THEATRE

The Phantom strikes

Andrew Lloyd Webber’s hit opens in Canada

PAMELA YOUNG October 2 1989
THEATRE

The Phantom strikes

Andrew Lloyd Webber’s hit opens in Canada

PAMELA YOUNG October 2 1989

The Phantom strikes

THEATRE

Andrew Lloyd Webber’s hit opens in Canada

The its origins biggest in stage a farfetched hit of the story 1980s told had in insipid prose. Gaston Leroux’s 1911 novel The Phantom of the Opera tells the tale of Christine Daaé, a chorus girl who becomes a celebrated diva under the tutelage of a hideously deformed, psychopathic genius living in the bowels of the Paris Opera House.

The thriller, set in the 1880s, was one of more than 60 potboilers penned by the Parisian Leroux. It sold poorly, but the story lived on in several film adaptations. Then, in the mid-1980s, British composer Andrew Lloyd Webber (Cats, Evita) adapted it into a hit stage musical.

Last week, the $8-million Canadian production of Phantom—the most expensive show ever mounted in this country—thundered into Toronto (page 64) on a crescendo of hype orchestrated by producer Garth Drabinsky, head of the Toronto-based Cineplex Odeon Corp.

The opening attracted a stellar crowd, including Britain’s Prince Edward, Ontario Premier David Peterson,

East German skater Katarina Witt and Lloyd Webber himself. And it took place in a sparkling setting, the 69year-old Pantages Theatre, which Cineplex and partners had restored—at a cost of $18 million—especially for the show. At the end of the 2 Vi-hour spectacle, as the capacity audience of 2,100 rose for a standing ovation, a smiling Drabinsky joined Lloyd Webber, director Harold Prince and the cast of 36 onstage. Drabinsky, who decided to stage his own Phan-

tom after he saw the London production in January, 1988, had reason to look jubilant.

At least partly because of a relentless advertising campaign, the Canadian production of the show had amassed nearly $24 million in advance sales, a record-breaking figure that exceeds the show’s 1988 Broadway advance by $3 million. The $75 top-price tickets are sold out until January, 1990, and only a few less-

expensive seats remain available before the end of the year. Declared Drabinsky: “What we have accomplished here is staggering.” Drabinsky, the president, chairman and CEO of Cineplex, who is struggling to retain his control of the corporation, says he is confident that the company will recover its investment in the show. He predicted that Cineplex, which

produced Phantom in conjunction with Toronto-based Tina Vanderheyden and The Really Useful Theatre Co. Canada, will also earn back the $30 million that it spent purchasing and renovating the Pantages in “a couple of years.” Drabinsky added that, after a Toronto run he expects to last at least three years—and perhaps as many as five—he intends to take the show to other Canadian cities. Additional reve-

nues have arisen from licensing deals with corporate sponsors, including American Express Canada Inc., Pepsi-Cola Canada Ltd. and Labatt Brewing Co., and with retailers, who appear to be doing very well. The five souvenir booths at the theatre are already taking in more than $10,000 a night for such items as $10 mugs adorned with the Phantom mask logo. And, in its 36 shops across the country, Roots Canada Ltd. is selling a line of items ranging from $5 key chains to $415 suede Phantom jackets.

The Phantom’s white mask, which he wears to hide his facial deformity, seems to be everywhere—staring out of bus-shelter posters in Toronto, materializing in advertisements on the screens of Cineplex Odeon movie theatres, and even emerging from the foam in a glass of beer in television commercials. Drabinsky will not say how much Cineplex has spent on marketing the show itself but he acknowledges

that the figure is “substantial.” The Canadian media have received a flood of news releases on every conceivable aspect of the show. One bulletin indicated that the chandelier that crashes to the stage at the end of the first act “has 32,000 individual beads, each threaded with four lines. There are three knots between each bead.” But promotion and merchandising alone do not account for the show’s popularity in defiance of mostly negative critical response. Phantom has run for three years in London and almost two years in New York City, and is also playing to full houses in Vienna, Los Angeles and Osaka, Japan. Wherever Phantom plays, the same ingredients win over audiences. Lloyd Webber’s London-based company, The Really Useful Group, and the show’s original British producer, Cameron Mackintosh, own the rights to the show and require that all productions of Phantom have essentially the same sets, costumes and elaborate, pyrotechnical stage effects.

Lloyd Webber says that he originally toyed with producing a breezy parody of The Phantom of the Opera in the vein of the cult movie The

Rocky Horror Picture Show. It was only after he read Leroux’s novel that he turned to something more substantial—and began considering writing a musical based on it himself. The composer told Maclean’s, “What kept coming through to me from the book was that Gaston Leroux had also tried to write a high romantic novel; it wasn’t just a gothic shock-horror.” He teamed up with Mackintosh and Prince to

develop that vision. Mackintosh had already produced such hits as Cats and Les Misérables, while Prince was one of Broadway’s blue-chip properties—his credits include Cabaret and Lloyd Webber’s Evita.

The first production of Phantom opened in London in 1986, starring Michael Crawford in the title role and Lloyd Webber’s wife, Sarah Brightman, as Christine. For that première, Prince worked closely with production design-

er Maria Björnson to develop the look of the show. Prince says that, although the stage is often relatively bare, the overall effect that they strived for is one of richness.

“Even though there is no incense or perfume on stage, you can practically smell both,” the director said.

There is also a heady sense of barely repressed sexuality emanating from the Victorian settings and the age-old story of Beauty and the Beast. Said Prince: “It’s erotic as hell.”

Toronto’s Pantages has provided a suitably opulent setting for the heightened romance of the show. Restoring the 1920 vaudeville theatre on downtown Yonge Street to its former glory was a major challenge—the building had been transformed into six small movie theatres in 1972, and much of its original omamentation was destroyed, When Cineplex completed its acquisition of the building in

1988, it set about refurbish-

1988,

ing it quickly—in only 10 months. New construction enlarged the stage and the wings and added extra dressing rooms, accommodating 70 performers. Jean-François Furieri, head of Iconoplast Designs Inc., the firm that did the plastering, estimates that the building would have taken three years to restore if work had proceeded at a normal pace. Said Furieri: “I didn’t have a day off for seven months.” But the breakneck pace does not appear to have compromised the project. Murals, delicate plaster

mouldings and surfaces paint-

ed to look like marble come together in a charming celebration of ornament.

Restoration of the theatre was in its early stages when Phantom’s producers chose the cast last winter. According to Prince, there was no shortage of talent—despite the fact that musicals on the scale of Phantom are a relatively new phenomenon in Canada. So far, only Cats, which opened in Toronto in 1985 and toured the country two years later, and Les Misérables, which opened last March and is still running in

Toronto’s Royal Alexandra Theatre, come close. Said Prince: “There were more actors here to choose from than in any other country—certainly more than there were in London or New York. They have had the training but they don’t have the work.”

In the end, Prince chose an entirely Canadabased cast, except for the three leads. Irishman Colm Wilkinson plays the Phantom, Torontoborn Rebecca Caine, who lives in London, plays

Christine, and New York’s Byron Nease portrays Raoul, the handsome young nobleman who loves her. Wilkinson had been Lloyd Webber’s first choice to play the Phantom. He had portrayed the character in an early workshop production at the composer’s estate in Sydmonton, England, near London. But Wilkinson was sidetracked by Les Misérables-, he created the lead role of Jean Valjean in the original London production of the show when it opened in 1985. Wilkinson said in an interview before

Phantom opened that he was

happy to finally be playing the role that he helped to develop. “It has great melodies for singers to sing,” he added. “It is very evocative and emotional.”

The 33 supporting players in Phantom’s cast were selected from more than 1,500 performers who auditioned in several casting calls across the country last spring. Donna Rubin of Montreal, a former member of the National Ballet of Canada, plays the role of Meg Giry, an operahouse dancer. The final callback for Phantom, she said,

reminded her of the Broadway musical A Chorus Line. “They called me back onto the stage by myself, and there were all these people out there—I didn’t know who anybody was,” she said. Moments later, Prince told her that the part of Meg was hers. “I don’t know what I did, but everybody cracked up,” said Rubin, 26. “I was just so hyper.”

The elation of being selected was soon supplanted by gruelling rehearsals. The dancers

and singers agree that rigorous classical training is needed to perform the roles. Said Caroline Schiller of Montreal, a member of the chorus and an understudy for the role of Christine: “About 90 per cent of us are opera singers. It’s not easy musical theatre; Oklahoma this is not.” But the show also demands skills not usually required in opera. Soprano Lyse Guérin, a native of Alma, Que., plays Cariotta Giudicelli, a tempestuous diva. “It is very difficult,” she said, “because I run, I dance, I wave my arms around and I am singing all the time. It takes a lot of getting used to and it is exhausting.”

For the man who plays the Phantom himself, singing and acting is only part of the hard work. Wilkinson says that it takes two hours for him and an assistant to put on his makeup. They start with a latex skullcap that is sealed with medical adhesive. Then, they glue chunks of latex onto his head and face, followed by false lips and a false nose. Said Wilkinson: “The face is actually quite hideous by the time you’re finished.” After the performance, it takes 45 minutes to remove the makeup. It is all part of creating what director Prince, in a succinct explanation of Phantom’s phenomenal appeal, calls “a very complex, simple show.”

PAMELA YOUNG