The Broadway musical Aladdin, playing at the New Amsterdam Theatre and produced by Disney Theatrical Productions, is adapted from the 1992 Disney animated film and centuries-old folktales, including One Thousand And One Nights. Aladdin’s journey sweeps audiences into his exotic world through the design efforts of the show’s creative team, which is a wish granted for any producer. The magic is woven by scenic designer Bob Crowley, lighting designer Natasha Katz, costume designer Gregg Barnes, sound designer Ken Travis, and illusion designer Jim Steinmeyer.
For this theatrical version of Aladdin, director Casey Nicholaw and the team decided on a throwback-style musical with more of a vaudeville-based take on the story. This gave Crowley a jumping off point to start his research into what the setting of Agrabah would look like. “The only Aladdin that I’ve ever known, working in Ireland and England, was when we saw it at Christmas as what we call a ‘pantomime,’” Crowley explains. “I hadn’t even seen the animated film when it came out.”
Early in developing the book, it was decided that the characters would regularly break the fourth wall and talk directly to the audience. Crowley continues, “Pantomime has its roots in the music hall and that sort of feeling. Casey knew that as well. He wanted to bring that kind of front cloth feel to the whole thing, a modern version of a vaudeville show. In the beginning, the curtain falls down instead of going up. The Genie is there talking to you directly as a character.”
The next step for Crowley was to come up with the look of the show, a fantasy version of Arabia. “I sort of made it up,” he laughs. “I looked at a lot of villages of Morocco, images of Arabia, and Hollywood versions of it over the past 50, 60 years—all that with pop culture mixed in with my research into architecture and things like that. I mixed it all up into a bit of a cocktail and painted it in extremely bright colors, which I don’t normally use. It was a real riff on color and I had to work very closely with Gregg. I think that Casey might have been a bit scared to begin with, with all of the riotous colors going on, but I asked him to trust us.”
Crowley maintains that he never uses this much color in his other designs. “It started with a very hot orange—very, very hot orange because I associate orange with energy. I kept telling Casey, ‘It won’t compete with your actors; it will make them look bigger, stronger, and bolder.’ Suddenly, it goes from very hot, hot, hot outdoor colors—Moroccan souk kind of colors—to cool, cool, cool kind of pale turquoise and marble interior colors. I thought about getting away from the heat and making it all cool, cool as a cucumber.”
Crowley also used a lot of fabrics, including silks for the dunes. “I wanted them to be very lightweight and have a mirage-like quality to them,” he says. “The dunes are all made of silk, as is the souk. Fabrics have a kind of magical quality about them and aren’t too solid. I was trying to make it soft and sensuous—those Middle Eastern colors, which are so fantastic. Also we use interior fretwork to create screens, which we could get light through.”
The primary consideration that Crowley and his team needed to address was how to make the flying carpet work without being a carpet suspended from wires. “Very early on, we had looked at this device as the solution, which I am not allowed to speak about, and knew it was a goer from day one,” he says. “It hadn’t been used, as far as I know, in the context of a musical before; it might have been used in magic shows, but it’s never been used in a musical.” The automation and engineering for the flying carpet solution was handled by Tait and controlled via the Navigator automation controller. Scenery was built and automated by Hudson Scenic. Proof Productions out of Philadelphia built the cave, and Brooklyn-based Daedalus Design and Production provided scenery.
The carpet is the design element about which Crowley gets questioned most. “Every single person has asked me, from five years of age to 75 years of age, ‘How are you doing the magic carpet?’ It’s the first question that I would ask any designer who is designing Aladdin, but, just like the regret after watching a ‘making of’ documentary, I am refusing to tell anybody how it’s done.”
Without giving too much away, Crowley does discuss his starting point to approaching the flying carpet. “Everybody in the world wants the carpet to float,” he says. “Nobody wants to see the carpet with strings attached to it or a great cantilever arm underneath it lifting it into the air. The answer seemed to us that it had to be the job of a magician, an illusionist, or somebody like that. ‘Let’s try and make this thing really work in some magical way.’ And it does; you can stand 3' away from it, and it’s floating in working light. It’s astonishing! Working light is horrendous—you see everything—but here you can literally stand there, and you’re looking at it and you cannot believe that it’s floating.”
The design team soon realized the flying carpet rig was going to take up quite a chunk of real estate in the air. “Here I was fighting myself a bit,” says Crowley. “All of that mid-stage area that I would normally be putting a lot of scenery into, and Natasha would be putting a lot of lights into, just disappeared. But for a very good reason, the carpet is one of the highlights of the evening, so I literally had to design around it. It meant that I had to make certain pieces work in different ways so that Natasha would be able to light it,” says Crowley, “especially the palace interiors. They come back quite a bit every now and again.”
Surprisingly, the carpet is not the scenic element that Crowley enjoys most. “The thing that pleases me the most, gives me the buzz every time it happens—it also leaves me completely terrified every time it happens—is the dissolve of the huge circular balcony and screen behind Aladdin and Jasmine,” Crowley comments. “When they get on the carpet, and it rises with the pair of them on it, that wall just disappears into the floor, into the wings, into the air. It splits into four pieces and just melts away, and then they are just suspended there. It’s a lot of metal, a lot of work, and a lot of hardware back there, but it’s silent and it goes away very quickly. It’s a simple idea, but it took a lot of engineering to make it look simple. The simplest things are always the hardest things to achieve.”
Crowley credits Rosalind Coombes, “my trusty associate,” he says, “without whom, I am mere chaff! She has been with me like forever; nothing would get done without Rosalind.”
More to come in Magic Carpet Ride: Part Two.
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