Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Giving Up The Ghost

The recession is starting to take a heavy toll on arts organizations in California.  So far, Opera Pacific has announced plans to shut down operations. General Director David Gockley has confirmed that the San Francisco Opera will postpone its revival of Benjamin Britten's Peter GrimesThe Orchestras of Pasadena have let supporters know that the company's future is in jeopardy.  Earlier this week, a failed co-production of Walt Disney's Tarzan with Atlanta's Theater of the Stars and Dallas Summer Musicals led to the untimely demise of the American Musical Theatre of San Jose

And yet, with arts administrators from Sacramento to San Diego shitting their pants, who should show up in San Francisco again, flush with holiday ticket sales?  On Halloween, the San Francisco Symphony held a special screening of the 1925 silent film version of Phantom of the Opera with live musical accompaniment by Dennis James on the Symphony's 9,000-pipe Ruffati (the largest concert hall organ in North America). 

Lon Chaney in the silent film version of The Phantom of the Opera (1925)

This week,  Andrew Lloyd Webber's cash cow plunked itself down on the stage of the Orpheum. If any show deserves a lifetime award for successful branding and arts marketing, it is the Hal Prince production of The Phantom of the Opera, lavishly designed by the late, great Maria Bjornson. Even though the original London and New York productions starred Michael Crawford and Sarah Brightman (who was, at the time, married to Andrew Lloyd Webber),  just like Cats -- that other blockbuster production mounted by Cameron Mackintosh and The Really Useful Theatrical Company -- - the show's logo was quick to appear on T-shirts and tchotchkes around the world.

In this video clip from the 1988 Tony Awards, Crawford and Brightman reenact one of their legendary numbers from the original Broadway production:

Because this particular stage production of The Phantom of the Opera is such a massive undertaking, it's interesting to look at some of the show's amazing statistics:
  • The show's dazzling replica of the Paris Opera House chandelier is 10 feet wide, made up of 6,000 beads, and weighs approximately one ton.
  • In order to apply the Phantom’s make-up (two hours to get it on, 30 minutes to take it  off), the actor's face is moisturized, closely shaved and the prosthetics are fitted -- setting immediately -- before two wigs, two radio microphones and two contact lenses (one white and one clouded) are secured in place.
  • Each performance has 230 costumes, 14 dressers, 120 automated cues, 22 scene changes, 281 candles and uses 550 pounds of dry ice and 10 fog and smoke machines.
  • Each performance features 130 people working as cast, crew, and musicians.
  • 2,585 yards of fabric (900 of them specially dyed) are used in each production just for the drapes.  
  • The tasselled fringes measure 249 yards and are made up of 550 pounds of dyed wool that has been interwoven with 5,000 wooden beads imported from India.  Each tassel is handmade and combed through with an Afro comb.
Put that all together and what do you have? A lot more than mere Bibbidi-Bobbidi-Boo! You have a prime example of the arts as an economic engine.  Consider the following:
  • The original London production of The Phantom of the Opera is now in its 23rd year at Her Majesty's Theater.
  • Now in its 21st year at Broadway's Majestic Theater, the New York production of The Phantom of the Opera has grossed more than $690 million and played to more than 12.5 million theatergoers. 
  • For the week ending November 30, 2008, the New York production of The Phantom of the Opera played to 90% capacity houses, grossing $934,171. The longest-running musical in Broadway history, it reached its 8667th performance that week.
  • On January 26, 2008, having been onstage throughout the entire New York run of The Phantom of the Opera, George Lee Andrews celebrated 20 years as the longest-employed actor in a Broadway production.
  • Worldwide attendance at performances of The Phantom of the Opera has surpassed 80 million people, with a total of 65,000 performances in 25 countries and 124 cities.
  • Worldwide gross box office receipts for The Phantom of the Opera total more than $5 billion (note that this figure does not include revenue from the sale of CDs, sheet music, T-shirts, posters and other memorabilia).
My first experience with The Phantom of the Opera was not a particularly happy one. Having read about how the Majestic's elegant proscenium had been painted over in order to accommodate the show's special effects, I was a bit horrified by the result (if memory serves, because the inside of the auditorium has landmark status, part of the profits from the show will go to restoring the auditorium to its former glory if and when The Phantom of the Opera ever ends its New York run). I had also purchased a standing room ticket for what turned out to be a fairly lackluster matinee performance (many of the woman who attended as part of a theater party were suggesting they should get their money refunded).

I'm happy to report that the touring production which just touched down in San Francisco is a nice fit for the Orpheum's stage. Watching the show anew, I was particularly impressed by the spectacular set and costume design work by Maria Bjornson. Because Bjornson also spent a lot of time designing opera productions, the caliber of her work with regard to period detail and operatic performance styles keeps to a much higher standard than what most Broadway audiences experience.  Visually, the show remains a knockout -- its lake, candles, curtains and backdrops a testimonial to theatrical history of the wildest and wooliest kind.

I wish I could say the same about Andrew Lloyd Webber's score.  When the composer sinks his teeth into a romantic moment he is unbeatable.  But his attempts at recitative and contrapuntal writing hit the stage with a dull thud.  Unfortunately, as with many productions which move into the Orpheum, the oppressive amplification from that theater's sound system means that the sound engineering is often like having a very jittery experience after ingesting too much coffee. Body mikes worn by some of the performers tend to magnify each other's effect so that the patter numbers in the Manager's office (written for eight voices) become quite painful to the ears.

As is often the case for those who attend a performance of The Phantom of the Opera but who have spent a lot of nights in genuine opera houses, the amplification issue is a sore topic.  In order to accommodate the backstage voice of the Phantom (and modulate the sound to compensate for the mask he is wearing), a level of sound engineering is required that, all too often, works against the music. Just once, I would love to hear Webber's entire score performed without any amplification at all.

Of the principles, I particularly enjoyed Trista Moldovan as Christine, Kim Stengel (who has sung more than 4,500 performances as Carlotta) and Anne Kanengeiser as Madame Giry.  John Cudia (who holds the honor of being the only actor to star as both the Phantom and Jean Valjean on Broadway) was an extremely serviceable Phantom, although attempts at shading his voice were occasionally undermined by the sound engineering.

The true mark of a legend is how well it gets spoofed in popular culture.  One poster seen backstage at the Majestic Theatre in New York is purportedly entitled "Spongebob Phantompants." But nothing can really compare to Seth MacFarlane's episode of American Dad entitled Phantom of the Telethon.

1 comment:

Hey Jud said...

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