Guests are streaming out of the newly baptised Animagique Theatre with grins on their face. Mickey and the Magician has done it, it is loved by guests. As a Disneyland Paris fan, I had felt the same when I got to see the show a few hours earlier but it is always a pleasure to have your thoughts confirmed by others. It is a sunny Saturday evening in the Walt Disney Studios Park and myself and a few other Disneyland Paris bloggers were waiting outside the Art of Animation to meet and interview the creators of the show.
We enter the building to find Belle’s beautiful dress placed in front of our seats, and beautiful it was. When you see the dress on stage, it looks beautiful, but the detail up close is breathtaking. We sit, gazing in wonderment at this outstanding creation, and then we wait. Suddenly, five figures emerge. It was time to begin our roundtable discussion focusing on the creation of Mickey and the Magician.
This evening we would be interviewing: Katy Harris (Show Director); Michael Jung (Executive Creative, Walt Disney Imagineering); Tatiana Seguin (Choreographer); Tim Lutkin (Lighting Designer) and Paul Kieve (Illusionist).
The origins of Mickey and the Magician
After the closure of Animagique, Disneyland Paris and Walt Disney Imagineering started working very closely together. They knew they needed something very special to replace Animagique and there was a need to bring together rich and diverse Disney characters together through music and storytelling, as Michael Jung explained. The Mickey and the Magician show is a musical comedy which features live singers and plenty of surprises. It played on the core themes of magic and wonder which is at the centre of many Disney stories. Michael continues to explain ‘We played with the idea of magic makers and how that could be used to tell a story.’ There is an evident progression from the 1940 film Fantasia which saw Mickey starring as the Sorcerer’s Apprentice. The show also takes its inspiration from the city of Paris, the home of French cinema and the home of magic and illusion. All of these things started to come together at the turn of the 20th Century and that was the key setting for this adventure.
Katy Harris explains that the idea was also to give Mickey a starring role, and the desire to bring back the Mickey from the short films: the little boy who is funny and cute, who sometimes get things wrong. The development of the story was very much reliant of the characterisation of Mickey Mouse.
Creating a show in a Disney park is a unique experience. Paul Kieve and Tim Lutkin are both from a big-budget production background, but there are some advantages to working on site explains Tim. In the West End and Broadway, there are many differing departments, at Disneyland Paris it is very much one team working together all the time. The show feels much more like a team effort, it is an integrated experience.
But the team was not always together. After an initial meeting in Disneyland Paris, the show was produced predominately through conference calls. These took place reasonably often during the development cycle and brought minds together from across the world. Very often you would have people in Tokyo, for example, waking up especially to take this call and to work on Mickey and the Magician.
The show is distinctly European in its style, something that Michael explained very eloquently. As an American, he says, it is difficult to really understand the culture. In his own words ‘You only know what you know.’ But what did they know? That audiences loved the character of Mickey and that he could resonate with this audience. The team was built with many members from different backgrounds, each of which brought something new and a different cultural understanding and perspectives. Having Katy and Tatiana, who are permanently at Disneyland Paris, really helps too. They see everyday the audience and they really do understand the audience and its diversity.
Another complexity is that of language, explains Michael, in Shanghai everybody speaks Mandarin. Here at Disneyland Paris, there is a real mix of languages and so much within the european culture is timeless. So whilst Michael at WDI didn’t really know the culture, other people did and it all came together in order to create something that resonates with the park, its audience and the cast as well.
The Magic and Technology behind the show
The name Paul Kieve may not be one you have heard of before, but you have undoubtedly seen some of his works before. Paul has developed original magic for over 100 productions including: Ghost The Musical, Mathilda (The West End production), The Phantom of the Opera, Zorro, The Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban and Hugo amongst many others. Paul describes his passion as ‘magic and storytelling’, the idea of magic is at the heart of many stories and quite often performing magicians tend not to make that connection. Magicians were the first to incorporate illusions into stories. One of these magicians is Robert Houdin who performed between 1840 and 1860. After Houdin’s death, Georges Mélies bought Houdin’s theatre and called it the Robert Houdin theatre. The theatre was one of magic and Mélies performed on this very stage. In this show, Mélies did an illusion involving a man in the moon – an illusion that also makes its way into Mickey and the Magician.
Mickey and the Magician is very much a nod and acknowledgement of this history. As Paul explains ‘When you think of Disney, the next word that comes into your mind is magic. Disney Magic go together.’ For Paul, to create a show in Paris on Disney Magic with references to Mélies and Houdin is an absolute pleasure.
Paul remarks that there is a lot of different forms of magic, but the question is ‘What is Disney magic?’ This show is unique, nothing has ever been done like this in any Disney park before. In the 1960s, Disneyland in Anaheim had the closest magic show to this, but this was more simple stage illusions. But at Disney, there is a wealth of magic and in this show, a lot of magic in a short period of time. In modern magic shows, the amount of magic is actually quite small – it is primarily talk followed by the trick.
However, here the script written, and it is easy to write a line in a script. For instance, the Fairy Godmother making Cinderella’s dress appear is easy to write. The illusion actually took six months to create. How do you make something exist that does not exist? The thought process behind this is: How does this work? What is the technicality behind it? How will Paul achieve this? Then comes the process of getting it made. The new design Cinderella dress was actually made specifically for this trick.
It was also, for Paul, a privilege to work closely with Tim Lutkin. Tim shares with Paul a great interest in magic and illusion and because of this, Paul knew he could do things in the show that he would not be able to do otherwise. It became a truly collaborative process. Tim brought to Disneyland Paris a lighting rig of a similar size, if not bigger, than most Broadway productions. Mickey and the Magician is made up of 350 fixtures, 100 moving lights, 2000 channels of LED lights, 7000 LEDs in total. All in all the show features around 8000 lights where everything is entirely custom programmed. Tim notes that this is a ‘pretty big system.’
Finally, once the show gets to the rehearsal stage in the theatre, it has to be ensured that the illusions are not visible from any of the seats. Paul spent many of his days in the run up to the launch sitting in the worst seats – he remarks that he still hadn’t seen the show from a good seat. Running a show five times a day is a challenge and many things can go wrong. If a light fails, how does that affect the show? There are many things that comes together to make one illusion. Paul was always looking for the bit that does not look quite right from any seat.
The show is very human. It is not simply projection and lights, it is a whole team of people coming together to do something at the right time. But, as Katy explains, like all attractions and shows, there is a test and adjustment phase. Mickey and the Magician is very similar to an attraction due to the number of technical and human elements. For instance, there is a stage manager and every cue is called manually.
Paul says that the act of making the Genie appear actually takes around 20 people. Yes it is the one person who appears, but behind each individual thing there is an entire team who makes it happen.
Disney Characters: A match made in magic
Mickey and the Magician takes its inspiration from the world of Paris, animation, Mélies, the moon and the zoetrope. But the show is really centered around the ‘magic makers’ and it is really quite rare that Disney get the chance to tell that story. The initial concept and real desire for the show was to give Mickey Mouse a starring role. Michael Jung of Walt Disney Imagineering says ‘Mickey represents so much, he can be many things. But we often forget, he is like us, he can be a little child. He wants to do good things, but he has a curiosity. He’s sometimes mischievous but always wants to do the right thing.’ We identify with Mickey, he likes to mess around by doing things such as riding the broom.
There were a lot of possible choices for characters in the show before they finally settled on those selected. Katy Harris, show director, explains that it essentially came down to the idea of wanting Mickey to learn some things. Knowing that, the selection process was deciding who could teach Mickey what the show creative team wanted him to learn? All the characters selected ended up being teachers within their stories, and that was vital for the story of Mickey and the Magician. In Cinderella, the Fairy Godmother nurtures and mentors Cinderella; Lumière teaches Beast how to love and win Belle’s heart; Rafiki is Simba’s guide; the Genie mentors, teaches and helps Aladdin and Elsa shares her experience of having confidence with magic. This simplified the story and they were good for the stage, they had good stories and music that could be portrayed in this theatre atmosphere. And when it comes to future scenes and seasonal updates, Katy says ‘Who knows…?’
Music and Dance: The heart of the story
Watching Mickey and the Magician is a journey for the audience, not just Mickey, and a large part of that is thanks to the music as well as the beautiful choreography. This round table discussion was a chance to explore that element of the show with Tatiana, Michael and Katy.
Tatiana Seguin, the choreographer of Mickey and the Magician, describes the dances in the show: In each bubble, Mickey is having fun with the magic makers. And this fun extends to the dance. So for Be our Guest there is a circus and ballet style with a waltz style of music. For Be Our Guest there is a very contemporary style to the scene with puppeteers dancing with props. For Friend like Me, James Spitfire choreographed a tap scene. The choreography in Mickey and the Magician exists to support the magic and the illusion. As has been previously described, everything exists to support everything else.
In order to get the perfect cast, Disneyland Paris auditioned around 700 people and now uses two rehearsal rooms. In these rooms, everything would be going on at once. It was described by Tim and Katy as chaos.
The initial workshop meeting for Mickey and the Magician took place shortly after the closure of Animagique. Here, all the key members of the production team were locked away in a room and began to discuss the elements that would come together to create the show. Joel McNeely worked on the project (who also did the music for Disney Dreams!), and during these initial meetings Joel would be making music suggestions and Tatiana would be dancing around the room bringing the show to life. But underneath all this is an entire original score. Joel underscored everything especially for the show which meant that the recording of the soundtrack occurred very late as everything essentially had to be perfected in order to create a linear show. Changes could be made without having to rescore the show.
The most interesting element of the show was, for me, the choice of reorchestration of various classics. I think it works beautifully, but I was curious. I asked the creators of the show: How did this come about, how did you decide on a certain style for a certain song?
Katy Harris responded saying that they looked at what the numbers could be. The numbers had to be very different, Beauty and the Beast had been in the parks before and it is in Disney Dreams!, so the question became ‘How could we do this differently?’ So the idea of circus emerged for Be our Guest. The direction then moved to a Fabio Fellini [Italian Film Director] style vibe and it evolved from there and a different world came into existence with trampolines on the tables, juggling and acrobatics.
Friend like me was very clear from day 1; it was going to be a tap routine. There were many discussions about this and not everybody was overly keen on the idea but it has since become one of the great moments in the show. This in itself caused challenges. France doesn’t have a tap scene – until now! But for Katy, this was a scene very close to her heart, she loves tap and it was very important to get into the show. James Doubtfire (Tap Dogs) was brought in to create the choreography. The idea here was not to have another Tap Dogs or Stomp, but to have a nice mix of classic and tap choreography. It was a collaboration that really has exploded into a fabulous number.
The Circle of Life scene was a difficult one. There is already a perfect version out there, and it was impossible to do a better version of it and so the question was one of translation. How would that fit into this show? Katy wanted a poetic scene, the emotional heart of the show. They have managed to fit a lot into 30 minutes and so it was nice to have a slower calm scene.
Michael says that it is beautiful to see the characters interact with the audience, it isn’t often that Disney breaks the fourth wall, but this scene allows for this very intimate moment. It is the spirit of Disney captured.
The scene began its life without the animals. Tatiana asked the dancers to be a cheetah if they were supposed to be one and then the puppets arrived. The performers initially felt like they were losing something but it all soon came together and there was some real spice in the scene, it’s nice to see.
A unique show, crafted especially for Disneyland Paris
In creating Mickey and the Magician, the Animagique Theater was entirely recreated, so much so that it feels like a brand new theatre. Everything is bespoke for Mickey and the Magician and the set sets the guest up perfectly for the experience that they are about to live.
I would like to extend my thanks to Katy, Michael, Tatiana, Tim and Paul for sitting down with us for this fantastic interview, and a big thanks to Mathias at Disneyland Paris for organising it. And if you would like to listen to the interview, you can right here: