Over the past three decades, The Phantom of the Opera Arthur Masella has traveled the world bringing masquerades, candlelit boat rides, and chandelier crashes to international stages as an associate director of Phantom’s international productions. Even in an unprecedented era of darkened theatres and a pivot to digital stagings, he’s currently working on an overseas Phantom, though now from his own home in New York.
Masella’s been at the helm—via Zoom—of a new Japanese production of the Andrew Lloyd Webber blockbuster, which began performances October 24 in Tokyo.
When rehearsals started in September, he and New York-based music director Kristen Blodgette led sessions from 9 PM to 1 AM local NY time (10 AM to 2 PM Japan time), and U.K.-based associate choreographer Patricia Merrin would work 9 AM to noon her time (3 PM to 6 PM Japan time). As opening approached and technical rehearsals commenced, Masella snuck naps between the graveyard and early morning shifts.
“It’s the first time I’m jetlagged without even being on a plane,” he says.
Japan has been one of the few places around the globe to produce theatre on a large scale fairly consistently throughout the coronavirus pandemic, in part to its extensive test-and-trace practices from the onset. A Japanese production of another international hit, Mamma Mia!, opened in July, with socially distanced seating arrangements and other safety protocols in place. The ongoing world tour of Phantom, separate from this Japanese production, played Seoul, South Korea, in the spring (sans social distancing but with masks required).
A Japanese production Phantom has played engagements on-and-off since 1988, the most recent in 2018. For the original 1988 premiere, director Harold Prince and his original collaborators traveled to Japan to work with Shiki Theatre Company to mount the overseas production—a rarity for a Western creative team at the time. Shiki still produces the musical in the country for these extended engagements; local creatives and stage managers execute Prince’s vision. But for this new run, Shiki, producer Cameron Mackintosh, and Lloyd Webber’s Really Useful Group determined before the pandemic that Phantom’s traveling A-team would step in.
When he saw the Japanese production a few years ago, Masella noticed that while it was still recognizable as Phantom, it had strayed considerably from the original intention. “An awful lot of the emotion of the show seemed to have been stripped. It was colder,” he recalls. “Certain moments had been adjusted and were, therefore, not grabbing the audience the way they should.” The producers at Shiki agreed that the next remounting would benefit from the presence of those with close ties to the original production.
Given Japan’s proactive response to COVID-19, Masella, Blodgette, Merrin, associate lighting designer Mike Odam, and the rest of the Western team held out hope that they’d be able to travel to Japan. By late summer, it became evident that would not happen. Still, the show would go on, and Shiki devised a way to get the U.S. and U.K. folks into the rehearsal room, no flight required.
Aside from assigning shifts by timezone, equipment (the works: an oversized monitor, a ring light, speakers, an HD camera) arrived to everyone’s homes; they tried out Zoom sessions; they tested in-studio camera angles, lighting, and microphone placements. Meanwhile, the cast—many of whom have previously appeared in the musical in Japan—learned basic blocking, choreography, and music, establishing a blueprint before Masella’s face appeared on the large monitor in the rehearsal room.
“Mostly, the Zoom gods have looked down on us, and we’ve been OK,” Masella says. He estimates that the process has been 85 to 90 percent the same as it would be were he in Japan—a respectable outcome given the circumstances. That evasive 10 to 15 percent lies in his communication with the actors.
Sure, there’s the language barrier, but Masella has always used translators. What’s missing now, though, is a nuanced, first-hand sense of the “temperature” of the room: “It’s much more difficult to gauge how people are really taking what you’re saying and whether or not you’re going in the right direction with them. You can pick up a vibe in the room—whether it’s positive or negative—which you can’t quite feel now, even if they come right up to the camera and we have a virtual kind of face-to-face.”
And while the Phantom can throw his voice and traverse planes via mirrors, Masella’s confined to the screen and single speaker system. Deskbound. The limitations are new, but he recommends working within the new boundaries to sharpen other skills. What might normally be conveyed physically with demonstrated blocking, by gestures, through that “vibe,” now relies almost entirely on words. “You’re using your descriptive skills more, so I have those chops refined now,” he says. “I’ll bring more of that to in-person rehearsals.”
Prince, who Masella refers to as a personal hero, a mentor, a boss, and ultimately, a friend, watches over him—a portrait on that new desk. Prince died six months before the coronavirus pandemic brought Broadway and most theatres around the world to a standstill, but his work ethic permeates Masella’s many Zoom calls.
“No matter how huge the task, how strange or untenable the situation seemed, he was always the person who woke up the next day and said, ‘I have an idea, let’s try it,’” Masella says. “Or, ‘I know how we can make that better.’ Or, ‘I think I know how we can fix that.’” All of which became necessary mantras for the director to help raise the curtain from across the world.
“If you stick with it, you’ll figure out a way through it. We’re all really creative in this field, and we’ve already figured out creative ways to deal with this issue, and they will continue.”