You won't find its picture in the playbill but it's no less a star of the show. The chandelier that crashes onto the stage in the first act of The Phantom of the Opera has delighted -- and frightened -- audiences for nearly 20 years. So when the producers of the giant production set to open next Wednesday at the National Theater held a press conference earlier this week, it's no surprise they decided to let the one-tonne lamp take center stage.
"It's definitely a highlight of the show," said Richard Martin, the technical director for the production. "Phantom has been running a long time and everyone knows the chandelier is going to come crashing down, but it'll still make some people scream."
Dozens of reporters craned their necks to the catwalk and the cue was given. The giant fixture comes unhinged over the audiences' heads and they breathe a collective gasp punctuated by the sound of banging brass and tinkling glass as the chandelier makes its abrupt entrance downstage center.
"I didn't know it hung over our heads," one reporter said.
The chandelier is one of the ways that Phantom continues to captivate audiences and made the musical Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber's most successful. An estimated 80 million people have bought tickets to listen to The Music of the Night for a total of over US$3 billion in box office receipts. Its original recording is the biggest-selling cast album in history. And though it opened in London 20 years ago this coming September and will mark its 18th Broadway anniversary at the end of this month, it shows no sign of giving up the ghost.
For many the thrill of Phantom is its songs and story, for others it's the spectacle, of which the crashing chandelier is only one part. While much of the action takes place in the Paris Opera, audiences are also taken to its roof and to the labyrinth of tunnels beneath it. It all happens in 22 scene changes, 230 costumes put on and taken off, 281 candles burned and 250kg of dry ice spewed through 10 smoke machines.
It's a Herculean effort that puts 60 crew members to work each performance. No less than 14 of whom help the dozens of cast members change costumes. An additional 20 people joined the crew in the first week to help load the set into the theater. It came from the airport to the CKS Memorial Hall in 22 trucks after arriving at the airport in two Boeing 747 cargo jets.
And is it, as many have wondered, the same show that audiences elsewhere have seen?
"It's the same show that you'll see anywhere in the world," Martin said of the technical aspects he oversees. "For me the joy of bringing this to a place like Taipei is that it's not compromised in any way, shape or form. There's no compromising here." You might expect Martin's own fascination with the show to be getting the contents of those two jets from one country to another and from theater to theater. Instead, he says it's in what went into filling the jets in the first place.
"The thing that makes Phantom magical is the package," he said. "By that I mean Andrew Lloyd Webber's music, Gaston Leroux's story, Maria Bjornson's set design, Hal Prince's direction, Andrew Bruce's sound design, Andrew Bridge's lighting. The original creative team spent many years refining this before it got to the stage ... The complete package they put together is what creates the magic for Phantom." Asked how many performances of Phantom he's overseen, Martin instead counts the years.