How Phantom of the Opera Still Runs Flawlessly After 29 Years

Special Features   How Phantom of the Opera Still Runs Flawlessly After 29 Years
 
Tony-winning director Harold Prince and the creative team share the secrets behind The Phantom of the Opera’s three-decade upkeep.
Cast
Cast Jeremy Daniel

“It’s still there, isn’t it?!” says Harold Prince by phone almost 29 years to the day that The Phantom of the Opera opened on Broadway under his direction January 26, 1988.

Seth Sklar-Heyn, who began his journey with the Opera stage managing at the Majestic at age 19, took the reins as production supervisor in 2012. He adds, “If it’s not broke, don’t fix it.”

That has been the case for the longest-running musical in Broadway history. The Phantom of the Opera has not ceased operations—save four performances over the course of three days in 2008 when it updated its sound system—over its 29-year run. The production has also not considered a major break in the performance schedule to update the inner workings of Phantom at the risk of interrupting its continuous long run. January 26, 2017, marks the show’s 12,066th and 12,067th performances on Broadway.

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Ali Ewoldt Matthew Murphy

How does Phantom look and feel as impressive and polished today as it did nearly three decades ago?

It all stems from Prince’s ongoing involvement with the production he first directed in 1986, when it began life at Her Majesty’s Theatre in London’s West End. Before he was a director, Prince produced and stage managed shows, including 1954’s The Pajama Game, directed by George Abbott, in which he learned that walking away from the show and occasionally giving a director’s note from the wings (as Abbott did) was not the same as viewing it from the audience’s perspective.

“I [see the show about] four times a year,” Prince explains. “Now, that doesn’t mean [while] living in New York I don’t visit the theatre more often. I do. But I do four real rehearsals, and whenever there is a replacement in the company, I [take a] pass on that, so we’ve kept the quality of the acting at a very high level.”

To this day, Prince notices when the most minute detail is out of line. “Every couple months, we sit and watch a matinee together or he’ll come in for an evening without me and stand on the side of the theatre and watch, and he’s very present,” says Sklar-Heyn. “His ideas for why things are the way they are, are very clear to him.” As Prince’s eyes and ears on the production, Sklar-Heyn sees the show once a week to assess and give notes.

Precision applies to the hands-on operation of the show in addition to the performances. In fact, when the production transferred from the West End to Broadway—going from a Victorian automation winch system to computerized deck automation for the candelabras’ rise from below the stage—Prince realized something was wrong. In London, humans cranked the candelabras upward, and they landed at slightly different levels and times. The computerized system made it too perfect. “So now [the] automation cues for things coming out of the floor [are] staggered,” Sklar-Heyn reveals. “It’s slight, but it’s just enough so that it doesn’t feel exact and crisp.

“I celebrate the fact that it’s hand-spun, if you will. I celebrate the fact that you look at our lighting instruments around here, [and] there are no computerized lights.”

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Lights, sets, and the backstage area have all remained the same, with minor necessary rehabilitations through the years. Ali Ewoldt, currently Christine Daaé, notes original cast member and Christine replacement Rebecca Luker’s name is etched into a drawer in her dressing room.

Even the original chandelier remains. “For all intents and purposes the chandelier you see there, right now, is the one that’s been here since the show was installed,” says Sklar-Heyn, “and on the back of it there’s a little plaque that says ‘Ruthie 2.’ Ruthie is the name of Ruth Mitchell, who was the associate director for Hal Prince for a number of productions, especially Phantom.”

As for Phantom’s Victorian-era costumes, new pieces are made as infrequently as possible, since each one is intricately detailed—making them labor-intensive and expensive. Costumes since opening night remain at an undisclosed location in midtown Manhattan, so they can be pulled for an actor who fits the measurements.

“The thing about Phantom [is] if you want the costumes to last a long time, you’ve got to use the right fabric,” explains Sam Fleming, the show’s associate costume designer. “We use really, really good wool and make them right the first time, and they’re all made to be altered because you don’t ever make a costume for only one human. It always ends up getting worn by ten humans. Part of what you want to try to do, though, is not alter costumes to death because if you keep using the costume over and over…it’ll die in two years. We have clothes in the show that are almost 20 years old.”

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James Barbour Matthew Murphy

Christines and Phantoms are most often given new pieces. Fleming always orders the Christine a new negligee, and the actor playing her requires a three-and-a-half hour fitting for her 14 looks. The Phantom wears out multiple pairs of pants throughout his run because of how active he is onstage, and since his suit is made of silk, a new one is made when a new Phantom signs on. Rodney Gordon molds the mask. “He comes in with a base mask that’s clear, puts it over the Phantom’s face, [and] traces over where it needs to work for that individual,” says Sklar-Heyn. “We’ll push in the forehead, we’ll adjust the cheek, we’ll do things to it in forming the plastic, and then a mask is born.”

In terms of actors who wear the Phantom’s mask, the production has celebrated diversity in recent years, seemingly the only noticeable difference at the Majestic, but a welcome one. Norm Lewis became the first African-American Phantom on Broadway, with Ewoldt currently the first Asian-American Christine and Jordan Donica (who recently departed for Hamilton) as the first African-American Raoul.

“We all have embraced the idea that we would love for the stories we tell onstage to reflect the diversity of the audience who come to see the show,” says casting director Tara Rubin. “In the case of these classic pieces, race [and] ethnicity don’t have a bearing on it. We can tell the story for everyone with everyone. And, also, for Hal Prince, it’s not a modern phenomenon. He cast [African-American actor] Robert Guillaume as the Phantom [in the Los Angeles production] 20 years ago.”

“It’s been a sublime pleasure from the get-go, and it wasn’t always easy. Andrew [Lloyd Webber] wrote it for his then-wife, Sarah Brightman, and Equity refused to let her come to the country, so Andrew said, ‘Then I’m not taking the show,’” Prince recalls. “We labored for, I bet, six months before we finally persuaded Equity to take Sarah Brightman. Whenever we have an anniversary—not the 29th, but the 30th next year—I’ll remind the audience how much employment this show has given to Actors’ Equity members, not to mention all the other union members, backstage and front of house. That one human being’s acceptance, and Andrew’s willingness to bring the show here, [has] provided enormous numbers of people steady employment, which makes me happy.”

Reflecting on nearly three decades with the show, Prince adds, “I tend to think it’s probably just as good now as it was on opening night, and, in some elements, even better because we learn what’s good and what’s right, and you water that part of the garden.”

Click here for more current production shots from The Phantom of the Opera.

Michael Gioia is the Features Manager at Playbill.com. Follow him on Twitter at @PlaybillMichael.

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