Since 2012, a rotating group of international magicians known as The Illusionists have been touring the world’s top theaters with a successful high-tech, over-the-top act.
It might have continued like that, had the producers of the Illusionists not stumbled upon an entirely new direction for the show while producing a new venture called Circus 1903: The Golden Age of Circus. During casting for Circus, they interviewed several illusionists who suggested the producers mine that era for a magic-themed show. When they learned that most modern illusions trace their origins to the Golden Age of Magic—a period of rapid advancement from the 1880s through 1920s—they realized they were on to something.
The result of that epiphany is The Illusionists: Turn of the Century which has a troupe of magicians stepping back into that time—in costume, set design, and conjuring styles incorporating vaudeville, puppetry, grand illusion, and mentalism—to showcase the origins of today’s most popular tricks as well as long-forgotten ones. This incarnation, touring since debuting in Australia two years ago, is on Broadway through January 1 at the Palace Theatre, where Harry Houdini once performed. Meanwhile, Circus 1903 begins touring the States early next year.
"We’re finding new magic to put in front of the public that’s different, not something they’ve seen, so we looked backward to go forward," says creative director Mark Kalin, who also performs in the show with his wife, Jinger Leigh. "The Golden Age of Magic was a time of great innovation, competition, when magicians were the rock stars of the day, and a lot of magic was created at that time," but in a darker, more nuanced, and mysterious form than their flashier, Las Vegas-style derivatives.
For example, the time-honored sawing a woman in half, was originally done with a male assistant, until British magician P.T. Selbit tapped the period’s controversial women’s suffrage movement, and sawed a female instead. "One single, violent act, under the guise of entertainment," says Kalin. "It made headlines and forever changed the course of magic, as other magicians copied the idea of using a glamorous woman assistant."
Beyond simply entertaining, the show strives to educate audiences about the history of these illusions, enlisting magic historian Mike Caveney for a script that places these tricks in the context of the period and the Palace as a historical performance spot.
Before that time, magicians performed in fairgrounds and beer halls, on street corners, and in lavish homes. The move to music halls and theaters, courtesy of vaudeville, enabled a backstage, trap doors, and fly systems that gave way to more elaborate illusions not possible before.
"All these different methods became available to them and they were able to invent new tricks that weren’t possible before. It was a game changer and we still build off what was invented back in those days," says Caveney.
Since then, magic has gone in cycles of popularity and renewed public interest. "The last 20 years has been another Golden Age of Magic," adds Caveney. "It started when Doug Henning opened on Broadway in 1974, and continued with David Copperfield’s TV specials and Siegfried & Roy’s full-length Vegas magic show, which was unheard of back then."
Its rebranding has continued over the last decade currently with CW's current series Penn & Teller and Masters of Illusion, consistent magician winners and finalists on NBC's America’s Got Talent, YouTube presentations, and documentaries like An Honest Liar, about the Amazing Randi, and the newly released Magicians: Life in the Impossible, on the industry though the lives of four magicians. Before that, it was specials and reality series featuring Andrew Mayne, Criss Angel, Penn & Teller, David Blaine, and mentalists posing as clairvoyants.
Clairvoyant acts started after the Civil War, when hundreds of thousands of people were killed and families wanted to contact their dead loved ones, says Caveney. "There was no shortage of people who said, 'No problem. I’ll contact anyone you want.’ It has never fallen out of favor.
"All the illusions that these hip guys are performing came from that time period," he adds. "It’s great to revisit them and it will make people think, 'Wow, I thought David Copperfield was the greatest magician.’ But when you see stuff from that time period, it’s as amazing as anything you would see today."
Producer Simon Painter has noticed that Turn of the Century’s more nuanced tone seems draw in audiences.
"Because it lives within an era, it feels more special and sucks you in more," he says. "It’s like Downton Abbey—people are really fascinated with that time period, before everyone went off to war. That to me is a really romantic time, the end of the classical period, full of hope, and also the Golden Age of the Industrial Revolution, the harnessing of electricity. It was the first time technology was being used in magic. This was also before mass media, so you’d have to see a spectacle like this in person. That’s what I wanted to capture."
Painter first embraced magic while working a fiddle player in a Las Vegas production of Spirit of the Dance. After several years of producing Cirque du Soleil-like shows around the globe, he came up a "circus of magic" idea that led to The Illusionists.
"I’m held accountable by everyone in the show to be accurate to the time period," says Painter. "Imposing those creative restrictions makes the show stronger. Magicians at any time are odd creatures, but no more than at the turn of the century. Secrets were so guarded, and handed down from one person to another. Many of those ideas and methods have carried on till today."