Forget the falling chandelier of “Phantom” or the 20-foot-tall ape puppet of “King Kong.” The single greatest special effect on Broadway these days is the real live baby in “The Ferryman.”
Actually, four infants take turns as Bobby, the youngest of the Carney clan in Jez Butterworth’s drama, directed by Sam Mendes. It’s seemingly impossible to find documentation of any other time an infant has played Broadway. Given the logistics, most playwrights opt for a doll.
But Butterworth — whose play “The River” had Hugh Jackman filleting an actual fish — would have it no other way. The award-winning playwright told The Post he needed a live baby “for the same reason Siegfried and Roy chose to use real tigers . . . Putting something true on stage engages [the audience]to switch gears into a new reality where the stakes are raised.”
The stakes were certainly raised for the show’s casting directors. “Legally, under New York state labor laws, the babies have to be 6 months old to get into the theater,” said Jillian Cimini, who, with Andrew Femenella, found “The Ferryman” its Bobbys. They reached out to day-care centers, yoga studios and play groups. As they soon discovered, 6 months is also the age when babies start becoming mobile.
Their challenge? Finding a baby who’s just old enough but not yet ready to roll or crawl off the stage.
“There’s no actual science to it, because every baby’s different,” Cimini said. Two days before the show’s first preview, its general manager called her in distress: “Meadow learned how to roll!” Another baby took Meadow’s place.
Since there’s no way of knowing how an infant might feel at any given moment, there are always two backstage for each show. No baby is allowed to play more than four shows a week, and each makes slightly more than $1,000 a week: Not bad for being carried up and down some stairs and, ever so briefly, lying alone on the stage at the start of Act II.
Playing the oldest Carney daughter, Irish actress Carla Langley, 28, carries that baby up and down those stairs, and dresses and sings to little Bobby.
‘Someone came over and said, ‘Is this the baby in the show? Can I get an autograph?’
She also oversees the babies’ auditions. “I have a lovely little cuddle with them and then we walk along the stage,” she said. “There’s some scary violin music at the top of Act II and some of the babies aren’t pleased with it at all.” In which case, on to the next candidate.
During the show, Langley has a secret code: Should she sense an imminent meltdown during the show, she’ll say, in character, “Now now, there there.” That’s the cue for another actor to enter while she and the baby leave the stage.