Queens techie takes backstage helm at Broadway’s “The Boy from Oz”

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In the middle of the second act of the Broadway hit “The Boy From Oz,” Hugh Jackman, the musical’s star, raises his arm, snaps of his fingers and instantly lights up a set designed to look like the stage of the Radio City Music Hall.

Jackman’s savoir-faire is no doubt partially responsible for the gasps and squeals of delight the move elicits from the packed house at the Imperial Theater. But a good part of the credit should also go to stage manager Eileen Haggerty, a lifelong Flushing native, who has been directing the technical side of the musical since it opened last March.

The finger snap accents one of the hundreds of staging cues that Haggerty calls in the course of just one performance. Standing at a podium just off stage, in a space barely bigger than a phone booth, she communicates via a headset to experts working the lights, sound, props and other theater paraphernalia throughout the house.

Part artist, part techie, part mother hen, Haggerty does everything from making the pre-show announcement about turning off cell phones and beepers to cueing the conductor to start the music, or someone else to raise and lower the curtain.

At a recent performance on St. Patrick’s Day, she even brainstormed with Jackman about how to make the cocktails in the bar scenes appear green.

“A good stage management team can make the difference between a good show and a bad one,” she said. “The composer, the lyricist, the choreographer and the director, they put the show together. But once it’s running, it’s the stage management team that keeps it running smoothly, especially on a long run.”

Sitting in an empty theater an hour before a recent performance, Haggerty spoke about hers and her family’s longtime connection to the amateur theater, and why she decided to turn a family avocation into a career. She then invited the Times-Ledger backstage to stand shoulder to shoulder with her as she pulled the hi-tech strings to help create another evening’s magic.

“As a kid, we always knew that going to the theater was something special, a privilege, and we had to be on our best behavior,” she said.

That theater groups, no matter how rudimentary, consist of two kinds of artists — onstage and backstage — was a lesson Haggerty learned before her fifth birthday.

Her parents spent much of their free time volunteering for the theater group at St. Andrew Avellino parish on Northern Boulevard. Her mother Mary Ann helped sell tickets while her father Ed, a seventh-generation Flushing resident, fashioned props out of whatever loose odds and ends he could find around the house.

Young Eileen, meanwhile, showed an interest in working both as an actress and behind the scenes.

She alternated performing as a workhouse brat singing “Food, Glorious Food” in St. Andrew’s production of “Oliver” with helping paint stage sets on Saturdays.

When she could, she would pool her money with her brother Eddie so the two could get cheap seats to Broadway shows.

She performed in numerous other shows with her parish during her teen years, and with the Chapel Players while at St. John’s University, where she got a Bachelor’s degree in toxicology and chemistry.

It was during these years that she decided to meld her scientific mind with her love of theater and pursue a career backstage.

She landed a stage manager’s apprenticeship at Theater Virginia and eventually as a Paper Mill Playhouse in New Jersey, where she stayed for four years, gaining enough experience to move up to the big league, or in this case, the big top.

Haggerty got a job with Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey circus, first as assistant performance director and eventually production manager. If working with actors hadn’t yet driven home the importance of precise planning for a stage manager, working with lions and elephants sure did.

“I was on the floor during every show and if something went wrong, it was my job to fix it,” said Haggerty.

But there were also perks. She got to blow the whistle to start each performance of the circus for seven months and still keeps the whistle as a memento. It is also through her contacts with Ringling Bros. that she landed her big break on Broadway.

Backstage at “The Boy From Oz,” it is less than 30 minutes until curtain. Haggerty is already at her spot in the wings, checking the tiny monitors that sit atop her wooden podium. One monitor has an image facing the orchestra, allowing her to see the conductor’s movements, while a second monitor presents a wide shot of the stage “to make sure the light cues are landing appropriat­ely.” The other two monitors are attached to infrared cameras so that Haggerty can still see when the stage is dark during set transitions.

“The Boy From Oz” is a complex musical for a stage manager to shepherd. The story of composer and performer Peter Allen shifts in an instant from a saloon in Australia during Allen’s youth, to his apartment, to a performing stage.

It is Haggerty and the members of her production crew that have to make sure that “Judy Garland” is well lit when she serenades Jackman as Allen, that the audience can hear every affectation in “Liza Minnelli’s” voice and that everybody is on their toes when Jackman decides to do one of his inevitable adlibs.

She gives upwards of 500 cues during every performance, at least six times a week, and must remain as good-natured under fire and as she is exacting.

“Kiwis, Eileen, we could have used kiwis,” a shrugging Jackman said as he waited in the wings, having thought of the perfect prop for green cocktails. “Oh yeah,” responds Haggerty, sounding a bit disappointed she hadn’t come up with the idea.

Moments before she gives the cue to raise the curtain, she does a quick dance spin in front of her podium with Freddy Bockwoldt, a member of the prop crew, a nightly good luck ritual.

“Good evening, ladies and gentlemen,” she said over the microphone of her headset, greeting by name each of the crew members scattered throughout the theater. “See you on the other end. Have a good one.”

It’s startling how cramped, frenetic and noisy even the most well-organized backstage wings of a theater is during the performance of a major musical.

While Haggerty is calmly calling the show, there is a flurry of activity going on around her: huge light stanchions and cityscapes being hoisted up and down; platforms of set changes being rolled in and out.

And of course, actors, singers and dancers, changing costumes, warming up voices and limbs.

Haggerty, meanwhile, looks a lot like a conductor during the performance as she cracks her knuckles early in the first act. Standing in front of her podium, lit with two tiny book lights, her left hand turns pages in a large binder, which contain the show’s lyrics and music — and her penciled-in cues. Her right hand taps time with the music, occasionally reaching over to grab a half-filled water bottle.

Haggerty doesn’t like drawing attention to herself and is hard pressed when asked if she has ever felt giddy about having such a formidable job on Broadway.

She allows herself only one personal indulgence — the memory of opening night, when her parents and five siblings were in the audience.

Her brother Eddie, with whom she had seen so many plays as a child, came backstage to share in her big night.

“When I saw him standing outside the stage door, I was overwhelmed for a brief second,” she said. “Then my mind said ‘pay attention to what you are doing.’”

“The Boy From Oz” is at the Imperial Theater 249 W. 45th St. Schedule: Tue-Sat Eves. at 8pm; Wed & Sat Mat. at 2pm, Sun at 3pm.

Queens Behind the Scenes:

Other Queens residents working behind the scenes in “The Boy From Oz” are Tina Newhauser of Sunnyside, who is assistant stage manager; Janet Turner of Elmhurst and Eve Marrow of Astoria, in the wardrobe department; Artie Clark of Sunnyside, who works on the fly rail; and Carlos Martinez of Jackson Heights, who is head electrician.

Posted 7:03 pm, October 10, 2011
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