Mark Dobrow makes Mary Poppins fly.
When you have a musical show that encompasses whirlwind set and costume changes, magic tricks, a flying nanny, seven floors of dressing rooms, hundreds of lighting, sound and automation cues, nearly 50 crew members and a 40,000-pound house set that moves and breaks apart, not to mention requiring four assistant stage managers to run it, you call on a production stage manager who really knows what they’re doing. A highly experienced Broadway and touring veteran, Mark Dobrow rises to the major challenge of running Disney’s hit show Mary Poppins each and every night. His love for his work and relaxed demeanor undoubtedly make him a sea of calm in a turbulent backstage environment where somebody or something is always in motion.
Dobrow later returned to Broadway to serve as a second ASM on Miss Saigon, eventually rising to production stage manager for the last half of his five-year tenure. He closed the show’s run in January 2001. After working on the Harry Connick Jr. musical vehicle Thou Shalt Not, he became first ASM for the first national tour of The Producers in fall 2002 before moving on to the pre-Broadway and Broadway runs of the Johnny Cash musical Ring Of Fire. Now he has the coveted first PSM gig on Mary Poppins, serving as ASM under Tom Capps before inheriting the position.
Working on Poppins has been a long-running dream for Dobrow, who first heard about the production at the start of the decade. Thanks to his hard work, experience, and perseverance, he became part of the show. He’s even learned the magic tricks that Mary uses during one of the nursery sequences in the show, when she pulls out large objects from her tiny bag. Last July, he learned the “Disney magic” required for every Mary to learn (the lead and her understudies), when he went to London where the original production was launched, and he has trained the prop crew on the tricks as well.
Since the show opened in New York last November, it has become a bona fide hit and surpassed the 300-performance mark by mid-August. Dobrow acknowledges the many challenges he faces working on a highly technical, very intense production with four ASMs working beneath him. He calls the show a few times a week, watches it a few times a week and also handles a lot of paperwork.
“In addition to the show and helping to maintain (it), I’m responsible for all the scheduling that happens for all the rehearsals and putting new people into the company,” he reports. “We have an associate director, Anthony Lyn, who functions as the director of the show, and Tom Kosis, who is our resident choreographer. We all work together as a team to get everybody into the show.”
The most challenging moment for Dobrow came during a put-in rehearsal for new ensemble members that also functioned as an understudy run-through of the entire show. “Because certain people were on vacation, I had to play Winifred Banks in front of the entire company,” he reveals. “(It) was very challenging and frankly terrifying to me because I’m not an actor or a singer.”
He calls the show from the stage manager’s jump, which is stacked with numerous monitors. He has six different views and watches infra-red monitors, including one in the nursery that monitors the children and breaks away from the house and descends to stage level during specific scenes. “There’s the regular conductor’s monitor, side view monitors and overhead monitors,” Dobrow explains. “We even have a camera that we can move to get close-ups of certain things. If the automation operator wants to look at something, like the big umbrella trap at the center of the stage, he’ll do a close-up of that to be able to watch the trap open and watch the umbrella come up, so those safeguards are al-ways in place at every show.”
Working on major productions like Phantom and The Producers certainly gave Dobrow the experience he needed to tackle a show like Poppins. Thou Shalt Not used three turntables, and even the more modest Ring of Fire had plenty of sound design issues. He says that while the basic technologies used in all these shows is consistent, there are newer computer programs that increase the crews’ ability to do things faster.
“I remember when I first started on Phantom, when we would throw a cue light to turn the opera boxes on, the response time from us throwing the cue light, the man hitting the switch and then something actually moving was probably between five to six seconds,” Dobrow recalls. “But then on the tours, which were done a few years later, the technology had advanced so much that you would give the go for something, and those opera boxes would move within two seconds. I remember going back to the other company going, ‘Oh my God, the op-era boxes aren’t moving!’ But I had forgotten that it was old technology [versus] new technology. We are certainly at the height of it in terms of everything that happens in Mary Poppins with all the traps, and to make the transitions happen takes speed and the most up-to-date technology there is.”
When asked if anything has ever malfunctioned, Dobrow laughs and replies, “Things happen at all shows. In previews, we ended up canceling one show about five minutes into the second act because there was a problem with the house. We couldn’t get the house upstage. We spent about twenty minutes with the audience still here, with the house curtain in, trying to get it realigned. It’s 40,000 pounds and was just too heavy. It was stuck in the middle of the stage, and there was nothing we could do. We’ve had smooth sailing for a while. It’s just the nature of the beast.”
He points out that all large shows, from Miss Saigon to Wicked, have had their share of technical difficulties. And sometimes, human error comes into play. “It takes a while to work all the kinks out and get everybody into their rhythms,” he remarks. “When you’re doing something like this, you can troubleshoot as many problems as you think there are going to be, but of course there’s that one thing that you didn’t think of, and that’s inevitably what ends up happening. But the New Amsterdam has a terrific crew, probably the best on Broadway, and they take very good care of the show. It’s very well maintained, and the testing of all the effects is religious prior to every performance. There isn’t one effect that isn’t tested, and all the flying is tested before every single performance. Whether it’s a two-show day doesn’t matter. Everybody’s here an hour and a half prior to curtain, and they test everything.”
There is a “Mary bridge” above the audience where the lead character, aided by wires, flies to at the end of each performance. Three carpenters and a stage manager reside there, and two carpenters in harnesses catch her before she races across the catwalk to the theatre elevator and takes it back to stage level to reunite with the cast.
Dobrow has certainly seen technology evolve since first working on Phantom back in the mid-nineties. “A lot of it is about computer response time to making things move,” he observes. “Saigon was a huge show. The progression started with Les Mis, with the turntable and the way the barricades worked, then Phantom with the ‘travelator,’ which moves upstage and down. The audience doesn’t even realize it’s there for the most part because it’s well hidden and is used so well and has a seamless design. And the way the helicopter worked in Saigon and things worked in Beauty and the Beast, all the technology certainly gives ideas of making all of this [on Poppins] possible. Whenever there are new ideas for something, it leads to being able to do something of this scale.”
“I have to say that it’s been a great experience from the beginning,” enthuses Dobrow of Poppins. “I love the show, and I’m certainly emotionally attached to it. And it just happens that there are all these fun machines and toys that we get to play with, so it makes it all the better. The cast is great. We have a really great company. We’re very close, and everybody really gets along.”
The PSM also expresses admiration for the actors who play Burt, Mary, and the kids (who are never off stage). Along with Mary, they run up and down two flights of steps countless times, which requires a lot of stamina and endurance. Certainly the lead role is daunting. “From the time that Mary arrives to the end of ‘Jolly Holiday,’ she doesn’t stop moving, and I would have to say that’s around a full twenty minutes,” declares Dobrow. “If she comes off stage for a minute, it’s to change her clothes and do two of the fastest quick changes I’ve ever seen, right in succession, because she has to fully transform from her blue coat to her pink ‘Jolly Holiday’ clothes and then back within the space of two very short scenes.”
Given the rapid pace at which big-budget musical spectaculars are evolving, with more and more speed and precision required to cram in as much as possible, one wonders if the job of the production stage manager has become increasingly difficult. “It does get harder because of that, but there is also a large support system,” says Dobrow. “We had a technical supervisor, David Benken, who was with us while the show was being loaded in and was being teched, so you have help. It’s not solely on our shoulders. We have people who help design how the scenery is going to work. We ask questions, and they come up with the answers. It’s all teamwork. But it does make it harder, just from the pressure. From the first time you’re in tech, even if it’s a small show like Ring of Fire, and you go all the way through the show, then you have to call the show for the very first time, that’s quite daunting. I wasn’t the production stage manager when this show was being teched, but I was certainly a part of helping to put it together. I certainly understand that pressure.”
The key to survival in the fast-paced, high-tech world of modern Broadway musicals is to know what you’re up against and to know that you have to be alert and alive at every possible moment. “You always have to have respect for the show,” stresses Dobrow. “You al-ways have to have respect for the technical elements of the show. The minute that you let your guard down is when things happen. This isn’t a show where people can stop watching. You always have to try and stay as fresh and alert as possible at all times because the min-ute you don’t do that something will happen.”
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