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Inside ‘Phantom of the Opera,’ Broadway’s longest-running play

Andrew Lloyd Webber’s “Phantom” celebrates its 30th anniversary this year.

Kaley Ann Voorhees plays Christine in

Kaley Ann Voorhees plays Christine in "Phantom of the Opera," which has been on Broadway for 30 years. Photo Credit: Matthew Murphy

Broadway’s longest running show has its inner workings down to a science — or, according to “Phantom of the Opera’s” hundreds of cast and crew members, down to a dance.

“It’s like a ballet,” said Greg Livoti, who’s been the show’s production stage manager for the past six years. “It’s an incredible and intricate ballet back here when the scenery comes in and out from the wings and actors move by at one time to create everything you see as an audience member.”

“Phantom of the Opera,” an Andrew Lloyd Webber production, celebrates its 30th anniversary this year. That translates to roughly 140 million viewers and 12,000 passionate embraces between Christine and Raoul and swings of the theater’s signature chandelier.

The seven-time Tony-winning Broadway production opened on the Great White Way on Jan. 26, 1988, at the Majestic Theatre with Michael Crawford as the Phantom and Sarah Brightman as the opera singer Christine. Today, the show is well settled in, with a mostly new crew and cast (Christine alternate Kaley Ann Voorhees and Phantom understudy Greg Mills) working to ensure every detail remains the same as three decades prior.

“Whatever you see onstage, there’s twice as much work that goes into it offstage to make it happen,” Livoti said after chatting with a packed house of city public school children who took advantage of a behind-the-scenes program hosted by Inside Broadway last month.

An ‘intricate ballet’

Livoti is one of three stage managers working to make each performance magical. One stands at a station off stage right, monitoring small cameras, watching for lighting and prop cues to make sure the magic happens when it’s supposed to. Another manager “mans the deck,” aka runs between the basement and back of the theater, at times climbing ladders to check the view and safety from above. The third watches from the front of the house, taking notes for next time.

They join the more than 100 crew and cast members who have to weave their way around the show’s several props and moving elements to make it onto the stage seamlessly.

Everyone must master an “offstage choreography,” just as they would their musical numbers.

Autonomous illusions

Just as everyone has his or her place, every single thing has its place too — the iconic chandelier included.

At the start of each performance, the three-tiered light fixture (with 48 bulbs and 6,000 beads) rests on the stage and is whisked up to the ceiling seemingly all on its own. In reality, several motors are hidden in the ceiling, lifting the 15,000-pound chandelier. An original set element, it’s computer operated and run by a Microsoft program that was released in 1984.

“The motors are all engaged at specific times to create the right effect that we want,” Livoti said. “When it crashes at the end, it’s actually a controlled fall. It’s the motors essentially letting out the line at a very controlled rate.”

The chandelier is only the beginning of the set’s controlled illusions. Crew members use battery-operated machinery to operate the set’s monkey music box and the life-sized gondola, and to raise and lower light fixtures from cutouts in the stage. The production’s various fire illusions, including small candlesticks and larger explosions, are all the work of pyrotechnics.

A phantastic makeover

Another iconic visual of the production: the Phantom’s half-face mask. Mills is the only cast member who has his makeup done by a professional before every show, and that mask is the reason why. Makeup Supervisor Thelma Pollard, who’s worked on the show since its opening, says she teaches each actor how to apply his or her own look when they join the team.

But The Phantom’s appearance is a bit too intricate for actors to master themselves, so a member of Pollard’s team will spend up to 45 minutes before each show begins applying a bald cap and mask.

“We’ve had to do it faster than that sometimes,” Mills said. “It’s two wigs, three pieces glued to your face [for the mask] and then like a pound and a half of makeup all on top of that.”

‘It’s live theater, you know!’

While Voorhees, a four-year veteran of the production, might luck out of the long prep time her co-star endures, her elaborate costumes and quick change times (her fastest being 40 seconds) present challenges of their own.

An intricate wedding gown worn in one of the production’s final scenes caused the actress to stumble four years ago, during a performance she now looks back upon with a laugh.

“There are so many layers to the wedding dress fabric in the end, so it’s very easy for your legs to get caught up in the bottom of it,” she recalled with a smile. “I was on with Paul [Schaefer] one time, it was maybe our second performance together. I went to turn around and didn’t get the skirt out from under me, so when he pulled me to get off the stage, I just fell onto my stomach.”

“So, [a co-star] just started dragging her off the stage,” said Schaefer, an understudy for the part of Christine’s longtime friend Raoul.

Mistakes are seldom, but they happen, the duo admits.

“It’s live theater, you know! It’s always kind of a fluke thing,” Voorhees said. “Sometimes, things just happen. Ninety percent of the time, everything goes great. It’s live and things just go wrong sometimes.”

For tickets and more information, visit thephantomoftheopera.com.

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