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Taking a fresh look at 'The Phantom of the Opera'

The "Masquerade" scene from "The Phantom of the Opera" playing the Hippodrome Theatre Jan/Feb 2016.
The "Masquerade" scene from "The Phantom of the Opera" playing the Hippodrome Theatre Jan/Feb 2016. (Alastair Muir)

When "The Phantom of the Opera" last played the Hippodrome Theatre in 2010, audiences saw a much-traveled version that effectively re-created the original production of the enormously successful Andrew Lloyd Webber musical, complete with a famously crashing chandelier.

It looked more or less the same as the version that has been playing for 30 years in London, 28 in New York — Broadway's longest-running show.

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This week, the Hippodrome welcomes a different staging, expressly designed for the road.

Who would dare tamper with a production that has been seen by an estimated 140 million people around the world, has grossed $6 billion and has a base of fans who have memorized every inch of scenery, not just the songs?

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Only the original producer, the billionaire, knighted Cameron Mackintosh, who also put such mega-hits as "Cats," "Les Miserables" and "Miss Saigon" onstage.

"'Phantom,' obviously, was a phenomenal success, but I could see that at some point we would need a new production," Mackintosh, 69, says by phone from England. "The idea was brewing for over 15 years."

The project was derailed first when Maria Bjornson, designer of sets and costumes for the first "Phantom" production, died in 2002. Then when Webber decided to fashion a "Phantom" sequel, "Love Never Dies," which didn't live too long after its opening in 2010.

"It would have been confusing enough to have the original 'Phantom' and the sequel, let alone a new touring 'Phantom,'" Mackintosh says.

A few years later, the producer saw work by scenic designer Paul Brown, who has designed several plays in London's West End, as well as operas at major theaters around the world. The idea for a new "Phantom" production was back on track.

"I thought, 'Oh, my God, Paul could do a new version of "The Phantom" that could deliver all the things audiences expected' — I didn't want to cut down on the original — 'but, at the same time, be its own thing,'" Mackintosh says.

This second "Phantom" materialized on a tour in Britain and subsequently made its U.S. premiere in Providence, R.I., in 2013.

The production, which has traveled across the country since then, retains links to the past — Bjornson's costumes, for example — but offers Brown's fresh set design and new stage direction by Laurence Connor.

Overseeing the production is frequent Mackintosh collaborator Matthew Bourne, the celebrated choreographer.

"It's great to have the expertise of someone like Matthew, to have his eyes on such a great classic as 'Phantom,'" Mackintosh says. "And his protege [Scott Ambler] did the new choreography. It's lovely to work with people who can treat this as a brand new musical but give the same roller coaster as the original. It's what I've done with 'Miss Saigon,' which I will bring over to New York next year."

One goal of the new touring "Phantom" is to shed fresh light on this tale of the disfigured composer who haunts the Paris Opera House and becomes obsessed with Christine, a young singer, and frightfully jealous of her friend Raoul.

"What we wanted was something more dark and brooding," Mackintosh says. "We can show more of the backstage of a 19th-century opera house. You see the Phantom crawling and disappearing. And the journey to his lair is completely different. The production is more realistic. It's like an Advent calendar in 3-D. This is more visceral — that's the word. It has heightened the story in some ways."

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It's also more advanced in terms of stagecraft. While the Broadway and London productions look basically the same as they did years ago, the touring show takes full advantage of technological advances since the 1980s.

"We could never drop the chandelier as fast as we do now," Mackintosh says.

Seth Sklar-Heyn, associate director of the tour production and executive producer for Cameron Mackintosh Inc. in New York, practically grew up with the original "Phantom." He did a stint as stage manager for it at age 19.

"The nostalgia and history of that production are imprinted on me," says Sklar-Heyn, 34. "I have great fondness and admiration for it. But I found it gratifying that Cameron, of all people, would say, 'Let's do it in a new way, let's introduce "Phantom" to a new audience and take advantage of technology that was not even invented 30 years ago.' I get kicks out of both versions."

The new production involves tons of equipment — the stages at several theaters on the tour have had to be reinforced to handle it — "and takes an army to install," Sklar-Heyn says. But the show faces one hurdle the first tour didn't.

"The hardest challenge is audience expectations," Sklar-Heyn says. "We've maintained the scale and the opulence and added top-tier engineering, but we sometimes challenge what audiences have come to expect. The chandelier is still there, but functions in a different way. Other iconic moments are different."

One example is the "Masquerade" number at the start of Act 2, originally staged on a large staircase.

"We moved away from that to another space in the Paris Opera House, the hall of mirrors," Sklar-Heyn says. "Some people will say, 'It's not as spectacular.' But the storytelling is more organic and human in this production. That's the reason behind the change."

And the storytelling is one of the things that first drew Mackintosh to "Phantom."

"It's like 'Beauty and the Beast' and all those very mythic stories," the producer says. "We all, in our own way, have fancied or lusted after someone unattainable — well, maybe not all of us."

Mackintosh sees Webber's score as the crucial element in this adaptation of Gaston Leroux's novel.

"One thing Andrew brought that no one had done was to create a love triangle through the music," the producer says. "Raoul and Christine are ciphers in other versions. When Andrew and I started, we wanted to make this a Gothic romance, not 'Rocky Horror Picture Show.' A lot of people have adapted 'Phantom.' But only Andrew could write the definitive one. I can count on one hand the composers who literally have their own voice. He's one."

Mackintosh points to Lin-Manuel Miranda, creator of the current Broadway musical hit "Hamilton," as another.

"I was blown away the two times I've seen it," Mackintosh says. "It's the kind of show that comes around every two or three decades."

Mackintosh, who plans to bring "Hamilton" to London next year, has not always enjoyed box office hits or won over the press. Still, it's hard not to sense a Midas touch about him.

"I've had a lot more good reviews than bad," Mackintosh says, "but I never put on shows to get reviews. I do shows I am passionate about."

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