The New Face of Phantom

PHANTOM_CHANDELIER_PROOF-1We’ve all experienced it in some way. Whether we’ve had the privilege of seeing it on Broadway, caught a touring production or heard the ubiquitous theme somewhere in passing, we have all run into Andrew Lloyd Webber’s “The Phantom of the Opera” in some way or another. The show tells the story of Christine Daaé, a young ingénue at Paris’ fictional Opéra Populaire in 1881 who becomes the obsession of The Phantom, a disfigured musical genius who lives in the catacombs of the opera house. “Phantom” premiered in London’s West End in 1986 before hitting Broadway in 1988, and in 2006, it surpassed “Cats” to become the longest running show in Broadway history, currently clocking at over 11,000 performances.

Beyond Broadway, there are currently nine productions of “Phantom” playing around the world everywhere from London (29 years and counting) and New York (28 years and counting) to Budapest, Hamburg, Prague, Moscow and beyond.

THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA 8 - Chris Mann and Katie Travis - photo Matthew Murphy_webWhile the Broadway production has grossed over $1 billion and played to over 17 million audience members, the show’s worldwide gross is in excess of $6 billion with over 65,000 performances having been seen by 140 million people in 35 countries and 160 cities in 15 languages.

U.S. tours past, which have included stops in Louisville, have grossed over $1.5 billion and played 216 engagements in 77 cities for an unprecedented total of 36 years and over 14,500 performances to 31 million people.

But that’s all in the past. Now, get ready to experience “Phantom” like you never have before. In 2013, famed producer Cameron Mackintosh launched the spectacular new production of the show, and from June 1 through the 12, this sumptuous spectacle will play The Kentucky Center for the Performing Arts’ Whitney Hall as part of Broadway Across America’s 2015/2016 season.

For those traditionalists already wary of the sound of a new “Phantom,” you have nothing to worry about, for many of the elements of the brilliant original production are still present in the show. Almost all of Maria Björnson’s original costume designs, for example, are preserved, so certain iconic visuals such as The Phantom’s cloak and Christine’s white dressing gown have remained intact. What this production essentially does is it brings “The Phantom of the Opera” into the 21st century. The re-design of the show, which spans all elements except for costumes, capitalizes on technological advancements to bring a raw, real and absolutely stunning new facade to a long beloved piece of musical theatre.

THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA 9 - Jacquelynne Fontaine as Carlotta - photo Matthew Murphy_webRecording artist and “The Voice” and “Glee” alum Chris Mann is currently playing the title role in “Phantom” and will be doing so through October of this year. “The show is almost 30 years old, and this is ‘Phantom’ for 2016,” he contends. “It’s a very electric, very explosive show, very dark and gritty, very cinematic. It’s a modern and facelifted version of a story we all know and love.”

Indeed, a good bit of that electricity and explosivity Mann mentions comes from the production’s awe-inspiring new chandelier, which hangs above the audience during the show. A character all of its own, the chandelier is, next to the mask, perhaps the most recognizable element of “Phantom,” and the set piece’s new incarnation is sure to astound fans new and old alike. A significant difference between it and its predecessor is how it falls in one of the musical’s most celebrated moments. When The Phantom brings down the chandelier at the end of act one in the original production, it slowly descends onto the stage. Now, it falls directly above the audience – and at an alarming speed. What’s more is cannons shoot scraps of paper into the audience giving the illusion of actual glass shattering.

“The new chandelier is awesome,” Mann affirms. “I think it’s so much scarier than the old one. It’s brand new and weighs an actual ton. It shakes from side to side, it explodes, it shoots glass, it falls very far right above the audience. As opposed to in the past where it crashes on the stage, this falls right into the audience. I think it’s a lot scarier and more realistic as to what really would’ve happened if The Phantom was actually bringing the chandelier down.” The chandelier indeed does weigh one ton and is composed of 6,000 beads. Howard Eaton, who designed the Olympic rings for the London ceremonies, designed the new chandelier, making it a spectacle to behold from afar and a detailed masterpiece up close.

THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA 3 - The Company performs Masquerade - photo by Alastair MuirBut the chandelier isn’t all that’s new. The set, which weighs 10 tons, is absolutely massive and integrated into the story like never before. Enormous two-and-a-half story structures fill the space and revolve, unfold and separate in an absolutely magnificent fashion. “The set is a character unto itself,” Mann emphasizes. “It’s an enormous structure and all Bluetooth-operated. It’s really impressive and allows our show to move seamlessly from scene to scene.”

Indeed, Bluetooth has actually played a critical role in the realization of this production as the set and the chandelier are controlled entirely by a bank of computers that remotely operate the production’s numerous moving parts. The technological side of the production also includes over 85 moving lights, four different haze and smoke effects and 200 speakers.

With this much involved in the production, “Phantom” travels like any major concert does. Its fleet is composed of 20 tractor trailers with 16 remaining onsite while four move ahead and prepare for the team to arrive in the next city. Loading in to each city takes two and a half to three days, and the crew hires roughly 75 local stagehands to help in the process. These same individuals usually come back at the end of the run to help in the 14-hour load out process. For the actual performances, about 60 people work backstage, 35 of whom are local stagehands.

THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA 12 - David Benoit and Edward Staudenmayer - photo Matthew MurphyMeanwhile, an unparalleled 1,200 costume pieces are used during the show, and every ballet girl goes through a new pair of ballet shoes every two to three weeks. Furthermore, over 120 wigs travel with the production with 50 being used in each show.

These facts and figures may all be entirely overwhelming, but at the heart of all the madness is the same story of true love that generations have come to adore. Mann insists that everyone’s favorite moments are of course still in the production; however, they are presented with more timeless splendor than ever before. “‘Music of the Night’ is the big moment for me as Phantom, and people are always expecting to hear that – it’s one of the most beautiful songs of the modern era of composition,” he describes. “Everyone can of course definitely look forward to ‘Masquerade’ at the top of act two and ‘All I Ask of You’ at the end of act one. These are songs that are just sort of ingrained in the thread of our culture.”

THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA 6 - Katie Travis and Chris Mann - photo Matthew MurphyIt’s true – “The Phantom of the Opera,” whether it’s the brilliant original production on Broadway or the spectacular new production that’s touring, is an international part of arts culture. I remember personally as a child my parents taking me to the show, buying the mask and waiting breathlessly for the chandelier to fall. This story engages everyone because at its very core is a tale so simple and accessible yet so finely nuanced with gorgeous music, complex characters and lush elements of design. And this new production does not change that magic but rather builds upon it. It’s the same “Phantom” I loved as an 8-year-old, but it has the fresh face of modern technology and design.

That really could be what’s most remarkable about this new production – it appeals to every age like never before. The story, the sound, the emotion of “Phantom” is sufficient for most; however, the technological advancements are enough to leave even the most skeptical of theater-goers speechless. But even if that’s what pulls you in at first – the modern marvels of this visually sensational show – it’s not all that keeps you. What holds you in this show, what has held everyone from me to my parents to my grandparents, is this masterpiece of theatre; the unequaled score, the moving story and the tremendous catharsis of “Phantom” is what makes this show truly spectacular. VT

“The Phantom of the Opera” runs June 1-12 in The Kentucky Center. Tickets and more information can be found at kentuckycenter.org or by calling 502.584.7777.