There's no musical juggernaut like The Phantom of the Opera: The touring version of Andrew Lloyd Webber's great show has been on the road for 17 years. Its upcoming month-long stand at Durham Performing Arts Center represents the fulfillment of one of the facility's objectives, and DPAC officials are betting that they'll be able to fill seats for the 32 performances that begin on Thanksgiving Day.
Although the show doesn't open for another week, the huge work of loading it in began this morning. The famous decorative elements of The Phantom of the Opera—the chandelier, the underground tunnels and everything else—will fit easily onto DPAC's massive stage and will no doubt thrill audiences. But behind the opulence is a lot of grunt work that goes into laying the foundation for the complex, notoriously mobile set.
This morning at DPAC, the load-in began—a full week before the show's opening (it's still running in Tempe, Ariz., with the actors using a second set). There are about 75 people working under the direction of David Hansen, advance stage manager.
When we enter the facility, we are greeted—awed, even—by the proscenium arch that jutted at a forward angle toward the audience seats. The structure is decorated with friezes depicting Pan-like creatures bearing maidens who are, in turn, surrounded by angels aloft. These figures successfully evoke the Neo-Baroque style of the Opera Garnier setting of Gaston Leroux's 1911 novel. We watch as the workers expertly assemble this grand bit of scenic fakery with the aid of hydraulic lift.
Behind the proscenium lay a tangle of lights, cables and black-painted metallic structural supports. During performances, a stagehand will sit atop this structure to man the lights.
We then see the famous chandelier looming menacingly in a corner. It weighs nearly 1,000 lbs. and incorporates 35,000 crystal beads. For all its delicate gold filigree work, Hansen concedes, the chandelier doesn't look that great up close—perhaps the result of crashing to the floor nearly 7,000 times. By opening night, 141 candles will have been built into the floor, and there will be footlights designed to resemble gaslights of the period.
The cast won't have to worry about dancing on an unfamiliar stage at DPAC. "The dancers have the same surface in every city to dance on," Hansen said. Indeed, the DPAC stage is covered with stacks of floor panels labeled "Phantom III Advance," with the direction "upstage" marked on the side. We watch as eight to 10 stagehands maneuver each panel, weighing between 80 and 120 lbs., by using a pulley system suspended on a chain hung from the ceiling. Another stagehand wields a T-shaped instrument to push two panels together. Other hands help by pushing their sneaker-clad feet against one panel. Hansen tells us a track is built into the panels to ensure quick fastening and subsequent removal.
Hansen says that it took the show's designers eight months to prepare such an elaborate, yet portable set. Preproduction costs ran close to $11 million (in 1992 dollars), with $3 million of it devoted to costumes.
The tour travels with 20 48-foot trailers, and nine were unloaded this week. Since the production sends out trucks to the next tour stop while the present one is running, the total number of trucks used is around 30.
Hansen said the advance time is necessary for troubleshooting any problems that may arise. Here in Durham, he'll check dressing rooms and sinks to ensure that they are in compliance with expectations, do paperwork and establish telephone contact with the venue in Ft. Lauderdale, the next stop on the tour.
The Phantom of the Opera will end its Durham run on a Sunday and open in Fort Lauderdale the following Wednesday. By then, Hansen and company will go to work all over again, laying the groundwork for the Phantom's next stop, Orlando.
This story was originally posted on Artery, our arts blog.