By Rich Collins
DECEMBER 22, 1997: Keeping a phenomenon alive is hard work, as Elisabeth Farwell can tell you. As advance stage manager for an official touring production of Andrew Lloyd Webber's Phantom of the Opera, Farwell is one of the first people to arrive in a new city to help install Phantom's elaborate set, supervise the crew and strategize with local contacts. She does all the day-to-day stuff that the show's audiences never think about when they're gasping at the flying chandelier.
Last Wednesday afternoon, Farwell was at the Saenger Theatre on Canal Street meeting with the media while two dozen crew members were busy hoisting giant racks of stage lights and hanging the show's signature black and gold-leaf proscenium above the stage. As Farwell chatted over the din of power tools, it was clear that she's quite comfortable working on the grungier side of a glamorous production -- even if hers is the sort of job that might cause a less hearty soul to burn out prematurely.
"I'm part-time now, but when I was full-time for four years, I would maintain house direction, put in understudies, schedule rehearsals, take care of the technical aspects of the show and make sure that everything was being maintained properly," says Farwell. "There were times when I'd come out to take notes on the show and I'd realize that instead of watching the show, I was staring at the LED lights on the soundboard."
Of course, Farwell isn't the only person who works long hours to fuel the Phantom fantasy. For five years, this touring company has been taking its version of Phantom from one city to the next with little down time in between. The actors playing the Phantom and Christine come and go, as do crew members, but the work required for each production never wanes.
Because Phantom is so expensive to take on the road, the producers fill the schedule with as many shows as possible. As a result, an advance Phantom crew sets up in one city while the show is finishing its run elsewhere. (The New Orleans crew was working in the Saenger while the play was in its final week in Memphis.)
"Because of the cost of running the show, we can't afford to be dark for a week," says Farwell. "So we actually close on a Saturday night in a city and then open by Wednesday night the following week. We can't really stay anywhere for less than four weeks and have it not lose money."
As the prep crew rushed last week to get things ready for this Wednesday's opening night, it was aided by structural alterations made to the Saenger for Phantom's first stop in town nearly two years ago.
"When we came in last time, we put support steel above the stage to make sure it could support the weight of [the proscenium], which weighs about 12,000 pounds," says Farwell. "And the chandelier flies out over the audience, so we needed to put some steel in the roof to carry the weight of it when it's moving."
All the structural improvements are in the service of a play that has become the era's ultimate Theater Event.
Based on Gaston Leroux's novel about a shadowy figure and the beautiful opera singer he loves, Phantom debuted in October 1986 in London and then in January 1988 at the Majestic Theatre on Broadway. The show swept the Tony Awards and earned every major British theater award on its way to world domination.
Phantom celebrates its 10th anniversary on Broadway next month, but further proof of its appeal are the 13 official touring productions currently on stages around the world. Lloyd Webber's musical has been performed more than 27,000 times in roughly 60 cities, and it's raked in roughly $1.5 billion in ticket sales (more than Jurassic Park, the world's most successful movie).
When Phantom came to New Orleans for the first time in January 1995, it ran for seven weeks and attracted more than 145,000 people. The Saenger estimates that the show had an $18 million economic impact on the city thanks to money spent in local restaurants, hotels, shops and attractions. And, like modern theater juggernauts Cats and Les Miserables, Phantom shows no signs of slowing down. This touring production is booked through the year 2000, and longstanding versions of the show stationed in cities like San Francisco and Toronto are also still drawing crowds.
Considering all the hoopla -- and profit potential -- it's no wonder the Saenger lobbied to bring Phantom back for the run that begins this week and continues through Jan. 17. The theater, no doubt, is hoping for more jam-packed shows, and fans are hoping for another night of Phantom magic brought to life by show-stopping performances of Andrew Lloyd Webber's violent score.
The crowds just don't seem to tire of the musical melodrama, which is the surest sign that Elisabeth Farwell's schedule won't be clearing up anytime soon.
"I'm sure this tour will run past the year 2005," says Farwell. "Nothing is like this in terms of spectacle, popularity, mystery ... and the time it takes to move in." .
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