Shedding light on the flying chandelier of ‘Phantom’

It takes a lot of technical trickery to make the giant stage prop hit its marks

April 09, 2010|By Mary Carole McCauley, The Baltimore Sun

The famous 1-ton chandelier appearing in "The Phantom of the Opera" lumbers slowly toward the stage of the Hippodrome Theatre, looking for all the world like a flying wedding cake.

Actually, it looks like a wedding cake that has been frosted on just one side, since the back is noticably lacking the white glass dollops and gilted doodads adorning the front.

The chandelier lists first to the left and then to the right, before settling on the four metal feet protruding from the bottom. Then, all at once, the top tiers collapse into the encircling frame.

There's an audible sigh — though it seems to be coming from David Hansen, "Phantom's" advance stage manager, and not the 10-foot tall prop that contains 35,000 beads.

"This is the magic hour," he says.

He looked around at the cables snaking around the stage, the crew members crouched on all fours making sure the 11-foot tall candelabras fit into the mechanized tracks, the black wooden boxes scrawled "Phantom" yet to be unpacked and filling the Hippodrome lobby.

"It's 4:30 in the afternoon, we have a show at 8, and all the bits and pieces still have to come together," he says.

"All the props are still in the seats. We haven't tested the chandelier, so we don't know how much cable it needs. The fire marshal is here for a meeting.

"Then, within the space of 45 minutes to an hour, we get our permits. Space suddenly opens up. You look out from the stage, and everything is suddenly where it needs to be."

But then, "Phantom's" creator, Andrew Lloyd Webber, never did believe in leaving the fairy-dust factor to chance.

"Phantom" was the last of the special effects-laden mega-musicals of the 1980s and 1990s, a time when live stage shows were trying to be films. It's the production that poses the greatest physical demands for venues, largely because the chandelier has to plummet from the ceiling to just 20 feet above the audience's heads, and then veer toward the stage.

Not all houses were physically capable of housing the show, among them the old Mechanic Theatre. (That's why "Phantom" didn't visit Baltimore until after the Hippodrome was renovated in 2004 — or 12 years after the blockbuster debuted on Broadway.)

Other theaters eager to present the enormously popular musical underwent costly structural improvements, and at least one, in Dayton, Ohio, was designed with "Phantom's" engineering requirements specifically in mind.

"In each theater that we go into," Hansen says, "we have to do between $250,000 and $500,000 worth of exterior steel work."

Once the current national tour ends in November, show officials say, it's unlikely that there will be another traveling "Phantom" production so large and technically complicated that it barely fits into 21 48-foot long semis.

So, for the first time, the creative team is willing to illuminate the stage tricks used to operate the costly contraption.

Take the chandelier's bare backside. It's not designed that way to save money, but to make it easier to land with all its crucial parts intact.

A strobe light flashes as the prop starts to fall earthward, so the audience doesn't see the two handles protruding from the rear of the device. Nor do they see two stagehands attired in period costume catch the chandelier as deftly as Orioles star Matt Wieters fielding a fastball, and guide it to rest on the stage floor.

It's all over in a bit more than 9 seconds.

""Hopefully," Hansen says, "the audience won't notice a thing."

He claims that after nearly 24 years of performances in 24 countries and more than 119 cities, the flying apparatus has never come close to clunking an actor or crew member on the head — let alone someone sitting in the audience.

However, the effect hit a snag — literally — when the national tour played Philadelphia in 2006.

After the chandelier, the musical's best-known set piece is the replication of the proscenium of the Paris Opera House. The elaborate stage frame consists of one golden, winged angel who appears to be catching a pop fly while fending off the right and left fielders.

It seems that one of the V-shaped cables that guide the chandelier toward the stage got caught on a piece of metal behind the left fielder angel. This caused the device to turn to one side, lurch into the stage at a 90-degree angle and shut down.

After 10 minutes, a crew member maneuvered himself behind the stage arch and freed the caught cable — a mishap Hansen is determined to avoid in Baltimore.

"We try to anticipate problems," Hansen says. "But, even after 7,000 performances, a show this big is always coming up with new ones."

mary.mccauley@baltsun.com

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