Phantom at 25: Director Harold Prince Reflects on Creating the World of 'The Music of the Night'

Special Features   Phantom at 25: Director Harold Prince Reflects on Creating the World of 'The Music of the Night'
The multiple Tony Award-winning director of The Phantom of the Opera, reflects on the mega-hit as it celebrates its 25th anniversary in London.
Harold Prince Joseph Marzullo/WENN

The 25th anniversary of the first performance of composer Andrew Lloyd Webber's musical The Phantom of the Opera quietly came and went Sept. 27 at Her Majesty's Theatre in London. Since its unmasking in London in 1986, the romantic Victorian-set show about a deformed musical genius and his soprano obsession has been seen across the globe and will, in January 2012, enjoy its 24th anniversary at Broadway's Majestic Theatre.

But before then, the producer Cameron Mackintosh is celebrating the 25th anniversary of the show's premiere with a London concert at Royal Albert Hall Oct. 1-2; it will be simulcast worldwide. Although acclaimed Tony Award-laden director Harold Prince is not the director of the starry concert, staff writer Adam Hetrick checked in with him on the occasion of his production's milestone. Prince found time to squeeze in an interview while planning his latest show, Prince of Broadway, a retrospective of his decades-long career on Broadway as a director and producer.

The man who has been giving his Phantom companies "notes of the most amiable nature" for over two decades is renowned for his 21 Tony Awards (including one for direction of The Phantom of the Opera) — and a list of collaborators that includes Stephen Sondheim, Jerome Robbins and George Abbott. After all of this, the 83-year-old Prince is still humble when speaking of Phantom's extraordinary success.

Phantom is in pristine shape almost  25 years later.
Harold Prince: Thank you. It's swell. Who would dream? Do you know it's going to run 25 years? Who the hell knows that? My wife is fond of saying, and she's correct, Phantom, as in any other show I've done, and I've done a lot of them, "One day he went to work with a lot of talented people." And that's precisely what it was, a day like any other day when you get up and go to work.

The Majestic on Broadway must be a special place for you. You also staged Stephen Sondheim's A Little Night Music there.
I went to the Majestic on opening night of South Pacific, and it's there that I met Steve Sondheim, so the idea of being in the Majestic all these many occasions is terrific, and that particular night changed my life.

When you first encountered Phantom, how much of the script and score were you presented with? Were there gut reactions or early inspirations that you still recall?
I was [involved] pretty early in... There was some work being done by [co-lyricist/librettist] Stilgoe, and Andrew had a few songs. I worked very closely with [scenic and costume designer Maria] Bjornson. I think I made, who knows, maybe almost a dozen trips to Europe, and she came to New York maybe once or twice, just working on the scenery and the way it would look. The costumes came very quickly to her, but [for] the scenery we had a lot of conferences and a lot of little models, the half-inch model and stuff. That was very exciting. It was an exciting show to do. It sort of spun out nicely. The pre-production time was the most time consuming. Then, once we were cast and in a rehearsal room, it went very smoothly.

Can you speak about casting Phantom? Fans are very attached to the two original stars, who really created a blueprint for the roles of the Phantom and Christine, which was written for Sarah Brightman.
Andrew called me and said, "I think I know who should play the Phantom," and he said, "Michael Crawford." I said, "What? He's great, but I don't know." He said, "What you don't know" — and I didn't know — "is that he was a boy soprano and he has a great singing voice." So, I flew over there right away and we met in Andrew's office and he sang very little for us, he didn't need to, he was terrific, and that was the end of that. That was perfect.

Something I'm particularly fond of is the look of Phantom. It's been described as a spectacle, but really, it's this beautiful black jewel box and much of the scenery is suggestive. It's not super literal.
That's it! It's the way I like theatre to be. I always liked the visuals to be choice and at the same time minimalist. And, I love black boxes. After all, that's what theatre is, it's an empty space, and it's both limited and unlimited because the space is the space, but what you can do with people's imaginations is really endless. Look at Cabaret, how much that was a black box and we just took the audience to another world. Well, I think we do that with Phantom, and it's selective. You know, when they get around to doing a movie, it's all very real, and I think an audience really participates more in a legit theatre than in a film house because in a film house you just sit back and they've done it all. In a theatre, you sit there and it's minimalist and you [as an audience member] supply wallpaper and additional furniture. For example, in the manager's office, there's no door. There's a hole in the enamel back wall and people come through it, and most people supply a door and supply, as I say, additional furniture. It makes the audience more collaborative.

Revisiting the production this summer I was reminded of the sense of menace that permeates the show, and in many ways, the entire theatre.
From the first day of rehearsal, that was the first thing I addressed with the whole company. We were in a rehearsal hall in Lambeth, across the Thames, and I said, "This whole play is designed to keep the audience always, always on the alert, and you must contribute to that." There is not a single scene in the show that does not have a surprise in it. It was designed that way, in terms of the book and the score, and if you look carefully at it, there's always a surprise in each scene. Sometimes it's fire that you don't know is going to be there, sometimes it's a voice, sometimes it's a piano playing by itself, but there's always something, and sometimes it's a piece of scenery almost falling on a diva. It's always there, and it's very important. I thought we must not have a single scene that doesn't have that.

You've staged this around the world and revisited Phantom in a 90-minute Las Vegas production. Were you still making discoveries after the first London and New York productions?
Not anymore. I just respect it and I see it all the time. I rehearse it in New York about four times a year. In London, I see it usually beginning of the summer and end of the summer, and I rehearse them and give notes then. 

Audiences truly take ownership of this show. On paper, a story about a murderous masked man who seduces a young soprano might not sound like a universal romantic hit. Did you think it would be a challenge when you first began work on it?
No, I didn't think it was a challenge. When Andrew first mentioned it, I saw immediately that he wanted to do a Victorian romantic musical, and I immediately wanted to do it. No question. The mask itself, as you know, goes vertically and cuts his face in half because that was a thought I had and we followed through with it. The mask that you see in the ads would render [it] almost impossible for the actor to express himself except with his eyes and I thought, "No. We really should have a mask for half of his face, always, to be expressive." That's why it is a half-mask.

I understand you're at work here in New York, so you won't be able to attend the Royal Albert Hall concerts of Phantom, which will take inspiration from your original staging. Do you know what audiences can expect?
I'm told that it's as best [a tribute to the original] as you can [have]... [There will be] projections [and] some bow to the proscenium. That was very key to me, and Maria, that the proscenium be erotic and very energetic. So they are going to make some portion of that proscenium. But, obviously when you are in a concert hall, you can't do what you do on the stage, but they will do all the material. Obviously, in some instances, there will be more people, more singers, more dancers, but they will be doing essentially what we did.

Besides the accomplishment of a 25-year London run, and a record-holding place as the longest-running musical in both the West End and on Broadway, Phantom has been a gift to the theatre community as much as it has to fans. It's employed a lot of theatre folks.
Yeah, I'm very excited. When we hit our 20th anniversary [on Broadway], the only thing I said to the audience was that we had given employment to over 6,000 people, not just actors, obviously… front of house, stagehands and so on, but we had, and that's just in America. There was some dispute early on with [Actors'] Equity about bringing Sarah Brightman over, but basically I testified and said, "Andrew's right. He wrote the show for Sarah, why wouldn't she be able to play in it?" And, there was a long time when we didn't know if the show was going to come [to Broadway] or not because Andrew said, "I'm not going to do it without her" because he had written it for her. So, what I was pointing out 20 years later was, that's employment for 6,000-plus people who would have not been employed. Now it's more, of course. We are going to be 24 [years running] in New York in January.

Looking toward what's next: Prince of Broadway. I understand you and your team are busy at work, which is why you'll miss out on the Phantom festivities in London this weekend.
You know, yes. The fact is, I'm working on Prince of Broadway and Susan [Stroman] has been away for a short vacation. So, she's coming back and I'm not going to be available [for London]. We're working quickly because we want to get a [list] of the numbers we want to do and the sequences we want to do, and then we're casting on paper, but we want to fully cast, so time is of the essence. 

Will Prince of Broadway represent musicals that you have directed or will there be highlights from things that you've produced?
From 1954-1963 I had a whole career as a producer, so there will be numbers from the shows I've produced and numbers from the shows I've directed.

Since Phantom is showing no signs of stopping, it's likely then that we'll see it on two Broadway stages in the near future with Prince of Broadway?
Well, I hope so. I should think so! Yeah, well an excerpt, of course. I think there's something like 32 musicals I've done on Broadway, some I have not done on Broadway or have not come to Broadway, but I think 32 have, and we've picked from those.

Is there ongoing work on your musical Paradise Found, which played London in 2010?
Oh, yes. I want to do Paradise Found. The London thing was really a lovely kind of mistake we made. It was too small a venue. It was not remotely what I envisioned, but the offer was out, and I thought the authors wanted to do it, and I thought, "Sure, why not?" But, it's just wishful thinking that you can do something that big and lavish in such a small setting. Maybe later, when [a show is] a revival. which is what they always do, they revive my things teeny-tiny, and that's fine, but that's not my vision. I think I'll do it right after Prince of Broadway.

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