He’s not an old-time conjurer with a blue-black mustache, evening clothes, and something vaguely demonic in his eyes. Nor does he tack a “dini” on the end of his name. But while shunning the image, Doug Henning is the real thing—a master illusionist who can turn women into cougars, doves into rabbits, and elephants into air. Or at least make us believe he can.
But that is his goal: to so mystify us that, for the time we are in the theatre, he can tap our source of wonder and make us believe in magic, He achieved this in Broadway’s The Magic Show and in his television specials for NBC. And now this small, deft, Puckish man will attempt the feat once more in a “magical musical” at the Mark Hellinger Theatre called Merlin, which opens this month.
Inspired by the life of the legendary magician, Merlin is a tale of transformation: a bumbling young apprentice charges through a series of splendid adventures to become the enlightened sage who tutors Arthur and brings a Golden Age to Britain.
The project began six years ago when Henning read a book on Merlin and found his mind pole-vaulting across centuries to feel both reverence and affection for the ancient seer. “In his day, Merlin did real magic,” says Henning, clearly quite impressed. He contrasts this with illusionary magic practiced by performers like himself, who use sleight of hand, misdirection, and devilishly clever apparatus to work their “magical” feats.
Merlin could do all this without the help of props, mirrors, or other means of deception. He could really see into the past, predict the future, read people’s minds, make objects levitate. “He was an enlightened man who used 100 percent of his mind’s potential rather than the 10 percent normal people use,” says Henning. “Merlin was what we all could become if we just knew how to do it.”
Since Doug doesn’t quite yet know how to do it (he’s working on it), he must simulate Merlin’s real powers with his own illusionary skills. “I wanted to do ‘state of the art’ magic—magic no one had ever seen before,” says Henning who worked on and off for six years to develop the more than 30 illusions used in Merlin.
He insists that unlike in The Magic Show, where some critics praised the magic but panned the show, Merlin’s illusions are completely integrated into the plot, set and music so that they enhance the play rather than overpower it.
For instance, says Henning, there’s a wicked queen (Chita Rivera) who tries to destroy Merlin because she wants her own son to be king and she knows Merlin will choose Arthur. Knowing Merlin’s weakness for women, she transforms a live black panther into a beautiful girl and sends her off to seduce the young magician.
Later, she sets a sort of Celtic Frankenstein against Merlin by placing a “pulsing, oozing black heart” into a suit of armor which has been shown to be completely empty. Suddenly, the knight comes to life and shoots four foot flames from his hands. “You see how the magic and the plot are all so integrated?” he says with enthusiasm.
In the end, the evil queen and Merlin meet in a grand battle of black magic against white. “The whole theatre goes black. Everything. You can’t see a thing,” Doug says, lowering his voice to a whisper and lifting his small, sensitive hands as though casting a spell. “Suddenly, you see the queen’s face glowing in the dark and out of her open mouth come silver threads which fly up all over the stage forming a huge spider web. And instantly, her face changes into that of an ugly spider, which crawls all over the web then instantly becomes 10 feet tall. And I won’t tell you what happens after that. It’s incredible! The magic here is not just little tricks; it’s not pulling rabbits out of hats!”
Fully animated now, this 35-year-old magician anticipates his show like a child anticipating Christmas. And, like a child, he doesn’t exactly brag, but speaks with naked and touching belief in his plans as though the prospect of failure were the one impossible illusion.
“In The Magic Show,” he says, “only the magic was magical” while the plot and sets were thin to “make the magic stand out. In Merlin, everything is magical. The setting is incredible! If you want to get inspired, go see a mock up of the set!” he says, gathering momentum. “It’s astounding! You will not believe it! No one ever let [set designer] Robin Wagner’s imagination go nuts before.
“The trees,” he says with particular tenderness, “they’re built with fiber optics. Do you know what that is? The trees look like tubes of light! The queen’s castle is so terrifying! You look at it and ‘ughghhhhh!’ I mean, there’s skulls and it’s just….amazing!” Doug’s full-souled enthusiasm extends to every other aspect of the production: “The music is wondrous! The costumes are astounding!”
This man is so sweetly insistent that he could make Candide feel like a cynic. And his fresh vision seems to infuse the whole project and everyone in it. “He has a wonderful, wonderful purity both as a person and onstage, “ says director Frank Dunlop, himself a spry, gentle man with ethereal charm. “And the reason why his magic is so terrific is because wonder is in him and so his work is full of wonder.”
But it seems that Doug’s great zeal stems not just from a happy nature, or from good fortune (which, in the guise of Columbia Stage Productions, Inc. and James Nederlander, provided $3.5 million to finance Merlin), or even from the shock of energy given to those about to reach a long-cherished goal. The source of his passion is that Doug is enacting a central drama of his own life through Merlin.
He readily admits it. “This is the tale of a young magician with unformed powers who’s searching for his destiny,” says Henning in a rare moment of stillness. “And he looks everywhere. He looks for beautiful women. For gratification of his ego, for power to enhance his own pleasure. Merlin’s journey is from using selfish magic to gain his own ends to learning real magic and using it for the good of the world.
“And I went through these things in my life,” says Henning. “I was a little kid from Canada who came to Broadway and suddenly, I was famous…people were showering me with presents and offers and money and women….You don’t know what it’s like,” he says earnestly. “You’re in your dressing room and four beautiful girls come backstage to see you every night.
“There was a turning point where I could have just sold out and used my abilities to become very wealthy and hedonistic. I was offered a million dollars to do commercials for a terrible product that basically rots people’s stomachs and is virtually poison. It’s poison! You don’t know what I went through! Everyone wanted me to do it—my agents, everyone!
“So I was just like Merlin. He has magic in the beginning, but he doesn’t know how to use it.” Doug believes that, like Merlin who masters his selfish desires with the help of a great teacher, he too was set on the right path by a few key people and events.
One was learning transcendental meditation. It’s easy to see meditation’s draw for a man like Henning, who seems to crave not just episodes of lucidity, but full, continuous light. He believes that meditation turned his mind in this direction—towards higher states of consciousness, and the enlightenment that may one day help him to do real magic like Merlin. But on a practical level the practice kept him “calm, relaxed and in touch with (his) own inner feelings.”
Another great help was finding a sympathetic manager who could support these inner promptings as well as producers “who wanted to do beautiful productions instead of schlock for cheap money.”
Doug’s identification with Merlin extends to his sense of mission. “Merlin had a destiny,” he says, “to teach Arthur and bring in a new age, a Golden Age. My little destiny is to renew people’s wonder for the world through my magic.”
He regards wonder as a delicate, healing emotion in which the mind suspends disbelief and opens to the unfathomable mystery of things. Magic can do this, Henning believes, because when we are mystified by a magician, “we realize that there must be more to the illusion he performs that we can perceive with our senses or grasp with our minds, just as there is more to life than our narrow knowledge and perception of it.”
The play itself is bound up with Henning’s sense of mission. He believes that, rather than being escapist, this mythical fantasy is a service to the public.
“What’s going on now is that there is negativity on the earth and ‘positivity’ must rise up to balance it out or there will be a holocaust. Part of the ‘positivity’ is uplifting entertainment, and it’s…a big mistake to think of fantasy as an escape. What fantasy does is….balance the negativity and give people hope.”
And this magician with the mind of a mystic, the body of a Little Leaguer, and the wonder of a child believes that now is the perfect time for Merlin to surface. After the commercial success of such ventures as E.T., and Chariots of Fire, he’s sure the play will be a hit. Typically, he looks for a consensus of hope: “Before now, there wasn’t much interest….But suddenly, now it’s time. Don’t you just feel in your heart that it’s perfect timing?”