First opening in 1988, Andrew Lloyd Webber’s The Phantom of the Opera remains the longest running musical on Broadway. Spawning countless productions around the world, it has been translated into numerous languages, and produced in over 35 countries.
While most productions have remained faithful to the original, in 2013 a North America tour got underway featuring a newly reinvented production from mega-musical producer Cameron Mackintosh. It is this version set to arrive in Vancouver next month.
“Before we talk about the differences, it’s good to acknowledge the consistency,” says associate director Seth Sklar-Heyn by phone from New York.
“The score has been maintained, the characters have been maintained, the story has been maintained. So, everything that you know, or have heard about, it’s all there.”
Audiences familiar with the show may also recognize the costumes.
“The iconic images that people have come to know of Christine Daaé in the white negligee being led into the Phantom’s lair, all of that is still present,” he continues.
Sklar-Heyn should know. He’s been working with The Phantom of the Opera for nearly 20 years.
“I started on the production in New York when I was 19 as a substitute stage manager, and I would come into the building on weekends, and school breaks, and over the summer, whenever they needed coverage,” he says. “It was one of the first jobs I had in the industry, and I was very lucky to sort of fall into it after knowing the right people at the right time.”
Making his way from substitute stage manager to associate director over the years, Sklar-Heyn is touring show director Laurence Connor’s right-hand, ensuring his vision is executed each night.
With so much carry-over from the original production, what’s new?
Much of the change comes in the design and direction for this new version.
“The physical space that we inhabit on stage, in terms of the theatrical environments of the Paris opera house, and all the nooks and crannies of it, that’s changed completely from what the original design was,” says Sklar-Heyn.
But while the design has changed, it also comes from its own place of history.
“The production was originally conceived by Maria Björnson and now the touring production has been designed by Paul Brown, a UK designer who worked with Maria earlier in his career,” explains Sklar-Heyn. “[Paul] had a connection to Maria, but had never worked on Phantom in any way, so he came in with fresh eyes and a new idea of how to go in and out of different spaces within the theater.”
Making conscious decisions to keep elements in a sort of theatrical shorthand, the final product was also carefully constructed to help bring audiences who have memories from past productions along.
“For people who have known the production for years and years, it was a great way to sort of bring them into it without too much thought,” says Sklar-Heyn. “They see the characters that they know, both in what they wear and what they’re saying, but it’s the world around them and the direction of the piece that is different.”
Those directorial changes include pacing, and in how the characters are portrayed.
“The perspective of the characters are more ‘real’ in terms of their performances, and not as stylized as the Victorian period melodrama that people have come to know of the piece,” says Sklar-Heyn.
Of course, tinkering with a show like Phantom comes with risk, but rather than shy away from the inevitable comparisons to the original, the challenge came in bringing those audiences along for this new ride.
“Often, I try to encourage, or I try to assure people that with the touring production we’re not just trying to meet their expectations, but surpass their memories,” says Sklar-Heyn.
Along with receiving positive responses from audiences familiar with the material, another big reward for Sklar-Heyn and his team comes in knowing those experiencing The Phantom of the Opera for the very first time will also be pleased.
“When someone new comes in and sees the production for the first time, they’re able to see that even though the material might be 30 years old, there’s a way to still present it in a really contemporary way that’s dynamic and exciting on the stage,” he says.
A big part of the audience enjoyment comes in the show’s production values, which mimic most of what audiences would experience on the Broadway stage.
And this touring show is massive, complete with 20 trucks used to move the production from city-to-city. Among their contents are over 1,200 costume pieces, 120 wigs, 200 speakers, and 85 moving lights. The main scenic design itself weighs over ten tons, and the two opera boxes used on stage take up space in their very own truck.
Then, of course, there is the iconic chandelier plunging to the stage floor each night. A new design from Howard Eaton, responsible for the Olympic rings for the London ceremonies in 2012, it contains over 6,000 beads and weighs one ton.
“Cameron [Mackintosh], as a producer, redefined the road in terms of how productions leave New York and go on the road,” says Sklar-Heyn. “We bring size, scale, and opulence. All of what you’ve come to expect from a Broadway production, we bring as much of that as possible when we’re touring.”
The Phantom of the Opera plays Vancouver’s Queen Elizabeth Theatre from July 12-23. Visit https://broadwayacrosscanada.ca for tickets and information.