Magical chandelier has had its ups and downs

`Phantom' prop will be making its Baltimore debut at Hippodrome


August 08, 2004|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,SUN THEATER CRITIC

Elisabeth Farwell is shedding some light on one of the major characters in Andrew Lloyd Webber's The Phantom of the Opera.

Although the show is a musical, this character doesn't sing, dance or even speak. It is, however, a highly animate object - the famous chandelier, which rises over the audience in the first scene, then comes crashing down just before intermission.

As the advance stage manager of Phantom, which begins performances at the Hippodrome Theatre Wednesday, Farwell oversees the arrival and installation of the show - with its gilded proscenium arch, hundreds of costumes, life-sized model elephant and mechanized boat. She's particularly watchful of the chandelier.

"[Before] the first performance in every city," she says, "I always have butterflies. Part of it is anticipation. Baltimore has never had the Phantom. It's kind of a big deal because the Hippodrome is a brand new renovation. It's really fun, and yet there is that moment when it's just, `Oh please, oh please, oh please.' "

Lloyd Webber and his collaborators based their 1986 musical on Gaston Leroux's classic horror novel about a disfigured man who lives in the bowels of the Paris Opera House. The musical begins with an auction of Opera House items - among them, a gigantic chandelier with a tragic history. Once described by The New York Times as the show's "second lead," the chandelier magically ascends from the floor in the auction scene, cuing a flashback account of the scarred Phantom's exploits.

A key element in the largest production ever to play a Baltimore theater, the 1,000-pound chandelier travels from city to city with a 20-truck entourage. (Indeed, before the Hippodrome was renovated, no Baltimore theater could handle the musical.)

To accommodate the chandelier, several features were built into the Hippodrome's renovation. These include a doorway, about 5 by 6 feet, cut into the wall above the proscenium arch, and a reinforced steel grid above the orchestra seats. Both of these modifications were made for the 1.8-ton winch and the cables that control the chandelier.

In addition, the touring company adds its own I-beams to the grid in each theater, a process that began at the Hippodrome two weeks ago. The chandelier itself arrived last week.

Although there's only one current national touring company of Phantom, there are two chandeliers (along with duplicates of other large pieces of scenery, including the show's gilded proscenium arch and stage floor).

"In order to get the show to close on a Sunday in one city and open on a Wednesday in the next city, we have to be able to start our load-in while the show is still running," Farwell explains.

So, with Phantom wrapping up its run in Minneapolis, the chandelier in Baltimore came from Salt Lake City; the chandelier that audiences have been seeing in Minneapolis will move on to Cleveland - the tour's next stop after Baltimore.

Once the chandelier is installed in the Hippodrome, it will undergo several dry runs, during which Farwell will take a seat in the first six or seven rows, directly beneath the chandelier's path. "If I'm willing to sit under it on my own, I feel the audience is safe," she says.

Descending at a speed of about eight feet per second as it gives the illusion of crashing, the chandelier is actually caught at each performance by two chandelier "catchers" or "wranglers" - stagehands in period dress who grab handles attached to the back of the fixture.

"It can't hit the stage, it would be a pile of broken chandelier," Farwell says, adding that, were it to take a return swing over the audience, "it wouldn't injure anybody, but if you were standing up for intermission and it started to swing back at you, it would be a little unnerving."

No one has been injured by an errant chandelier during Farwell's 12-year tenure. Not that she hasn't seen her share of technical glitches. In Seattle in 1992, she recalls, "The chandelier went halfway up and just stopped, and we had no idea. We went running all over the theater, and it turned out somebody had kicked the plug out of the compressor."

A couple of other times, the dust cover that shrouds the fixture in the opening scene has gotten wrapped around a cable; the chandelier went up, but couldn't come down. In those cases, Farwell says, the Phantom has come out after the curtain call and told theatergoers that if they stayed in their seats, they could see the chandelier trick as it's supposed to be done.

In Louisville in 1994, the chandelier simply refused to budge in the opening scene. "It had thrown a belt on the winch drive. So it was just sitting there." Farwell and the stage crew considered unshackling it and rolling it offstage, but there wasn't room in the wings.

"They kept saying, `Ten more minutes, 10 more minutes,' and it took an hour and 15 minutes. I went out on stage to inform the audience of what was going on. The audience was doing the wave."

Soon, the chandelier will face some competition. Director Joel Schumacher's film version of Lloyd Webber's Phantom is due to be released in December: Think cinematic special effects.

Then there's Las Vegas, where Clear Channel Entertainment plans to open a 90-minute Phantom at the Venetian hotel and casino in 2006. How do you create a chandelier that will stand out in a town where over-the-top chandeliers are the norm?

Farwell can't imagine. But one thing's for sure. "If it's Vegas," she says, "they're going to make it immense."

The statistics

Height: 10 feet

Weight: 1,000 pounds

Beads: 35,000

Radio-controlled lights: 50

Weight of winch controlling chandelier: 1.8 tons

Length of time to construct: 3 months

Source: The Phantom of the Opera

The musical

What: The Phantom of the Opera

Where: Hippodrome Theatre, 12 N. Eutaw St.

When: Aug. 11-Oct. 3. 8 p.m. Tuesdays-Saturdays, 6:30 p.m. Sundays; matinees at 2 p.m. Saturdays and Aug. 12, 1 p.m. Sundays.

Tickets: $19-$76.50

Call: 410-547-SEAT

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