A world that is unexplainable

John Napier is one of Britain’s most honoured and celebrated theatrical designers and has won numerous awards for productions such as Cats, Starlight Express, Les Miserables, Miss Saigon, Equus, and Peter Pan. He has designed for Steven Spielberg, Michael Jackson, and of course, Seigfreid & Roy.

“The irony of my working with Seigfried & Roy,” John Napier explains. “is that I had seen them, but not met them, in Las Vegas at the Frontier several years before. I was working in Los Angeles, and my wife and I took a trip to Las Vegas. At that time, I had never heard of Seigfried & Roy. But everyone said, ‘Oh, you have to go and see these two magicians. They are fantastic.’ So we managed to get tickets to Beyond Belief and saw the show.”

“We had also seen a few other shows while in town,” John continues, “and I was scoffing at the naivety and old-fashioned scenery. When I came out of Seigfried & Roy’s show, I said to my wife, ‘Wow! They were really interesting because they are dealing in a world that is unexplainable.’ They understood that you could build an entire show on pure ideas,that you have to find a language to work with that kind of thing. I remember thinking, if I were to come to Las Vegas, those are the guys I’d love to work with. Then I thought no more of it, realising that no-one is ever going to call me up to do a show in Vegas. I do the Royal National Theatre, The Royal Shakespeare Theatre, and the odd musical in the West End.”

But John could not have been more wrong, as he was soon to find out. A few years later, Seigfried & Roy were touring Europe looking for talent to help them design the Mirage show. They were looking for someone who could understand what they wanted to do. “ I had finished Cats and was doing another show in London. Today, not many people know about it, but it was called Time. Seigfried had managed to drag Roy into town to see some shows. I think Roy was much more interested in going off somewhere to see wildlife. But somehow they came to see my show. I had lots of levitating things in it, including a huge extension ladder on stage, and a hologram with Laurence Olivier as a kind of ultimate being.”

“After Seigfried & Roy had seen the show, which had Cliff Richards in it—he was England’s Elvis Presley— they apparently said this is the guy for us. Whoever designed this show is the person we want. So they sent Kennenth Field after me with an offer I couldn’t refuse. It was that simple. It was also quite extraordinary. I thought about that moment when I had come out of their show thinking how much more organic, and much less like a Boulevard show they were. What they did was really extraordinary. It was more than the obvious, the tigers, and all those amazing illusions. The package itself was, however, relatively old-fashioned. So, when they first asked me, I was marginally frightened to do it because I had never done a Las Vegas show, or one on that scale. We also had just two years to come up with something and build it.”

John goes on to explain the process: “I spent months and months and months driving them completely bonkers, stark raving mad, because I kept going to see their show in Las Vegas, and they couldn’t understand why I wasn’t producing anything. I was waiting for the adrenaline moment—that moment of inspiration. I knew the only way I could get it is if I completely and utterly—as far as it was possible, because I was doing other shows at the time—immersed myself in their world. To look, really look at what they were doing with the illusions and what each illusion meant. To use what they do best—and what they do best is to be fantastic illusionists. Seigfried was the more ‘doer’ magician, while Roy was an amazing athlete. They were both phenomenal, as was the combination of the two of them working together—Roy’s physical dexterity, his special kind of energy and his way with the animals combined with Seigfried, the master of the universe magician. Together, they were astounding.”

“After waiting and waiting, Seigfried finally said, ‘When are you going to show us something?’ I said, ‘When I’m ready. I have to keep plodding through this process. I think they both started to get a bit nervous about me, thinking I was really not doing anything. I was scribbling, doing things back in London, and putting the blocks in place. Gradually, I began to piece the things together that I thought could be useful—to take what worked from the old show, figure how we could redress it, how we could reshape it, and how we would make the illusions look really different from what it had been before.”

They flew over to London and were completely blown away by what I had come up with—they couldn’t believe their eyes. One of the things that I was quite proud of is the fact that I had segued their ideas and illusions into sequences such as the Puppet Army and the Evil Queen, so that the same kind of organic feel would remain constant throughout the show. It was all there in a narrative with a very simple storyline of good and evil.”

But there was still one element that was missing,” John says. “And I had just settled on it when they arrived. I couldn’t show it to them because I didn’t have time to build the model. I later arrived in Tokyo after having made a miniature of the contraption and I presented it to them. They went ballistic. It was the Dragon. Originally, it was going to be a robot that changed shape and did things. Then I suddenly thought, We need a dragon, not a robot. It had to be mechanical because of the nature of what we were doing, but it should look mythological. It should be something that relates to them and is overpowering so that they have to prove their own powers. The sequence began with the Evil Queen, then the Puppet Army coming in, and then the dragon breathing fire and crushing Seigfried & Roy in tubes of metal. It was a mixture of the very best kind of Boulevard theatre, entertainment, and Las Vegas magic.” John describes their show as kind of where “Marvel Comics meets Wagner.”

Once the ideas were conceived, the show got to a point where it needed a director. “They interviewed two or three directors of substance,” he explains. “These people who had successful careers on Broadway or in Los Angeles, but Seigfried & Roy just would not bite the bullet. In the end, they turned to me and said, “John, you have to direct the show because you are the only person who understands how we work, and how to pull it all together.”

“This is with only six months to go,” John says. “I was just amazed that they would put that much faith in me. I’m a designer, not a director. Well, I got quite smart. I brought in John Caird, the director of Les Miserables to help me deal with the structure. I also brought in Anthony Van Laast (who had done Barnum and Song and Dance) to do the choreography and the staging. I told them what I wanted out of it—who should be where and then and they took it from there.”

“John Caird dealt more with the second part of the show where it became much more personable—the talking to the audience and ad-libbing and stuff. Anthony and I did the first half, the main part of the show which was the big spectacular. We dealt with the entrances and exits, all the explosions, and people levitating with flames going around them. It was extraordinary—mind boggling. I deliberately structured the first three-quarters of the show to be that way, but also realised in the last quarter of the show that they would need to communicate and create rapport with the audience. If you are doing twelve performances a week, you don’t want to be stuck in a glass jar and not be able to get out occasionally. So that was how the structure of the show came about.”

“There are so many wonderful stories,” John says. “Getting Michael Jackson to write the song for the finale was quite a coup. Years before, I had done some costumes for Michael. He phoned me at 4 a.m. one morning and said I need some costumes like Cats, but I want them black. So I designed them for him. During the Mirage rehearsals, Michael and I were having lunch in Las Vegas with Steve Wynn, I said, ‘Michael, I have a problem, I don’t have finale music.’ He said ‘I’ll do it for you.’ Michael had seen Seigfried & Roy at the Frontier. He was also excited about seeing their new show and what we were doing that he just wrote a song called Mind Is The Magic.”

Roy explains about the song: “One day, during rehearsal when we were at our lowest point, a messenger arrived at the theatre and handed me an envelope. Inside it was a cassette. I had no idea what it was so I handed it to the sound man and asked him to play it for us. What we heard made time stand still. This was Michael Jackson’s contribution to our show.” It was also the first time Michael had ever written, arranged, produced, and sung a song for someone else. Several days later, he showed up at rehearsal. “At that moment,” Roy said, “we felt out show had become real.”

“Michael had encompassed all the lyrics I needed,” John explains. “He encompassed all the musical structure I needed. Not only to do the finale, but to do the Puppet Army. The rhythms, the stuff with drums—what he did was just phenomenal.”

“Working with Seigfried was a times difficult,” John remembers, “because he is a demanding guy, and I was pushing the envelope. I didn’t want to do the show if it wasn’t going to be incredible, different— and very extraordinary. They were already extraordinary in what they could do. I had to find a new way of repackaging it and making it much, much more their show—them making everything happen, as opposed to just a cabaret show where they do a thematic act. I was linking the illusions together in sequences so they made some kind of organic sense.”

“I had seen, years before, that once you start putting a harness around magic and try to make it fit with a strong narrative, you actually end up defying the magic, because to do that you have to apply logic. I saw this happen with Merlin on Broadway starring Doug Henning. I remember thinking, ‘Oh, what a shame. It could be terrific but because of the storyline, it’s strangling him.’ Doug had to kind of pop in and out of character. And I thought, ‘I’m not going to impose that on Seigfried & Roy. They have to be themselves. We have to create characters around them who can advance some kind of storyline, but nothing that is too complex.’ Let the illusions be the most complex thing that is going on.”

“Magic has to find its own rhythm. I drove everyone crazy at rehearsals trying to find it, even Steve Wynn. He wanted to open the show six or eight weeks earlier that I was prepared to do. He had fast tracked the hotel. By November of 1989, this 650-million-dollar property was already open, but Steve didn’t have a show. The hatchet came down on me to open early, and I said no chance. We couldn’t open the show because it had to be right. It had such huge mechanical things. Today, you see what Cirque du Soleil does and it makes what we were doing seem simple. But in its day, it was way ahead of anything else out there.”

“Steve would come in every afternoon to see what we were doing. I remember after about the third week, when we realised what a boring job it is to do this stuff over and over and over again—the lighting, the sound, all the movements, the smoke—he finally said, ‘I get it now.’ The pressure to open was intense, but somehow it all came together. We were a great team. Finally, I knew we were ready, and it opened in February of 1990, a day or two earlier than my contractual obligation.”

“What Seigfried & Roy created took a lot of courage,” John insists. “They had seventy-five tons of scenery. A dragon powered by its own hydraulic system. The most sophisticated lighting system ever created at the time. It took seven computer boards just to run it. And to make everything work, there were three hundred miles of cable above and below the stage. It was a nightmare to mount. The stage had to be reinforced several times due to the weight of the structural items.”

“But I wouldn’t have missed it for the world. It was a major trial and you had to come up with the goods. I think we got the balance absolutely right. Part of the mythology is in Seigfried & Roy’s own stories. They are extraordinary men. They test your worth in that Germanic way, and you have to stand-up for what you believe in; you have to know why you are doing what you do. Roy is a phenomenon—his love affair with the animals and his physical dexterity in the show. And Seigfried is an amazing performer and illusionist. I adore them both.”

John concludes the interview by saying:

It was a marriage made in heaven. It was tough, but it was also immensely respectful. Can you imagine them putting their entire trust in me? It was one of the high points of my life—a fantastic time. The pressure was far outweighed by the pleasure. The sheer knowledge that we were doing something that no one had ever done before. There ain’t another pair like ‘em, and there never will be!”

Likely, there will never be another individual like John Napier either. Seigfried explains: “‘You are the most difficult people I have ever worked with,’ John said many times, He was not quite right. We were impossible. There was, however, a chemistry among the three of us. Napier led us into the theatrical world and spoke of ideas we always thought, but never articulated. He made our tastes richer. We, in turn, stimulated his fantasy.”