Synopsis of The Magic Show
There is no official video record of The Magic Show, except for the The Magic Show movie, which bears little resemblance to the charming hit musical that ran on Broadway for almost five years, so this synopsis of the show--which includes each of the songs and illusions, as they fit into the plot--is the most detailed description of the show publicly available. The exciting story about the production of The Magic Show is told in Chapters 4 and 5 of Spellbound: The Wonder-filled Life of Doug Henning.
Opened: Preview - May 16, 1974 Opening - May 28, 1974
Closed: December 31, 1978
Number of Performances: 1920
The houselights dim. An ominous tympani roll fills the theatre as a haunting melody, plunked out in single notes on a piano, creates a mood of anticipation. Two hooded figures holding flashlights make their way up the aisles of the theatre and onto the stage. They shine their lights out into the audience, the beams sweeping in a series of choreographed moves. The curtain rises to reveal a small box—about four feet square—resembling a puppet theatre with its curtains drawn shut. About two feet in front of the box sits an empty ten-gallon water jug. Two silk handkerchiefs, one red and one yellow, sit on the bottom of the jug. On each side of the box is a line of four simple wooden chairs, one for each cast member. Behind the box is a set of open metal steps. Behind the steps, the cast, minus Doug, is lined up single file. As the haunting melody continues, each cast member slowly makes his way up the stairs, over the box, and into one of the chairs. Once the entire cast is seated, the haunting melody comes to a crescendo and segues into the opening musical number, “Up to His Old Tricks.”
Suddenly, the curtain on the small box whips open, Doug Henning slides forward on his knees and strikes a brief pose behind the water bottle. Directing his attention to the jug in front of him, Doug makes a magical gesture over the bottle and the yellow silk comes to life; another gesture, and the red silk comes to life. The little handkerchiefs seem to be under Doug’s control as they dance about inside the water jug. He then causes the yellow handkerchief to jump up so that the top half is sticking out of the neck of the jug. Half in and half out of the bottle, the handkerchief continues to dance merrily until it jumps out of the bottle into Doug’s outstretched hand. Holding it in one hand by its very corner, Doug uses his other hand to conduct the handkerchief’s wild gyrations. Letting go of the corner, it defies gravity and dances in mid air.
Doug next tries to coax the red handkerchief out of the jug but it appears to be shy. All the while, the yellow handkerchief dances wildly in midair about two feet to Doug’s left. The red handkerchief finally inches its way to the top of the bottle, its corner peeking out of the mouth. Doug grabs the yellow handkerchief and pretends to whisper something to it. Suddenly, the yellow handkerchief flies over to the red handkerchief and appears to “kiss” it. The red handkerchief leaps to life, flies out of the bottle, and dances wildly in the air to Doug’s right.
Next, Doug motions to the red handkerchief causing it to leap into the bottle. Another gesture at the yellow handkerchief and it leaps into the bottle while the red one leaps out. Repeating this, the handkerchiefs continue to change places, flying in an out of the bottle, faster and faster. Forming a circle with his arms, Doug causes the red handkerchief to jump through the “hoop” as it leaps in and out of the bottle. Doug then coaxes both handkerchiefs into the bottle and traps them inside by plugging it with a large cork. Despite the presence of the cork, the handkerchiefs continue to dance wildly as Doug lifts the bottle into the air to dispel any notion that there is a connection between the bottle and the stage. When he places the bottle back on the stage, the handkerchiefs force their way out, sending the cork flying high in the air. Doug catches the cork as the handkerchiefs returns to the bottle. A cast member whisks the bottle off stage.
The second illusion in the opening number is the Mismade Lady. Cal, played by Dale Soules, is carved into four pieces. Doug and his two assistants, played by Loyd Sannes and Ronald Stafford, parade the sections of the Mismade Lady about the stage as Cal’s body is first jumbled and then properly reassembled. Neither the Dancing Handkerchiefs nor the Mismade Lady have anything to do with the plot of the show. The purpose of the show’s opening number, and the illusions performed in it, are to set the tone for the show, introduce Doug to the audience, and serve as a showcase for some of Doug’s magic.
After the opening number, The Magic Show’s plot begins to unfold. Feldman, played by David Ogden Steirs, is an over-the-hill magician with an affection for alcohol. He is also the “star” at the Passaic Top Hat, a seedy nightclub in Passaic, New Jersey. He shares the bill with Dina and Donna (played by Cheryl Barnes and Annie McGreevey), two aspiring singers with their eyes on the big time. Manny, the owner of the nightclub, is fed up with Feldman’s drinking, arrogance, and botched performances. He’s also tired of cleaning up after Feldman’s rabbit, Edna, who suffers from an unfortunate bladder problem. After the opening number, Feldman—dressed in a rather disheveled top hat and tails—staggers onto the stage, and attempts a card trick. Shuffling a deck of cards, and dropping half of them on the floor, Feldman asks someone in the front row to pick a card. With great drama, he instructs the spectator hold the chosen card tightly to his chest so no one else can see it. Tossing his head back, he strikes a pose of great concentration.
“Concentrate, concentrate,” he intones in a deep baritone. “Yes, yes, I’m getting something. I see it. Yes, yes, it’s the three of spades! Is that your card, the three of spades?” When the audience member responds that it isn’t, Feldman grabs the card from the spectator’s hand saying, “Let me see that!” He carefully examines the card and then throws the entire pack at the audience in disgust. Glaring at the spectator he yells, “Assassin!”
As Feldman exits, Donna expresses her depression over being stuck in this seedy nightclub with an incontinent rabbit. Dina reassures Donna, reminding her that they will soon make the big time because she has “connections”. Dina is dating Myron, who is the nephew of Goldfarb, the famous booking agent. Goldfarb has agreed to come the Passaic Top Hat to see them perform. Dina and Donna perform the song “Solid Silver Platform Shoes” in which they pledge to become rock superstars.
After Dina and Donna’s song, Doug arrives at the Passaic Top Hat along with Cal and his two male assistants (Doug’s opening line is, “Somebody here call for a magician?”) Doug explains to Dina and Donna that he was hired as a replacement and asks them if it’s okay for him to setup for a rehearsal. In preparation for their rehearsal, Doug, Cal and the two assistants climb a ladder attached to a giant stage-within-a-stage set piece. With the four performers perched 18 feet above the stage floor, Cal launches into the ballad “Lion Tamer,” probably the best-known song from the show, while Doug begins to practice his finger exercises. The staging creates a strong visual, with Dale Soules performing the song center stage in a lone pool of light as Doug gracefully pantomimes a slight of hand routine in silhouette.
As the song unfolds, the audience realizes two things: Cal’s secret ambition is to one day be a lion tamer, and she has a major crush on Doug who, to her disappointment, doesn’t even notice her. At the conclusion of the song, Doug and company begin their “rehearsal,” which consists of a near perfect performance of the Sword Suspension. Three scimitars are balanced on end about a foot apart from each other, with their razor sharp points in the air. Doug “hypnotizes” Cal who falls back into the arms of the male assistants. Doug and the assistants lift Cal high into the air and gently lay her on the tips of the swords. Carefully, they let go, leaving her precariously balanced on the points of the three swords—one at her neck, one at her mid-back, and one under he hips. Doug removes the middle sword, and then the sword under her hips; Cal remains suspended in mid air on the point of the single sword under her neck. To emphasize the impossibility of the situation, Doug uses one of the swords he removed to sweep the air above and below her. Doug reverses the process and Cal is returned to terra firma.
While Doug performs the Sword Suspension, Feldman and Manny (the owner of the nightclub played by Robert LuPone) enter and are astounded by the illusion. “Not bad, kid,” says Manny. “After the second show, come around to my office and we’ll have a talk about the rest of the week.” Feldman flinches at Manny’s offer, and realizes the threat posed by Doug’s arrival.
Feldman tells Dina and Donna, “I must have that trick!” and then hatches a plot to dazzle and awe Doug. “And then, when I have rendered the lad speechless with admiration, I shall condescend to accept him as my assistant, and out of the goodness of my heart, I shall dignify his little illusions by performing them myself,” he explains to Dina and Donna. With great arrogance, he introduces himself to Doug, who responds with his characteristic innocence and naiveté. Doug introduces Cal to Feldman, and Feldman immediately directs a string of insults aimed at Cal’s rather scrawny plain looks.
The inebriated magician then proceeds to convince the innocent young magician that he lacks style, and further to that point, performs the song, “A Matter of Style.” Cal sees through Feldman’s plot and confronts him. Feldman becomes indignant and storms away, but Doug has taken the bait. “He’s right,” Doug says. “Look at me! Look at the act! We have no style!” Cal begins to dash off stage. “I got something I never showed you,” she says excitedly. “A new costume! I made it myself! I’ll go get it!”
Feldman convinces Doug that he needs more than a new costume and goads him into getting rid of Cal and replacing her with a more voluptuous assistant. Doug decides that he will conjure up just such an assistant and performs the Crystal Casket illusion. Doug passes a torch through a simple metal framework to prove its emptiness. With the help of his two assistants, he inserts six sheets of Plexiglas into the framework, forming a large fish tank-like enclosure. Doug covers the enclosure with a cloth just long enough for his assistants to revolve it quickly and show all sides. Suddenly, Doug whisks away the cloth to reveal Charmin, a voluptuous redheaded sexpot (played by Anita Morris), crammed in the tiny glass enclosure.
Charmin is Doug’s new dream-girl assistant. She steps from the Plexiglas box and performs “Charmin’s Lament,” during which she loudly bemoans the fact that she is constantly being conjured up by one wizard or another for sundry perversions (“Don’t you know it’s a crime to pluck a person from thin air for immoral purposes!”). At the end of Charmin’s song Cal returns to the stage in her garish, homemade costume, replete with oversized falsies. Cal sees Charmin and is immediately disturbed. The two women trade barbs that produce some of the show’s biggest laughs.
As it becomes clear that Charmin is Cal’s replacement, Dina and Donna perform the song “Two’s Company,” in which they make it clear to Cal that she has suddenly become a fifth wheel. During the number, Doug performs the Asrah Levitation with Cal, at the end of which she disappears in mid air.
With Cal gone, Doug is ready to perform his first illusion with his vivacious new assistant. Using a Thin-Model Sawing in Half, Doug neatly divides Charmin in two. Suddenly, Cal returns, angry at Doug for teleporting her to the men’s locker room at the New York Athletic Club. Accepting that Charmin is her replacement, Cal tells Doug she’s leaving, but before she goes—while nobody is looking—she steals Charmin’s severed lower half. This sets up the show’s running gag in which Charmin’s lower and upper halves never quite end up on stage at the same time. Doug and his assistants exit in search of Charmin’s lower half, leaving her upper half alone on the stage. “I’m beginning to feel a draft in a place I never felt a draft before,” she tells the audience.
Next, Feldman stumbles onto the stage and Charmin immediately recognizes him; he had conjured her up for a “good time” in Vienna many years earlier. Manny, Dina, and Donna also enter. Donna announces that she has just heard from Goldfarb, and he is coming to see the second show at the club that very evening. The four of them become frantic at the thought of this famed agent coming to the little club. Together, they perform the song “Goldfarb Variations,” a clever four part fugue extolling the wondrous things Goldfarb could do for their respective careers.
Feldman begins to plan his performance for Goldfarb, when Donna reminds him that with Doug’s arrival he’s not going on. Charmin then tells Dina and Donna that they’re not going on either. “When the kid has me floating ten feet in the air singing “Chatanooga Choo-Choo” who’s gonna’ notice you?” Dina and Donna decide that they have to get rid of Doug in order to assure that they and Feldman will get their chance to perform for Goldfarb. The trio conspires to expose all of Doug’s illusions during the first show, hoping that Manny will fire him and have no choice but to put Feldman on for the second performance.
Charmin overhears their plan and says that she’s going to warn Doug of their plot. Dina and Donna whisk Charmin’s top half off stage right as Doug dashes on stage left with Charmin’s bottom half. Not finding her, Doug turns around and dashes off again with Charmin’s legs in tow. With the first show about to begin, and his new assistant divided in two, Doug begs Cal to stay with him long enough to do the first show. She agrees to do one more show, but vows that when it’s over she’s going home and getting out of show business for good.
It’s now show time at the Passaic Top Hat—time for Doug to perform his “act,” which he begins with the disarmingly simple line, “Hi everyone, I’m going to show you some magic.” He opens with Gene Anderson’s Torn and Restored Newspaper. Doug next divides Cal in three in the Zig-Zag Lady—an illusion still relatively new to American audiences and rapidly becoming a favorite of magicians at the time. Next, Doug produces a dove from the silk handkerchief Cal held in her hand throughout the performance of the Zig-Zag. After producing the bird, Doug causes it to disappear in a Tear Apart Vanish.
Throughout Doug’s performance, Feldman attempts, without success, to expose how the illusions are done. He pokes his head into the empty space Cal’s torso once occupied during the Zig-Zag Illusion. He thinks he’s figured out where the dove has gone when he sees a bump under the cloth that covers the table on which the Tear-Apart Vanish sits, only to discover that the bump is not the dove, but his beloved rabbit, Edna.
As a tribute to his humble beginnings, Doug next performs the Chinese Sticks(the trick that his mother repeatedly fished out of the garbage 15 years earlier). The Silver Bullet illusion—based on Abbott’s Tabouret illusion—follows next. Doug disappears from a covered framework high above the stage and reappears onstage as the hooded figure holding the rope used to hoist the framework. As their finale, Doug and Cal perform Metamorphosis. “Doug’s Act,” as this series of illusions is referred to in the Playbill, is the magical highpoint of The Magic Show. Replacing magic for song, it had the impact of a star’s featured solo in a traditional musical, and never failed to get a stunning ovation. Night after night, audiences left gasping by this series of illusions knew they were watching a very special performer create a very special theatrical moment.
Having failed in their plan to expose Doug’s illusions, Feldman decides to resort to foul play and do away with Doug and Cal. While Feldman, Dina and Donna perform “A Little Bit of Villany,” Cal is conked over the head and placed into the Cremation Illusion. Feldman douses the coffin-like box with gasoline and then lights it ablaze. Suddenly, the sides of the box fall, revealing a smoldering skeleton.
Feldman and company next attempt to bring about Doug’s demise by chaining him to the Bed of Horrors, but Doug foils the falling bed of spikes and restores Cal from the smoldering ashes. Emerging from the coffin unscathed, Cal tells Doug she’s leaving and performs “West End Avenue,” in which she vows to return to her roots.
Manny finds Charmin’s upper half and delivers it Doug, who finally reunites her upper and lower halves. Charmin tells Doug that Goldfarb is coming for the second performance and that if they do an act together, they will be famous. Doug, however, barely hears Charmin; he’s saddened by Cal’s departure. “I’m sorry, I can’t do the act,” he tells Charmin. “Not without Cal.”
Suddenly, Charmin realizes that she’s lost her shot at the big time and becomes enraged with Feldman. She mutters to herself, “Feldman, if you hadn’t set that kid on fire, I’d be a star! Well, if I’m not going on, you’re not going on!”
Charmin performs the number “Sweet, Sweet, Sweet” and teaches Doug the pleasures of revenge by thrusting a sword through Manny’s torso. She succeeds in convincing Doug that he should exact revenge on Feldman, Dina, and Donna during their performance for Goldfarb.
When it’s time for the second show, Doug “hides” on a catwalk above the stage and proceeds to use his magical powers to disrupt their acts. With each wave of the sword Charmin had used to penetrate Manny, Doug causes humorous misfortune for the entertainers below.
Dina and Donna’s act consists of a performance of the song “Right Before Your Very Eyes,” which Doug interrupts by causing a comical disembodied head to float from the wings and hover about the girls as they sing. He then causes a pair of sequined shoes to perform a tap dance behind them as they attempt their own dance number. Spooked by the apparitions, the girls run from the stage yelling, “Voodoo! Voodoo! Feet, get me out of here!”
Next, Feldman attempts to overcome his inebriation and impress Goldfarb with his legerdemain. Feldman walks toward the footlights carrying a goblet containing a deck of playing cards. To Feldman’s chagrin, from his perch above the stage, Doug causes the cards to stream from the glass. Feldman attempts to place the glass on his small prop table, but with a wave of his sword, Doug causes the table to start moving toward the wings and away from Feldman. Feldman grabs another table and carries it downstage. Before he can set the table down, Doug gestures and causes its legs to fall off one by one. He finally places the legless table atop the other table that had been creeping toward the wings and attempts to perform the Passé Passé Bottles, which Doug turns into a nightmare of ever multiplying bottles of champagne. There is a sudden blackout as Feldman attempts to contend with a table full of champagne bottles, followed by an announcement, “Mr. Feldman? This is Miss Willis at the AGVA Retirement Home. We’ll expect you at two tomorrow afternoon. And as to your rabbit, the board has approved space in the garage.”
At the end of the performance, Dina and Donna plead with Goldfarb for another chance, but Goldfarb tells them, “I loved your act—the floating head is great! The floating head is the star of your act, right?” Realizing their plight, Dina and Donna beg Doug for the floating head, but Doug explains that the floating head won’t do them any good without a magician to work it. On hearing this, Feldman begs for Doug’s mercy and Doug agrees to teach Feldman the floating head illusion.
Upon witnessing Doug’s kindness to Feldman, Charmin asks, “Hey Santa Claus, before you put your reindeer to bed, you got anything in your bag of tricks for me?”
“What do you want?” asks Doug.
“I want to be admired from afar,” replies Charmin.
“Okay, I’ve got something for you where no one will dare lay a finger on you. Fellas!” Doug’s two assistants wheel out a large cage, Charmin gets into it, and Doug transforms her into a mountain lion .
Doug then produces Cal, wearing full lion tamer regalia, from a paper-covered three-fold screen. She holds a steno pad in one hand and continues taking dictation—using her whip as a pencil; Cal doesn’t realize she has been conjured away from her new job as a secretary. Doug presents her with the lion.
“You finally noticed, huh?” says Cal, unable to hide her joy.
“I noticed,” replies Doug, staring into her eyes.
“You’re crazy about me?”
“I’m crazy about you,” admits Doug.
“To tell you the truth, I can’t spell anyway.” Cal tosses the steno pad over her shoulder. They look each other in the eyes and kiss. The kissing couple and the caged lion are left silhouetted on stage as the curtain falls.
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