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The hidden tech behind Broadway's 'Aladdin'

The Broadway version of Disney's Aladdin has almost as many special effects as you'd find in a major Hollywood movie. Here's how the show's creators pull off the magic in real-time.

Sarah Tew/CNET
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Disney and magic go hand in hand, but observing some of the effects seen onstage throughout Disney's more than 20 years on Broadway, it's easy to forget there are entire teams working in the background to create an enchanting experience.

In the Disney Broadway show "Aladdin," based on the 1992 animated film, magic is all around, but it takes more than just three wishes to get the show off the ground. CNET spoke with three staff members about how technology helps drive the story, night after night.

"Aladdin" follows the tale of a poor young man who frees a genie from a lamp, falls in love with a princess and has to fight the evil adviser to the sultan. In an instant, our CNET team was transported from the bright lights of New York's Times Square to a mythical marketplace in the town of Agrabah to speak with Jimmie Lee Smith, the show's production stage manager.

"The technology on the show is quite extensive," Smith said. "There are a few things operated from a wireless standpoint, there are lots of moving pieces both in the air, on the stage and from beneath the stage."

Smith demonstrated the quick lift, a cleverly designed piece of machinery that ensures the genie and his helpers appear out of the ground as if by magic. Used during the song "A Friend Like Me," the clear plexiglass belt-driven lifts are used to push some of the performers up on stage at a rate of 12 feet per second. As CNET can attest, it's quite the journey.

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The show begins in a bustling marketplace, then takes audiences to a cave full of treasures and later, the princess's palace. The entire set can change within a matter of seconds thanks to scenery that moves smoothly and automatically.

One of those in charge of transforming the stage is Steve Stackle, deck automation operator, who operates the hidden tracks and grooves from a control room tucked below the stage, Stackle operates the hidden tracks and grooves that move the scenery along.

The set has 45 machines running on a network with about 30 connected by wires and 15 running on wireless networks, Stackle said. The machines are connected to motor drives which communicate with a main computer that coordinates where the pieces are to be placed on stage.

Because the same sequence of events happens night after night, the positioning of the scenery is pre-programmed and simply requires an operator to push a single green button for everything to proceed.

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The music, of course, is also key to the show's success. With 20 memorable and melodic songs, it's important that every note played, every song sung and every word spoken is heard by the 1,700-strong audience at the New Amsterdam theater. Sound designer Ken Travis designed all of the audio.

For it all to work, cast members wear a tracker that emits what Travis calls "a chirp" or pulse. The stage is divided into 14 zones, with seven radars across the auditorium listening for the various chirps. Once received, a computer processes the information before sending the sound from the actors' microphones to one of 200 speakers.

When members of the creative team got together to work on "Aladdin," they agreed they wanted to break new ground in terms of technology used in musical theater. Of course, the very best magicians never reveal all their tricks. Audiences leave the show humming the catchy songs and asking the same question: How did they get that magic carpet to fly?