NY Times 1983 “Merlin’ Interview

I’ve been thinking recently about “Merlin.” Well, actually I’ve been thinking about how we only really know of it through pictures and some brief You Tube Clips. There was no cast album, and it only really exists through the veil of people’s memories and recollections. While we can’t travel in time, what we can do is journey back to when Merlin was finding its footing via this fascinating “New York Times” article from 1983. In it, Doug and Director Ivan Reitman give their views on the most “magical musical” you’ll never see. 

Published: February 13, 1983

Doug Henning, the magic man, wasn’t always the most lovable whiz of a wiz. Once upon a time, he found it intriguing to test the unwary. He’d be sitting at a restaurant counter, and half-dollars would just keep materializing under the plates as the astonished waitress swept them away. He would hand over his money at the cash register and the bills would vanish – to the befuddlement of the cashier. Or the magician would slip into a supermarket, break open a seeded roll, and find a coin inside. He’d smile his gee-wizard grin and say, ”Well look at that!” prompting onlookers to attack other rolls, hunting for pennies from heaven.

”I learned,” said Mr. Henning, ”that people didn’t like it.” He was taking a break on a recent afternoon, during the unceasing rehearsals for ”Merlin,” the musical that opens today at the Mark Hellinger Theater.

”People would feel betrayed,” he said. ”They’d get mad. And I learned something very important about myself, and about magic.” Which was? ”I came to understand that I used magic for ego gratification, to show off at parties,” Mr. Henning replied. ”It’s the sort of magician Merlin is in the play. But the conceited Merlin grows and changes during the show.” He paused. ”And so have I, through the years.”

Mr. Henning’s intense identification with the character he plays has given him some sense of equilibrium during the turbulent preview run of ”Merlin.” The $4-million musical has been thrice-postponed, and ”Merlin” was revised, often radically, throughout its nine weeks of previews. Not the least of the metamorphoses occurred when producer Ivan Reitman replaced Frank Dunlop as director, and Billy Wilson was engaged to supplement the work of Chris Chadman, the original choreographer.

Citing the unusually long preview run and the 60,000 paying customers who had seen the show since Dec. 10 at the full, $40-topprice ticket scale, New York Times drama critic Frank Rich reviewed the Jan. 27 preview performance. Expressing disappointment with the show as a musical, Mr. Rich nevertheless gave the star of ”Merlin” high marks: ”Mr. Henning is beyond compare as an illusionist,” he wrote, ”and the half-dozen or so major stunts he pulls off in this show are indeed spectacular.”

”We really didn’t know what we had until we put it all together in the first preview,” said Mr. Reitman when asked about the ongoing ”Merlin” changes that saw the installation of a new opening number; a new musical number for Chita Rivera, who plays the wicked Queen; and a new stretch-the-lady illusion for dancer Rebecca Wright, who plays Merlin’s Tinkerbelle. A host of other major and minor alterations have brought the total of magical feats to more than 30, many of them never seen – or, rather, unseen – before”

To Be Continued…

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