift it up and a custom-made winch is attached to one end of the house with a spring return to the other, so that it can be tilted both ways as it rises, creating the ‘rocking’ effect in the tornado. The house sits on the middle drum revolve which allows it to be ‘externally’ rotated, and in addition it has its own internal revolve. The ‘yin-yang’ drum revolve that the house sits on consists of twin lifts – one which elevates to 2m above stage and the other to 0.5m to create a platform step effect, with both descending to about 2.8m below stage. The outcome in the flying house sequence provides a gratifying mix of multi-technical disciplines that encapsulate all the energy of the storm – from live action to full automation with the house flying, tilting and disappearing, to front gauze projection.
Another significant challenge was provided by the 25 set changes, some of which provide an unusual hiatus in the show timing in which the automation teams had to factor in ‘vamping’ time. As the drum lifts supporting the inner revolve descend into the basement for a set change, the lighting, orchestra, projection and automation all go into a ‘cue limbo’ – the set change is carried out by stagehands and the time required for this cannot be precisely calculated as it will be slightly different on each new occasion. Once the new set is ready and the all clear signal given, then the lifts move up and the scenery, lights, music and cast all have to come together each time at exactly the same moment in exactly the same place for every show. In a programming sense, the conundrum was tackled by making the cues relative to other set pieces.
This means that when the lifts stop then that action triggers the Yellow Brick Road to stop revolving, which cues the actors in place. As a result, every subsequent move from that point needs to be relative to other cues, which made the programming intensive and time-consuming, but ultimately rewarding.
Alex Hitchcock explained how the deeper functionality of eChameleon programming could be used along with the double-revolve engineering to compensate for unknowns in the show cueing equation. ‘The Yellow Brick Road sits on top of a second revolve with a mechanism which enables it to tilt on a hinge effect, with an adjustable angle of up to 1 metre and its surface is made of light boxes that create the glowing golden effect. At certain times in the schedule of the performance, specific sections need to be lit up, but because the cues are all relative after the lift descent then we have no idea exactly where they will be at a given time. To get around this, we can compensate for where the light boxes are on the surface of the Yellow Brick Road by rotating the lower revolve – a neat solution to the problem.’
All in all, it’s a polished, energetic production that reflects the enthusiasm and commitment of all those involved, from cast to dog handlers to stage crew, who have worked long, hard hours to bring the much-loved characters from Baum’s book to life for West End audiences. Initial reviews have been more than enthusiastic about the stage engineering and automation, with the BBC, for example, referring to its ‘blockbuster sets and wow-factor stunts’, Time Out calling it ‘a spectacle that’s worthy of the Palladium’s heyday’ and The Sunday Telegraph’s 5-star review nominating the special effects as ‘the real star of the show’. With £10m already taken in advance bookings, the show already looks set to become a mainstay of the West End musical circuit and we hope The Great Oz and company have audiences clicking their heels for many years to come.
The Wizard of Oz at the London Palladium is currently booking until Sept 2011. Buy tickets: 0844 412 2957 or online from www.wizardofozthemusical.com.