Tales from the ‘Phantom’ backstage
In his notes on “The Phantom of the Opera,” Andrew Lloyd Webber discusses in depth the history and astonishing aspects of the Paris Opera House where Gaston Leroux’s novel was set.
Webber ably describes the prime theater house; the legends that walked through its vestibule; and the opera house’s inner workings. In the process, he encapsulates what his musical holds for audiences in no more than three words: “Spectacle was all.”
Indeed, the show is spectacular on every level—so much so that the “Phantom” will be haunting the Cultural Center of the Philippines’ halls until the show’s must-close date, Oct. 14.
It’s the second time the show is going to be extended. Initially, the Manila tour was extended only until the end of September.
“The unbelievable acceptance of the Philippine audience of the show encouraged us to extend the season, adding 16 more shows,” said producer James Cundall, CEO of Lunchbox Theatrical Productions.
Quite implausible is the show itself, and the truth of not being able to put its long-running success down to one thing.
With a score brought to life by orchestral wonders, a number of whom are Filipino musicians handpicked by musical director Guy Simpson, the music of “The Phantom of the Opera” surely lingers in the mind.
The international cast’s portrayals of the characters are just as remarkable as the actors seem tailor-made for their respective roles, moving about the stage effortlessly and executing spellbinding vocals.
But without a doubt, one of the most arresting features of “Phantom” is its overall design, the trademark of production design titan, the late Maria Björnson.
“Occasionally in life a thought comes into one’s head as if by magic and the result is something quite extraordinary. That was how Maria came to design ‘Phantom,’” said Cameron Mackintosh, one of the original producers of the London production, in a message for the musical’s 25th year anniversary celebrated last year. “I felt like she was the only person who could bring this extravagantly theatrical story to life and make the audience believe in it.”
And so, Björnson did. The outcome was no less than the world of the Phantom—the Paris Opera House in all its glory, onstage. This is something that musical theater and audiences all over have never forgotten since the “Phantom’s” debut in 1986.
Björnson created the blueprints of the subterranean gondola the Phantom used to travel beneath the murky depths of the Opera House, the grand sweeping staircase used in the Masquerade scene, and the falling chandelier, a replica of the famous Paris Opera chandelier. She was also the genius behind all of the intricately designed costumes that have been paraded throughout the show’s run.
“There are a lot of secrets that we have to make the show spectacular,” said costumes head Eugene Titus.
“The Phantom of the Opera” is home to more than 230 impeccably designed articles of clothing, millinery and footwear, almost all of which are the original pieces designed by Björnson.
With every member of the cast fitted months before rehearsals and some characters having more than 10 individual changes per show, the costume and wig department may be one of the busiest teams on board from start to finish of a show. At the moment, the group is composed of 20 people in the wardrobe section and five wig attendants, with Titus as their chief.
“It’s important to make the people in the country feel how it is like and what it means to be part of the production,” Titus said, as he explained that most members of the crew here are Filipinos.
It turns out every time “The Phantom of the Opera” goes on tour, the production hires people from the host country as part of their immersion in the culture and in fulfillment of sharing the experience, skill and prestige being part of the show offers.
Although Titus observed that it took longer to train the people here compared to those he has worked with abroad, he said Filipinos are to be admired for their professional resilience, dedication, and superb endurance in work.
“Filipinos are, by far, hands down, the best people I’ve worked with. I’m not kidding,” Titus said.
He added that once Filipinos get the hang of what they’re supposed to do, there’s no stopping them in doing a great job. Titus also marveled at the humility of the Filipino staff. The South African national had such a pleasant time working with the people here that he laughingly mused, “I’m going to marry one.”
When asked how different CCP is from all the theaters he’s been in, Titus immediately points out the structure’s age. He found novelty in putting up the show at an old but nonetheless workable venue.
To make more room for the production team and to accommodate the laundry facilities and the repair station, CCP had tents installed just outside the backstage. Perhaps this is also part of the proverbial Filipino resilience.
Working with the heftiest costumes in theater both in weight and price, staff members who are part of the production willingly embrace the drudgery they undergo on a daily basis, all for the love of the longest-running Broadway show in history and the work of Björnson.
Some of the costumes even weigh up to 15 kg and are bravely worn by the cast members with the help of two to three assistants at a time.
One of these legendary pieces is Carlotta’s exquisite gray-silver dress. The costume is made of layers upon layers of lush cloth, delicate detail, and precise embellishments, all of which were done by hand, just like the other pieces embroidered with complex patterns and glass beads.
“It’s a monster of a show. There are a lot of details. You just marvel,” Titus said.
The concentration of detail and fine work also adds to the long to-do list of Titus, who oversees the daily repairs of show’s wardrobe collection. With so many things going on once the curtains open, no performance finishes without things coming undone.
As it has always been show after show, beads would fall off and hemlines would tear here and there, and it is Titus’ duty to see to it that these become invisible to the untrained eye.
“When there are no repairs, I shall finish a bottle of French wine. That day never comes,” Titus joked.
Even the wigs needed extra care here in the Philippines as most of them were made from human hair, making them react differently to the humidity here in the tropics. “The whole show is about backup, making sure that we have something to fall back on.”
Aside from the headgear and the clothing, the production also boasts of its custom-made shoe collection as there are no two characters that wear the same pair.
The same could be said for Titus, who owns an impressive footwear collection himself and was even given the moniker “Imelda” because of this.
The Design and Production major gushed about his encounter with Imelda Marcos (his inspiration for collecting shoes) during the opening night of “Phantom.”
As someone into fashion, he believes in art and its capacity to be translated by everyone and anyone, and considers observing this phenomenon happening all around the world one of his simple joys.
For Titus, meeting different people and living life in other countries are definitely among the irreplaceable experiences that being with this production has brought to him, but seeing how the audiences react to their work is priceless.
“I like how we take nearly a whole day to prepare and we see the audience’s reactions at the end of it. It gives me the biggest satisfaction,” Titus said.