Broadway and off-Broadway shows are not on the best terms these days with cell phones.
Madonna was reportedly caught texting during an April 18 performance of “Hamilton.”
Tony winner Patti LuPone is said to have snatched the phone out of a texting audience member’s hands on July 8 during “Shows for Days” at Lincoln Center.
And then, there was the July 10 incident of a Long Island teen trying to charge his cell phone with an on-set outlet at a performance of the play “Hand to God.”
Discussing the already-infamous “Hand to God” attempted-charging occurrence, legendary magician Teller — now back on Broadway with longtime partner Penn Jillette — had some choice words. “How (expletive deleted) psychotic is that?” asked Teller, adding, “That’s perfectly astounding.”
The magical duo of Penn and Teller is marking its 40th anniversary in 2015 with a return to Broadway, cell phones and all. The show, “Penn and Teller on Broadway,” is playing through Aug. 16 at the Marquis Theatre on 46th Street between Broadway and 8th Avenue
The pair — Jillette is towering and loquacious, while the diminutive Teller remains silent on stage — opens the show with a piece alternately titled “Turn on Your Cell Phones” and/or “Cell Fish,” which finds Jillette instructing the audience to, appropriately enough, make sure their cell phones are turned on.
“That whole trick came from Penn saying to me, ‘You know, I’m so sick of those cell phone announcements at the beginning, which are so intrinsically insulting to the audience,’ ” Teller recalled. “I mean, I don’t really mind them because sometimes I forget and leave my cell phone on. But they’re so often done in such an arch way that they feel like here you are, in elementary school. And, Penn said, ‘I wish I could just walk out on stage and say, “OK, take out your cell phones and turn them on,” ’ and it was from that that the trick arose. We were looking to create a trick that would satisfy that promise.”
Classroom announcements are something Teller should know a thing or two about. Before joining forces with Jillette in 1975, the Philadelphia native spent six years teaching Latin at Lawrence High School in the Trenton suburb of Lawrence Township.
“I enjoyed it, it was a fine occupation,” Teller said of his teaching days in New Jersey. “It wasn’t my absolute dream, which what I’m doing now is, but it was nice.”
But Teller, 67, recalled that he did apply some of his own flourishes to Lawrence High School’s Latin curriculum in his time.
“The textbooks were terribly dry, they all taught people to read the kind of Latin that Julius Caesar wrote, which I find quite tedious,” he said. “I mean, Julius Caesar is an author you can read in translation and enjoy just fine, he’s not like Virgil or Catulus or any of the Latin writers who are so rich in their use of the peculiarities of Latin. So, I threw Julius Caesar out the window — which saved Brutus the trouble to stabbing him — and I wrote four levels of Latin readers that were all based toward teaching kids to read Virgil in the second year.”
Teller, who has been performing magic since he was 5, even applied some of his signature visceral showmanship to his teaching.
“My inclination towards performance informed my work in the classroom,” he said. “My Latin readers were pretty full of humor and violence because I like those things in the arts.”
A magical return
Penn and Teller made their off-Broadway debut in 1985 and had Broadway runs in 1987 and 1991. The duo debuted in Las Vegas in 1993 and has been at the Rio since 2001, making the magicians the longest-running headliners to play in the same Las Vegas hotel.
The latest Broadway show serves as a retrospective of sorts, drawing on every era of Penn and Teller’s career. There’s “East Indian Needle Mystery,” the first trick Jillette ever saw Teller do at an area theater in the mid-’70s, and “10-in-1,” a powerful dramatic monologue and fire-breathing routine by Jillette that closed the 1987 Broadway show. There are a number of tricks, like the opener and “Psychic Comedian,” that can be seen at the Rio, and even a few additions.
Among the new numbers is one that is, rather mistakenly, thought of as an old stand-by: pulling a rabbit out of a hat.
“No one has seen it,” Teller said of the iconic illusion.
Inspiration for the trick, Teller said, came backstage during Penn and Teller’s 2014 engagement at London’s Hammersmith Apollo. They were speaking with Paul Kieve, who designed the illusions for the musical adaptation of “Ghost,” when Kieve made a passing comment about pulling a rabbit out of a hat.
“And, I realized that I had never seen it, never in my life,” Teller said. “I’ve been doing magic now for 62 years, … and I’ve never seen that trick.
“ … And of course, you have to loan the top hat to the audience member in order to borrow it back — but I’ve never seen that pure, simple, clean image. And the reason is because it’s almost impossible.”
Ultimately, it took a reported six months of work by Teller, Jillette and fellow magicians to perfect the trick, one of the highlights of the show at the Marquis.
“We are not using any method that I know of anybody ever to have used because none of them are any good, they’re all too obvious,” Teller said. “So we developed, we invented the rabbit from the hat from scratch, in order to be able to do it there.
“One of the things I’ve noticed in people commenting on the show is they go, ‘Oh, and they’re doing the old rabbit from the hat trick.’ No, no we’re not. We read about the rabbit from the hat trick and then we invented it.”
It turns out that 40 years into their career, Jillette and Teller still have a few new tricks up their sleeves.
“It is the great part of the adventure, being in this occupation,” Teller said. “There are always discoveries to be made.”