A darker, grittier ‘Phantom of the Opera’ haunting Pantages
Gone is Maria Bjornson’s lush set design that featured a massive staircase and a candelabra-filled lair, as well as director Hal Prince’s romantic interpretation of the story of a beautiful soprano named Christine who is the object of the unrequited affections of a mysterious, deformed genius who lives beneath a Paris opera house.
The “Phantom of the Opera” now playing at the Pantages Theatre in Hollywood, isn’t the one so many millions have seen in its 29-year history. This one is darker and grittier -- “more a musical play--a gothic musical play,” said producer Cameron Mackintosh.
Whereas the Phantom is a romantic figure in the Hal Prince version -- original Phantom Michael Crawford became a bonafide sex symbol -- he is much more dangerous, even deadly, in this new interpretation.
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“I wanted people to realize that he is complicated and extremely dangerous,” said director Laurence Connor, who was an associate director on the original Phantom in London for several years, directed Mackintosh’s “Les Miserables” and “Miss Saigon.” “Even though his heart is pure for Christine and he has such love for her...he is too dangerous to be with her.”
The musical, which opened in London in 1986 and New York in 1988 and is still running in its original form in London and on Broadway, might not seem in need of reinvention. There are both creative and practical reasons for this revamp.
“Because I have known the show for so long, I was slightly intrigued by the characters as people, as opposed to sort of the magical kind of elements of it,” said Connor. “I was always intrigued about why it is that the Phantom obtained these incredible skills ... I wanted to understand it better and the audience understand the man in a complicated way.”
And he’s omnipresent in the piece, even getting into a bit of fisticuffs with Raoul, who also loves Christine.
“I wanted Raoul to show her he was real,” said Connor. “He wasn’t a ghost or an apparition, but a real human being.”
The Phantom, noted Mackintosh, “wasn’t interactive with the actors [in the original].” He was sort of like a puppet master. I think the more realistic approach has stepped up the power of Andrew’s marvelous music. “
Though “Phantom” usually casts an older actor in the lead -- Crawford was in his 40s -- the L.A. production stars 33-year-old Chris Mann, a one-time contestant on “The Voice. “
“There something about the youth of him and the energy of the younger Phantom that makes the whole thing slightly wilder,” Connor said.
Mackintosh said he has been re-imagining several of his hugely successful shows, including “Les Miserables,” which opened – again -- last year on Broadway, as well as “Miss Saigon,” which is currently enjoying success in the West End.
“Most normal shows get reinvented between 10 and 20 years since they were first done,” said Mackintosh.
“When you see a new version,” said Connor. “You see a new interpretation of it and you kind of realize that theater style and audiences’ expectations have changed. How directors tell stories is different and special effects and certain set designs have come a long way.”
Even before “Phantom” turned 25, Mackintosh had been thinking about restaging the show for touring and had approached Bjornson, who died in 2002, about a new version.
“I had an idea how to do it,” he said. “We wanted to get into the grit of the opera house and the lair and make it far more atmospheric, in a stylized realistic way. The original was a gorgeous show, but you move things in and out in a black box. We went for something which was much more gritty. It’s a much more visceral show. Neither production is better than the other.”
The infamous chandelier got a redesign as did the lavish “Masquerade” number that opens the second act. The dramatic sweeping staircase is replaced by a set featuring mirrors and mazes. The stage is dominated by a massive revolving wall complete with magical stairs that allow the Phantom and Christine to descend to his gondola.
Mackintosh said he and set designer Paul Brown went back to the original novel for ideas on the design.
“In the novel, the Phantom who was also known as Erik was a great inventor,” said the producer. “He famously did a hall of mirrors in the novel and in the Palais Garnier Opera House has a famous hall of mirror on the first floor. I said let’s go there and have trick mirrors and mazes which is all in the novel.”
Brown said he tried to bring different layers to the world of the opera house.. “You have the back stage that is gritty-it is the sweat and smell of the real theater,” said Brown. “But on top of that layer is a world of escapism in terms of theatrical escapism. You have painted scenery and painted illustrations. Then you have the lair, which is another layer of fantasy and illusion--that sort of magpie world of a man who has collected these various theatrical props and set them up in his nest.”
And there are more prosaic reasons behind the new production.
“These big shows have been extraordinary successful, but there comes a point where huge productions like this cost so much to move and get into the theaters that you have to run 10 or 12 weeks because you are going to spend half the time just paying for transfer costs,” says Makintosh.
“The idea that this piece of theater can move in and out much quicker means that more people get to see it,” said Brown.
This tour, noted Mackintosh, opened in late 2013 and is booked for the next four years. It’s proving to be a success in L.A. The week ending June 21 was the highest grossing week ever for “Phantom of the Opera” in Los Angeles – not allowing for inflation -- earning $1.6 million over nine performances.
This “Phantom” is still a huge production. “If anything there is more scenery in the new version,” said Mackintosh.
The cylindrical wall weighs 10 tons and rotates around the stage on a track. “Phantom” will not load into a theater until the production receives written certification from a structural engineer the stage is strong enough. if It isn’t, arrangements are made to give the stage added support.
“I remember when Andrew came to see sort of a preview [of this production], he went ‘Cameron, this is huge,’” said Mackintosh. “ ‘I thought you were doing a touring show.’ I said I am doing a touring show. It’s a first-class touring show. Would you expect me to do anything else?”
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