Excerpt from Chapter 3 of Spellbound
Though they may have worked hard to earn stardom, entertainers who achieve success in show business are often said to have been “discovered” by someone. If it were possible to credit anyone with “discovering” Doug Henning, that person would have to be Marvin Krauss.
Krauss had worked in Broadway theater his entire professional life. By 1973 he was acting as general manager of a number of Broadway and touring shows, including eight productions of Godspell, the most recent hit of veteran Broadway producers Edgar Lansbury and Joe Beruh. Krauss was also responsible for Beruh and Lansbury’s touring production of Gypsy, which was about to open in Toronto.
In the last week of December 1973, Marvin Krauss traveled to Toronto to meet with the local production team assisting him in bringing the Gypsy tour to Canada. Krauss arrived at the Toronto production office for a breakfast meeting to discuss the mid-January opening of Gypsy. Realizing that he had left his notebook at the hotel, he asked the receptionist for a yellow legal pad. She pointed him to a supply closet in the hallway. Krauss opened the door to the large closet and stepped in to reach for a legal pad on a high shelf.
When Krauss emerged from the closet he noticed that a piece of paper was stuck to the sole of his shoe. He removed the paper and was about to toss it into a nearby wastebasket, when he realized it was a little flyer about a show featuring a new, young magician. The show was Spellbound and the magician was Doug Henning. Krauss loved magic, saw that there was a performance that night, and decided to go.
Krauss’s impression of Spellbound was no different than just about everyone else who saw it, “The show was terrible, the music was terrible, everything about the show was terrible except this young magician Doug Henning.”
Despite Spellbound’s mediocrity, Krauss saw great potential in its star. He knew he had something but wasn’t sure what. “It was one of those feel-it-in-your-bones moments that happens in the theater,” Krauss recalls. That night, Krauss called his wife and told her, “I saw the most extraordinary young man; he can’t sing, he can’t dance, but he is so charismatic that it’s unbelievable. I’m going to stay here in Canada for a few more days, and I’m calling Joe Beruh and Edgar Lansbury and having them come up to see him. I know they’ll love him.”
The next day, Krauss looked up Ivan Reitman, whose name he found in the show’s program. He wanted to discuss Spellbound and, more important, its star. He wasn’t sure what approach he should take. Understanding that Reitman was the producer of Spellbound, he tread lightly and told Reitman that he liked the show. Then he dropped the bomb, “I’d like a first option on Doug Henning, to bring him to New York to star in a new show. “
“What kind of show?” Reitman asked.
Krauss replied, “I don’t know. But we’ll write it just for him. He’s going to be a big star.”
Reitman played it cool. “We are in discussions with several other producers and talent buyers at this time. I’ll bring your proposal to Doug, but you will have to get us more details.”
Reitman called Doug with the news. Doug was ecstatic. “I can’t believe how fast this happened: Spellbound on Broadway! Incredible!”
“I’m not certain, but I don’t think they want the whole show. What they really want is you.” Reitman explained.
“What? No, no, the show is great, and it’s only going to get better. They have to take the show.”
“Douglas, these are big, serious Broadway people. Within reason, it would probably be best for both of us if we give them what they want.”
“I don’t know….” Doug’s ecstasy dissipated.
“Douglas, let’s just hear what they have to say.”
While Reitman was calling Doug, Krauss was calling Joe Beruh and Edgar Lansbury in New York and telling them they had to come up to see the show.
It was only natural that Beruh and Lansbury would take such a call from Krauss very seriously. A few years earlier Lansbury and Beruh had produced their tiny off-Broadway show called Godspell. They had asked Krauss to come see it and give them suggestions about where they might take it. When Krauss saw Godspell. “Let me take this thing over,” he begged them. “I think it can make a load of money.”
Shortly thereafter, Krauss, as general manager, assembled and booked eight companies of the show, all of which ran simultaneously in the U.S. and Canada. In 1973, Columbia Pictures made Godspell into a major motion picture. The New York production ran for more than two thousand performances, before moving to Broadway for a one-year run in 1976. Godspell made Beruh and Lansbury millionaires.
Considering their history Krauss, the two producers took a flight to Toronto the following afternoon and met him at the Royal Alexandra. Reitman had complimentary tickets waiting for them at the box office.
After the show, they met with Doug and Reitman briefly, announced that they had enjoyed the show immensely, and asked if Doug and Reitman would be available for a meeting the following day. Everyone agreed on a time, and Krauss, Lansbury, and Beruh returned to Beruh’s hotel room.
Lansbury’s initial impression of Spellbound mirrored Krauss’s: “The magic was good, and Doug’s approach was unique enough to warrant the idea of doing a Broadway show, but the rest of the material wasn’t terribly well-written or conceived.” Still, they all agreed that Doug was a phenomenal find. Lansbury thought that Doug had “it”: that rare, indefinable quality that allows certain performers to captivate an audience. Coming from a family rooted in the theater (including his sister, Angela Lansbury), Edgar Lansbury had an unusually good eye for talent.
With Godspell playing to capacity audiences and their other prior successes, including the Pulitzer Prize-winning The Subject Was Roses, Lansbury and Beruh were at the height of their careers. They knew the ins and outs of producing shows in New York and were confident that they could build a show around this hip, young magician.
Their current hit, Godspell, was the first musical written by composer Stephen Schwartz and had made Schwartz the wonder kid of Broadway composers. He had just finished working on Pippin starring Ben Vereen and now had two hit musicals running simultaneously. Beruh and Lansbury worked well with Schwartz, and Schwartz respected the two producers, so it was natural that he was the first person they would call.
Schwartz recalls the phone call: “The first time I heard the name ‘Doug Henning’ was in December of 1973. I was at my house in Connecticut, and Joe Beruh called to say he was in Toronto and that he and Edgar had just seen this very interesting young magician. They knew that I liked magic, and they had a notion that there was a show to be built around him, so they asked me if I would come up to see it.” Schwartz agreed and Beruh told him that a ticket for Toronto would be waiting for him at the airport the following morning.
Beruh and Lansbury had made a similar call to Bob Randall, who they hoped would write the book for the show.
Schwartz liked what he saw. “I went to see Doug’s show. I met him afterward and I was intrigued with Edgar and Joe’s idea, so we began the process.” Schwartz made just one demand, I wanted whatever it was we were going to do to open that season, which was something you could do in the seventies but would be completely impossible to do today.”
With Schwartz on board, Lansbury and Beruh were now committed to opening on Broadway a show starring Doug Henning. In order to honor Schwartz’s request, however, the producers had to act fast.
Three important questions remained unanswered: Would Doug agree to do it, could he act well enough to carry the lead in a Broadway show, and how do you build a musical around a star who can’t sing or dance? There could be no show without Doug.
Doug, on the other hand, had a limited understanding of how show business really worked and throughout his career was never very savvy when it came to the “business” part of “show business.” Fortunately for him, Reitman was a natural when it came to balancing the creative and business ends of a show business endeavor and took the lead in discussions with Beruh and Lansbury.
Doug and Reitman met Beruh, Lansbury, Krauss, Schwartz, and Nina Faso, Krauss’ assistant, at the lounge of the hotel where they were staying. On the way over, Doug attempted to convince Reitman of all the reasons they should insist that Beruh and Lansbury take Spellbound as is, while Reitman tried to convince Doug that, when opportunities like this fall into your lap, you make certain concessions to take advantage of them.
“We really, really enjoyed your performance,” offered Beruh as he shook hands with Doug.
“The magic was quite astounding,” added Lansbury in his soft-spoken, understated way.
The men sat down. “So, we’d like to talk about bringing you to Broadway,” Beruh fired the first volley.
Doug grinned. “Yes, Ivan and I had planned on bringing Spellbound to Broadway.”
Beruh and Lansbury shot each other a glance. Beruh continued, “Yes, you have a good little show there, and I understand it’s doing great business.”
“As you know, Edgar and I have had several successes on Broadway, and while we think Spellbound is very good, it would need to be changed quite a bit to work on Broadway.”
Lansbury interrupted, “You see Doug, in the whole world, you will not find audiences and critics as different and demanding as you will find on Broadway. We know what works and what doesn’t work. You have the kernel of a great idea, and certainly, you are the best magician I have ever seen. But we think you and your magic would be better showcased in a different vehicle.”
“How would it be different?” Doug asked.
“Well, we would bring in a professional writer—someone with Broadway credits—to rewrite the script, perhaps add more comedy. And Stephen, who has two hits running in New York right now, would write a new score—something more Broadway-ish,” Beruh explained.
This time, Doug shot Ivan a glance. “With a different script and new music, what’s left to bring to Broadway?” Doug asked.
“You and your wonderful magic…and, of course, Ivan and his considerable skills as a producer,” answered Beruh, in the most diplomatic of tones.
Doug sat and thought. He again looked to Ivan. “What about, Glenn and Brian and Maya. I need them. They would have to come to New York with us.”
Beruh and Lansbury looked confused. Reitman explained. “Glenn and Brian are Doug’s illusion assistants … ”
“Illusion engineers!” Doug interrupted.
“They help Doug on stage and off. You know, these illusions are very sophisticated. Doug couldn’t possibly pull off a show like this without his illusion engineers.”
“And Maya is a great assistant. She’s great on stage and we work so well together. It takes a lot to do those illusions well,” Doug added.
This time, Lansbury spoke, “Doug, we want to make this show work. Since the magic will be central to the show, we’ll make sure you have everything and everyone you need to make it work. Please think about it, but you will have to let us know very soon. If we do this, it will be for this season. That means we’re talking about opening within six months.”
Lansbury would take away two distinct memories of his first meeting with Doug Henning. The first, shared by others in attendance, was that “Doug was an unusual young man.” The second, less accurate, recollection was that “they all agreed to do The Magic Show on the spot.” In fact, it would take more than a week for Doug to say “yes” and for the producers to make a complete commitment to mounting the show they had in mind.
Doug and Reitman left. From Reitman’s point of view, neither of them could pass up this opportunity. “Douglas, these are high-powered Broadway people. They are the top of the heap. People spend a lifetime trying to get involved with people like this, and they’ve come to us after a week. There’s no downside, you can only benefit by agreeing to do this.”
While Reitman tried to talk sense into Doug, Beruh and Lansbury were planning ahead. The men knew that, if Doug agreed to do it, they would need a director immediately. Edgar Lansbury had known Grover Dale for some time. Dale had established himself as a dancer and choreographer in Hollywood and on Broadway. “By 1973 I had discussed several ideas with him, but I had never worked with him. He was being touted by his agents as a director, though he was primarily a choreographer,” recalls Lansbury.
From Beruh and Lansbury’s perspective, Dale had a lot going for him. He was talented, eager, a choreographer (that means one less salary to pay), and as an added bonus, married to Broadway starlet, Anita Morris. The men agreed that Dale would be their first choice for director.
Beruh made the call to Dale.
“Hi, Grover, this is Joe Beruh.” The men knew of each other, but had neither met nor spoken before.
“Grover, Edgar Lansbury and I are contemplating a new project that we think you would be perfect for,” Beruh explained.
“I’m all ears.”
“We want you to come up to Toronto, today if possible, to check out this kid. I’m warning you, the show is dreadful; just look at the kid. See what you think about building a new show around him. There’s a plane leaving from LaGuardia in about an hour. You can just make it.”
Realizing that this is the type of phone call that people in the theater are always hoping to receive but rarely get, Grover Dale signaled to his wife to pick up the extension and listen in. She gingerly picked up the phone and cupped her hand over the mouthpiece.
“Tell me more about the guy you want me to look at. Is he a singer?”
“Can he dance?”
“Can he act?”
“No, he’s not an actor. But we’re hoping you can turn him into one,” explained Beruh.
“What does he look like?” Dale was searching for the reason a successful Broadway producer would ask him to fly to Toronto in the dead of winter to watch a performance by someone who apparently lacked any talent.
“Well, sort of like Little Beaver.”
“Do you have a book yet?”
“Grover, we’re in the very early stages. We don’t even have a writer yet.”
“So, I guess it’s a safe bet that you don’t have music and lyrics either,” Dale ventured.
“No, no music. But we have Stephen Schwartz on board.” Grover and Anita shot each other a glance. Suddenly, they realized that this was serious—Edgar Lansbury, Joe Beruh, and the hottest composer on Broadway.
“When are you thinking about starting rehearsals?”
“April first. We want to open this season.”
There was a long silence. Dale again caught Anita’s eye.
She shrugged her shoulders and then picked up the one and only royalty check Dale had received from the ill-fated production of Rachel Lily Rosenbloom that had just folded in previews. She waved it in front of him. It was for $93.49.
“Look, are you interested in taking a look at this kid or not?” Beruh became impatient.
“Yes, I’m definitely interested. But, Mr. Beruh, please tell me one thing. What does this young man have that interests you so much?”
“Twelve of the best magic illusions in the world. His name is Doug Henning.”
Grover Dale flew to Toronto that day and saw the show that night. He had to be back in New York the following morning, so he only met Doug and Ivan Reitman briefly. He reported to Lansbury and Beruh that he thought they had something, but that even after seeing Spellbound, he couldn’t tell if Doug had even the most minimal acting abilities. “I’d need to work with him for an afternoon,” he told them.
The producers decided to ask Doug to go to New York that week to spend some time with Dale to see if the two could work together.
Marvin Krauss liked Doug immensely and opted to see Spellbound again—for the third time in four days. He waited for Doug after the show. “Doug, I know how overwhelming all of this can be, and I’m not asking you to make a rash decision. All I ask is that you go to New York and meet Grover Dale, the director Edgar and Joe would like to hire. Get a feel for him and get a better feel for Edgar and Joe and then make up your mind.” Marvin then handed Doug an envelope with two hundred dollars in it.
“What is this?” asked Doug.
“Plane fare,” answered Krauss.
He hadn’t discussed giving money to Doug with anyone. He had a sense that neither Doug nor Reitman had much cash, so he took the money out of his own pocket.
“I can’t accept this.”
“It’s not a gift. It’s a loan to be repaid once you’re a big Broadway star. Please come to New York.” Krauss smiled and shook Doug’s hand.
Doug nodded his head. “Yes, yes, I’ll go. I trust Ivan, and you seem like someone I can trust too. I’ll go to New York to check things out.”
Doug had become part of an archetypical show business scene—negotiations in which all parties believe that they have the upper hand at all times. From Doug’s perspective, some big-time producers wanted him to be in their show, and he held the fate of that show in his hands. From Beruh and Lansbury’s perspective, they held all the cards; Doug would be crazy to decline their offer, and they would pull the plug if Grover Dale thought Doug couldn’t carry the show.
Once Lansbury set a date for Doug to meet with Grover Dale, Doug purchased a ticket to New York on Air Canada with the money Marvin Krauss had given him.
When Doug Henning flew to New York in the second week of January, he had no idea that the city he was visiting would become his home for the next few years. Nor did he know that he was six months away from stardom.
Published in the U.S. by BoxOffice Books, New York
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