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December 27, 2017

Theater Magic Meets High-Tech Artistry

Radio City Music Hall brings together the grandeur of one of the world’s most historic theaters with next generation technology.

(Photo: Joshua Brott/MSG Photos)

Come showtime, as the 36-piece orchestra rises into view and Radio City Music Hall swells with the sounds of the Christmas season, something like a thousand unseen parts are already in motion, beneath the boards and far above.

A massive elevator, vintage 1932, is poised on its hydraulic lifts, about to carry the dancers — limbering up, wearing their blinking reindeer antlers — onto the Grand Stage. And five stories up, a six-man brigade is working the ropes and cables to manipulate the hulking backdrops.

Also overhead, tucked into the rafters, glowing banks of computers and monitors drive pieces of scenery, from Santa’s workshop to a double decker bus. And a digital network extending to the theater’s highest reaches ensures that all pieces of the show are “talking” to one another, acting as the brains of a complex process. The 85th season of the Christmas Spectacular Starring the Radio City Rockettes is in full swing, and once again Radio City is bringing together the grandeur of one of the world’s most historic theaters with state-of-the-art technology.

For this year’s show, for the first time ever, imagery is being projected on all eight of the ceiling’s majestic arches, utilizing the most advanced 4K digital mapping. This large-scale projection, along with a backdrop that now includes one of the world’s largest 8K resolution LED screens, visually transforms the production, completely immersing the entire audience in the show.

At Radio City, what the audience encounters is a seamless blend of next-level artistry and technology with a production that still feels rich, a return to something familiar. As snowflakes sweep a night sky and with a moon hanging over the third mezzanine, the effect is at once grand and intimate.

“You don’t want the modern techniques to overwhelm the show’s elegance,” says Larry Sedwick, who, as senior vice-president for productions, pulls the whole operation together. “You still want theater magic, and now we have the best of both worlds.”

Incorporating these new techniques into a production with deep roots falls to Sedwick, as well as more than 60 stagehands, five stage managers, projectionists and wardrobe specialists.

 

 

A behind-the-scenes tour during a recent matinee performance provided a split view. The Rockettes could be seen atop the broad surface of a stage elevator, readying for their “reveal.” Beneath them, the latticework of yellow and red pipes and pistons resembles the skeleton of an oil rig.

At the time they were installed, the elevators’ mechanism was considered cutting edge, and the U.S. Navy used identical hydraulics in its World War II aircraft carriers.

There are three elevators, Sedwick said, that can hold more than 16 tons each — a necessity for the Christmas Spectacular and for the myriad live shows and concerts that fill Radio City’s calendar. A fourth pit elevator can bear 27 tons.

In the theater’s corners, are people like Eric Fitcomb, who has become something of a Renaissance Man. He still uses the sliding switches and knobs on the original brass board to configure the folds in the plush 40-foot-high curtain. A computer panel responsible for dozens of other tasks is also at his elbow. He has mastered that as well.

In another wing, on the fifth floor, Wally Usiatynski sits in a “playback” room, swiveling between a series of dense boards. He has tried to count the number of switches, levers and buttons he commands, but each time, he said, he gives up. He uses an intricate system of clicks to ensure the synchronization of all facets of the performance, down to turning the mikes planted in the Rockettes’ tap shoes on and off at exactly the right moment. Sedwick calls this space a critical “pivot point” in the production.

The snow globes that float wirelessly are controlled by GPS. And a TAIT Navigator System links the motors that drive all the production’s moving parts.

A hallmark of the Christmas Spectacular is precision, and that, said Sedwick is the guiding objective.

“That’s the expectation,” he said. “With that as the starting point, we can create something that remains beautiful and full of wonder.”

 


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About The Madison Square Garden Company

The Madison Square Garden Company (MSG) is a world leader in live sports and entertainment experiences. The company presents or hosts a broad array of premier events in its diverse collection of iconic venues: New York’s Madison Square Garden, The Hulu Theater at Madison Square Garden, Radio City Music Hall and Beacon Theatre; the Forum in Inglewood, CA; The Chicago Theatre; and the Wang Theatre in Boston. Other MSG properties include legendary sports franchises: the New York Knicks (NBA), the New York Rangers (NHL) and the New York Liberty (WNBA); two development league teams – the Westchester Knicks (NBAGL) and the Hartford Wolf Pack (AHL); and esports teams through Counter Logic Gaming, a leading North American esports organization, and Knicks Gaming, MSG’s NBA 2K League franchise. In addition, the Company features the popular original production – the Christmas Spectacular Starring the Radio City Rockettes – and through Boston Calling Events, produces New England’s preeminent Boston Calling Music Festival. Also under the MSG umbrella is TAO Group, a world-class hospitality group with globally-recognized entertainment dining and nightlife brands: Tao, Marquee, Lavo, Avenue, The Stanton Social, Beauty & Essex and Vandal. More information is available at www.themadisonsquaregardencompany.com