The technical wizard behind Broadway's new extravaganza, Young Frankenstein
Sam Ellis oversees the creation of smoke, fog, lightning, thunder, and 3 million volts of electricity.
New York — To label him a jack-of-all-trades is a colossal understatement. He's the kind of omnicompetent guy you wish were in charge of the New Orleans levee system. "The Swiss Army knife, they call me," admits Sam Ellis, describing his job as the wizard behind the curtain of "The New Mel Brooks Musical Young Frankenstein," opening on Broadway Nov. 8.
The "Gothic opera," as Mr. Brooks has called it, has the same creative team that won a record 12 Tony awards for the 2001 musical "The Producers." Anticipation runs high, which makes Mr. Ellis's job as technical supervisor even tougher.
Giving a backstage tour shortly before the play opened for previews, Ellis, in a button-down shirt, looks more like an erudite roadie than a scruffy techie. Mr. Organization is the picture of calm, belying the 15-hour workdays he's put in for six months.
"Tech tables" laden with laptops and more buttons and switches than the space shuttle cover virtually every seat in the Hilton Theater. Countless electrical cables crisscross the floor like an explosion at a snake farm. The whine of power saws fills the air as carpenters encase an elevator intended to pop a "ghost" on and off stage and build a locked closet to house explosives for special effects.
Scenery components are everywhere: Sets such as a hermit's cabin hang overhead as electricians tinker with the flickering "fire" in the massive fireplace in Dr. Frankenstein's Transylvanian castle. Props and sets stand ready to create the illusion of a laboratory, a middle-European village, or an Art Deco steamship.
As technical supervisor of Broadway plays, Ellis is part "maître d', part general contractor, part babysitter, and part accountant," according to his boss, Neil Mazzell, chief executive officer of Hudson Theatrical Associates. Jared Snyder, an actor who's known Ellis since 1970 when they both worked at the Bottom Line nightclub, then later on a national tour with the singer Meat Loaf, calls Ellis "unperturbable."
Mr. Snyder adds, "With sanity and serenity, he keeps a staggering amount of information in his head. I've known him through a gazillion different projects and whatever the question is, the answer is: 'Go ask Sam.' "
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Now that musicals have to compete with the original movies on which they're based, the job of technical supervisor has become more demanding. Ellis must translate the visions of the set, sound, lighting, costume, makeup, and special-effects designers into stage "reality." He choreographs where everything goes and the split-second timing to make it function seamlessly.
His job, as he sees it, "is to create the palette on which the actors do their art." Since the musical is based on Brooks's 1974 cult film, "Young Frankenstein," a spoof of 1930s mad-scientist movies, "the audience comes with expectations of grand, over-the-top special effects," Ellis says. When the monster is transformed from a corpse to a lurching green giant, he adds, "People expect some big trick akin to what they saw in all those movies."
At a recent preview, the audience wasn't disappointed. When Roger Bart, as brain scientist Dr. Frederick Frankenstein, gives the order, "Generator on!," a Tessler coil emits 3 million volts of electricity in the form of spiraling red light. Sparks explode and neon lights flash like a circus arcade. Smoke swirls and lightning crackles as the seven-foot monster, played by Shuler Hensley, stirs. "It's alive! It's alive! It's alive!" the audience bellows along with Frederick, erupting in frenzied applause.
Ever since the success of "The Producers," the Broadway musical, as Ellis says, "has become kind of a hybrid." Instead of original fare, the trend has been to "repurpose" movies, converting them into staged musical productions. Disney has reaped a bonanza by adapting animated films like "Beauty and the Beast" and "The Lion King," although "Tarzan" bombed and advance reviews have been mixed for the upcoming "Little Mermaid." (Other recent musicals derived from movies include "Legally Blond," "Hairspray," "The Color Purple," "Xanadu," and Monty Python's "Spamalot.")
To mount the show and make it more zowie! than the original, producing partners Brooks and Robert F.X. Sillerman ponied up a rumored $16 million to $20 million, nearly twice what most big Broadway musicals cost. "In scale and scope, scenically and technically, it's one of your larger productions," says Ellis.
The number of elements he oversees dance through his head: 400 lights, a dozen different set locations, 18 pieces of scenery that fly on and off stage, and props like automated trees that zip in and out on a motorized chassis. Rack after rolling rack of costumes and 125 wigs and whiskers must be accessible for quick changes.
The huge undertaking also includes: fog and smoke machines, lightning bolts and thunder, a 24-foot-tall puppet that assembles itself from huge fiberglass body parts, 2 elevators, 9 winches, and 12 stories of steps. A 23-piece orchestra and 21 actors complete the ensemble. "I feel like I'm juggling croquet balls," says Ellis, "which hurt when they hit you in the head."
For all the focus on the play's pyrotechnics, Ellis knows there's one element that's more important – the actors. They're who "everyone's here to see," he says. "Nobody ever went out of the theater humming the scenery."
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When growing up, Ellis didn't show any particular interest in design. As a child of the 1950s and '60s, the era of Sputnik, he gravitated toward science. The closest he came to being on stage was playing in rock bands.
He didn't get involved in theater until college, when he landed a role in "The Fantasticks." The experience doomed his plans of being a dentist, much to his parents' disappointment.
Ellis migrated to New York with a graduate degree in technical theater. In a typically practical move, he decided to pursue production management instead of acting, preferring, he says, to "work in the theater rather than in restaurant jobs" as a wannabe artist. After stints in the music business, working at Greenwich Village clubs like the Bottom Line and managing the national tour of Meat Loaf in 1977-78, he found his métier behind the curtain.
Over the years, Ellis has experienced his share of mishaps. He calls his first job as stage manager for a children's theater company his keenest failure: "I went in the wrong direction and didn't get to the show, so 3,000 kids didn't get to see Snow White Goes West."
Today, the productions are far more elaborate and the risk of misadventure more pressing. At an earlier play he supervised, for instance, stagehands ignored Ellis's advice and tried to whisk a 2,000-pound fish tank off stage during a two-minute set change. The aquarium shattered, creating a mini-tidal wave and flooding the sound system. Such problems, though, are rare, he says.
In the end, Ellis admits that spending so much money to mount a show is a big gamble. But he thinks the whole experience is something that will stay with people "forever."
The facade at the Hilton Theater's stage door has been transformed into a faux-Transylvanian castle, marked "BRAIN DEPOSITORY." Above the mail slot is stenciled: "After 5 p.m., slip brains through slot in door." Ellis is hoping his mental acuity and production skills have slipped into the theater as well "to make magic. Which is why," he adds, "live theater, happening right before your eyes, is still very, very special."