September 21, 2012
Behind the curtain: The Phantom of the Opera
Stage magicians enchant audiences with a different kind of magic than the sort Harry Potter wields. Their illusions are seamless, more sorcery than trickery, virtually undetectable to the naked eye. A magician's hat becomes a portal to a world of rabbits, colored handkerchiefs, bouquets of flowers and many more wonders through a series of hidden compartments woven into the fabric. Whether a team of miniature workers can be found inside these compartments preparing the next object or animal for a gloved hand to grab and present to a mystified audience, we may never know for magicians never—if ever, very rarely—reveal their secrets.
The theater stage makes magic like a magician's hat. Tucked backstage, hidden from the audience, is a team of tireless workers who dress the actors with their costumes, repair and organize the props, and ensure that everything seen onstage is magic made real. To complete the illusion, these invisible magicians never appear onstage even when the entire cast takes a bow before the final curtain, preferring to bask in the satisfaction of having executed a magic trick to perfection.
The magic behind The Phantom of the Opera, recognized as the longest running Broadway show in history by the Guinness Book of World Records, has never been revealed to the outside world until now. When the producers of the award-winning musical in Manila gave a backstage tour to the media last week, they gave a glimpse of a magical world populated by magicians and sorcerers who prefer to remain invisible and nameless.
While a magic trick might lose its appeal when you find out how it works, the magic of theater becomes a source of greater appreciation and newfound fascination when you discover the amount of dedication, the sheer artistry and the endless inventiveness of the backstage magicians behind a well-produced and much-beloved play like The Phantom of the Opera in Manila.
Masquerade of costumes
Eugene Titus, head of wardrobe
For Eugene Titus, head of wardrobe, his day starts very early and ends very late. Very early in the morning, he and his team of around 20 members start preparing the attire and costumes for all of the performances later that day. All clothing must be washed, every tear must be repaired, and every missing bead or piece of jewelry must be replaced for the more than 2000 costume pieces of The Phantom of the Opera.
"The entire wardrobe of The Phantom of the Opera includes costumes for the performers, duplicate costumes for the understudies, more than 500 pairs of shoes, and assorted pieces of jewelry," says Eugene.
He notes that a number of the costumes are more than 20 years old, having been inherited from past productions of the play in New York and London. Even the newer costumes follow the design of past productions down to the very color of the fabric and the last bead on the collar.
"The design of the costumes is very exact. We don't make any changes, only repairs. These are the same costumes all audiences of The Phantom of the Opera have seen," shares Eugene.
Not only are the costumes elegant but their construction is functional. These costumes are crafted in such a way to allow quick costume changes when an actor or actress goes backstage for a moment and re-emerges onstage donning new attire.
"Our fastest costume change is 3 seconds. It surprises even me how fast we're able to do it each time," says Eugene.
Potpourri of performers
Lungwella Mdekazi, a swing performer
Not only do performers have to change costumes between eye blinks, certain performers change roles as often as you blink your eye. Lungwella Mdekazi, a swing performer, has mastered the art of juggling identities more than someone switching between multiple personalities. She takes on multiple roles during each performance. The audience may not even recognize her various iterations onstage as she performs the role of a theater chameleon who blends beneath the skin of the character she plays.
"It's hard keeping track of the many roles I perform so I practice each one everyday," says Lungwella. It helps that she performed these roles in the previous production of The Phantom of the Opera in South Africa, her home country.
Switching personalities is an unconscious act while switching between roles takes great skill and acting flexibility on the part of the performer. Lungwella also fills in for performers who get sick or injured before a performance.
"You never know when someone gets sick or is unable to perform so I always have to be ready," says Lungwella.
Treasure trove of props
Bernard Fitzgerald, head of props
A magician is only as good as his tools. When his wand breaks or his hat falls apart, the performance is lost, the magic dispelled in the eyes of his audience.
Bernard Fitzgerald ensures that the performers are able to use magical implements to enchant the audience. As the head of props, he makes sure that every prop used in the play is in working order. Blades get chipped and scabbards lose gems and jewels. Bernard and his team work backstage before, during and after each performance to make sure that each prop is presentable down to the smallest detail.
"You never know what'll happen in every performance. Things get damaged or broken. We have to be ready to make repairs on the fly," says Bernard.
He takes pride in repairing and keeping track of the treasure trove of props used in the play. There are more than a thousand pieces in the collection. Some are duplicates of props that get damaged easily. While a prop is being repaired backstage, its working duplicate is being used onstage.
"I am especially proud of the pieces that were made with great attention to detail. Even the letters the actors hold have actual handwritten text in the handwriting style of that period," shares Bernard.
His favorite piece is a toy monkey that plays the cymbals. It has real fur and its arms can move mechanically, Bernard points out.
Symphony of spells
Sandie Bekavac (left) and Tanya Miles (right), stage managers
Between the stage and the audience is a pit that can be seen from the corner of your eye. Stan Tucker, the musical director and conductor, is usually the only person visible from the pit as he directs the wondrous music produced by the live orchestra.
Hidden away from the audience's eyes are the stage managers, Tanya Miles and Sandie Bekavac, who conduct the music happening backstage. Armed with cameras scattered everywhere, they supervise the action behind every scene through a control center that functions like a conductor's podium. However, unlike a conductor's podium where all the members of the symphony see his arms waving, all of the workers backstage rarely see the stage managers but hear their commands all the time as they conduct the action for the scenes happening onstage.
While most of their work happens during a performance, the stage managers started their backstage direction even before the first play date of The Phantom of the Opera in Manila. Months before the music started playing in the country last August 25, 2012, engineering work had to be done in the rafters above the stage to accommodate gigantic set pieces such as the chandelier and platforms housing performers during certain portions of the play.
"In some theaters, there's a lot of engineering work to be done beforehand. There was some work done for the CCP Theater. Any upgrades we did we won't undo after the production wraps up in Manila. Think of it as our gift to future productions that will require that kind of engineering work," shares Sandie Bekavac.
A magician makes sleight of hand look easy. His audience is unaware of the amount of preparation he does to make each performance magical.
Backstage producers are the unsung heroes of theater. Theater audiences are largely unaware, especially during the play, of the magic being cast backstage as performers weave their spells onstage. Away from the lights, behind the curtain, these backstage magicians cheer as the audience applauds the performers onstage.
Lights, curtain, magic.
The Phantom of the Opera will run at the CCP Theater in Manil until October 14, 2012. Book your tickets at TicketWorld (632) 891-9999 or log on to www.ticketworld.com.ph.
The Phantom of the Opera in Manila is produced by Lunchbox Theatrical Productions, David Atkins Enterprises, Hi-Definition Radio, Inc. and Concertus Manila in association with The Really Useful Group.