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Mysteries of 'Phantom of the Opera' revealed

Even if you've seen The Phantom of the Opera 50 times, it's easy to be wowed by the eerie travels across a fog-shrouded lake, the elaborate costumes and the breathtaking escapes of the man in the half-mask.

How does it all happen? took a tour backstage as the North American touring production was setting up for a run at the Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center. Here are a few interesting factoids we learned during our expedition through the Opéra Populaire:

FIRST SOME HISTORY: Gaston Leroux, the French author who created The Phantom of the Opera, was described as a flamboyant character who once claimed that his family was directly descended from William the Conqueror. In 1911 he published Le Fantôme de l'Opéra. Sales were only moderate. But the serialization of the story in newspapers attracted Universal Pictures, which brought The Phantom of the Opera to the screen in 1925 and made a star of Lon Chaney. Leroux is believed to have seen the film shortly before his death in 1927.

ON THE ROAD AGAIN: The touring production has been on the road since 1992 and recently celebrated its 6,500th performance. Each year, the tour hits as many as 12 cities. This is its fifth stop in Tampa Bay. The show opened Friday and runs through Nov. 22.

GREAT BIG CONVOY: Most touring stage productions take three to seven trucks to transport sets and costumes from city to city. Wicked, another popular and elaborate production, requires 14 trucks. Phantom's 230 costumes, 1.5 ton staircase, 28 hanging drops, stage facade and opera boxes require 20 trucks. Yes, that means it's three times larger than most productions.

SIZE DOES MATTER: Phantom can only play the largest venues because of the requirements of the production. The stage must be a minimum of 31 feet deep to accommodate the set (which the audiences see) and the dressing areas (where the actors change in and out of costumes on the fly) behind the set's backdrop. "This theater is fantastic for us," advance stage manager David Hansen says of TBPAC. "We love coming here."

OH THE HUMANITY: How many people does it take to stage one show? About 130 cast, crew and musicians from 40 different states. About 35 are actors. Between 55 to 60 locals are hired in each city as dressers and technicians, but no local actors are hired to appear in the touring production. Principal actors usually work on 9- or 12-month contracts, while ensemble members may work stints as short as four weeks.

PREP TIME: It takes 10 days to set up the Phantom production in each city, during which the venue cannot accommodate any other shows. When the final show is over, it takes only 12 hours to pack it up.

DEJA VIEWING: Much of the Phantom set is actually duplicated, allowing one advance crew to begin setting up in a new city while the main troupe still performs in another theater. That means two chandeliers, two stage floors, two facades for the front of the stage. Still, every show by this touring production should appear exactly identical as the shows performed back in '92 -- from the flattened oval shape of the chandelier to each wig, costume and prop.

DRESSED TO KILL: Each actor has his or her own dressing nook directly behind the stage backdrop. Each costume is hanging in order of its use, with matching shoes on the floor below and a wig or hat on top of the closet. For each costume change, the actor quickly sheds one outfit into a waiting laundry basket while a dresser assists in getting the new costume on in time for the next scene.

WIGGED OUT: Because it's a period piece set 100 years ago, Phantom makes use of 200 different wigs, most of them made from human hair. They're washed as needed and then placed in a "wig oven," where a soft, low heat gently dries them. A staff of five hairdressers sets the wigs before each performance.

JUST CHILL: About 500 pounds of dry ice are required for each performance to provide the eerie atmosphere of several scenes. That requires six dry ice machines on stage, which are refilled at intermission. Exactly how much dry ice is needed depends on the crowd size and temperature inside and outside the venue.

SCARY MOMENT: With such a large-scale production, there are several hold-your-breath and cross-your-finger moments for the crew. Here's one. In the beginning of the show, when the dust covers are yanked from the stage facade as the music begins, the sheets have on occasion fallen onto the poor musicians in the orchestra pit or gotten snagged in the rigging for the chandelier. In either case, the production then pauses while it's sorted out. That pesky Phantom is not to blame, we're assured.

CRUISE CONTROL: The most elaborately staged scenes of the show are the two boat journeys with the Phantom and Christine. The boat, which seems to glide effortlessly over the underground lake below the opera house, is not on a track. Rather it's guided by infrared beams of light and a stage technician with a joystick just inside the wings of the stage. The drive mechanism and battery is hidden below the pillows of the boat -- actually only "half" a boat because the audience can only see the front of it.

A LITTLE TIME OFF: During the Phantom's four-week stay in Tampa, actors and crew have a choice of two hotels to stay at. Still, many opt to find corporate apartments for a more homelike atmosphere. During the day, those who are not needed at the theater spend the day taking trips to local attractions or indulging hobbies like golfing and scuba diving. Because no children are employed in the production, on-set tutors and classes are not required for the tour.

STILL A MYSTERY: While much of the set was open for us to inspect, a few production icons remain strictly off limits and photographs are forbidden of many set pieces, which remain trademarked. Yes, that means no trying on the Phantom's mask, which remains locked away when not in use. And the method behind the Phantom's breathtaking escapes -- during the Masquerade number and in the finale -- are closely guarded secrets. "I can't say," Hansen swears. "I gotta keep my job."

If you go

The Phantom of the Opera, Andrew Lloyd Webber's musical adaptation of a French novel about a disfigured murderer hiding below a Paris opera house, has been playing to audiences since 1986 and is currently the longest running musical on Broadway.

The North American tour runs through Nov. 22. $18.50-$78. (813) 229-7827 or toll-free 1-800-955-1045;

Mysteries of 'Phantom of the Opera' revealed 10/31/08 [Last modified: Sunday, November 2, 2008 7:17pm]
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