‘N othing should stand still except Madame Tussaud’s,” says Cameron Mackintosh, producer of many of the world’s most enduring musical hits.
That explains the new look that will accompany the iconic Andrew Lloyd Webber extravaganza “The Phantom of the Opera” when the national touring production arrives at the Kennedy Center on July 13. The original, directed by Harold Prince with a high sheen and showy flair — perhaps you recall a crashing chandelier — continues on Broadway exactly as it has been since 1988, two years after the seemingly indestructible “Phantom” premiere in London.
Several decades on, it’s more than time for a fresh take. In fact, Mackintosh has fully retooled three of the four game-changing 1980s mega-musicals that adapted classical material and were branded by trademark elements of spectacle. (The exception to the revision wave thus far is Lloyd Webber’s “Cats” and its climactic spaceship liftoff for the dying Grizabella.) A newly visualized version of “Les Miserables,” originally powered by a turntable set, is on Broadway until September. “Miss Saigon,” famed for its display of the helicopter madness as the United States abandoned its embassy in Vietnam, will open in New York in the spring after two years in London. Both productions, like “Phantom,” are directed by Laurence Connor (James Powell co-directed “Les Miserables”) and will tour the United States.
“Phantom” may be the riskiest reboot. Even Mackintosh regards the dark, shiny fable of the tortured, disfigured Phantom and the sweet soprano Christine as “the most beautiful of my big shows.” The new version is deliberately more prosaic.
“It’s more realistic in many ways,” Mackintosh says, drawing a comparison to the well-known set and costume design by Maria Bjornson, who died in 2002. “The original doesn’t attempt theatrical realism.”
“There is a realer sense of a backstage, of a theater world,” says new “Phantom” scenic designer Paul Brown, whose career has been mainly in the opera realm. “The glamour is only makeup deep.”
The touring iteration also reveals a realistic approach to the heavy costs of lugging epic productions on the road. Brown’s new design is still formidable, to judge by reviews in cities where “Phantom” has toured since opening in Providence, R.I., more than two years ago. Yet even with a 10-ton cylindrical wall as a new centerpiece, the show is more portable, more affordable and easier to load into a variety of theaters.
“Trying to reproduce them now,” Mackintosh says of his signature mega-musicals, “they would cost far too much money for the amount of time they can run profitably. ‘Miss Saigon’ would probably cost me $20 million to do it, whereas the new version — which is equally if not more spectacular — I can produce for under $10 million.”
Whether it’s simply a natural reversal of course or a reflection of current taste, each show’s makeover appears to transition from lavish romanticism and toward something earthier. “The original ‘Les Miserables’ physically was a grander version of ‘Oliver!’ or ‘Nicholas Nickleby,’ ” Mackintosh says. “Miss Saigon” unfolded in what he calls a “huge operatic box” but is now grounded more firmly in the streets of Bangkok.
“It feels much more like a gritty documentary than the original, which looked like ‘Turnadot,’ ” he says. He champions the changes: “I don’t want these shows to be considered something your granny went to see.”
Some keys to the durability of “Phantom,” with notes on pivotal changes in the touring version:
Lloyd Webber has always been drawn to outsize figures in his musicals, from “Jesus Christ Superstar” to “Evita.” It’s a noteworthy difference between his shows and those of his chief rival, the psychologically nuanced puzzler Stephen Sondheim. The “Phantom” outlines are huge and familiar: It’s a mega “Beauty and the Beast.”
“It’s an eternal love story,” Mackintosh says. “It’s a story people never tire of and that never dates. It inspired some of the best writing he’s done in his career.”
The musical’s opera-house setting allowed Lloyd Webber to keep a foot in high culture as the fictional opera company struggles to put on its elephantine productions. The horrific romance between the deadly Phantom and the ominously named ingénue, Christine Daae, drives the chugging, churning rock motif of blaring horns and organ. The show thrives on the kitschy boundary between classicism and pop, serving up the kind of catchy, big-themed music that almost effortlessly accompanies spectacular imagery.
Part of the score is personal, reflecting Lloyd Webber’s romance at the time with the original Christine, Sarah Brightman, who, Mackintosh says, “became a phenomenal muse.” (They were married for a time.) Inflating the fable to big screen and rock-show levels propelled it to the level of “Event.”
Mackintosh and Brown pay abundant deference to Bjornson’s memorable creations — the falling chandelier, the extravagance of the gigantic opera company positioned across a grand staircase, the descent into the lair under the immensely scaled opera house. (Bjornson won Tony Awards for both her scenic design and her deluxe 19th-century costumes, many of which have been retained for the new staging.) Mackintosh recalls a preliminary visit to the actual Paris Opera with Bjornson decades ago so they could have “a good sniff” of the place.
“Maria’s design is part and parcel of what people think ‘Phantom’ is,” Mackintosh says. The high varnish was a response to the ultra-romantic style of the music, with pockets of black to let mystery in. “You’re taken to a place where the impossible can happen,” he says.
Darkness was a tool for original director Hal Prince, whose version of Broadway’s longest-running musical (by a wide margin) is still on view at Manhattan’s Majestic Theatre.
“He loves doing things inside a black box,” Mackintosh says. “Things came in and out and gave you incredible pictorial scenes, like traveling through the lake.”
The trip to the lake under the Paris Opera is one of the most evocative sequences of Prince’s staging and Bjornson’s design. How do you convey the feeling of going deeper and deeper into the Earth? As the Phantom lures Christine down to his lair, candles arise from the stage, creating a sense of descent.
Brown and Mackintosh are coy about how that looks now, saying only that it’s substantially different. (Expect a staircase alongside that curved wall to play a part.)
“We wanted to as much as possible create a sense of verticality going down,” Brown says. “The way it’s achieved is a magic trick. The Phantom is a man with a beautiful mind, so what the set is trying to suggest is it’s his mind, his invention. It’s something he’s created. It’s a sleight of hand.”
The tour design is not a mind-blowing change, according to many reports from the tour, yet it’s notably altered, right down to the more somber tone of the acting. The grand staircase is gone. The “Masquerade” sequence at the beginning of Act Two has been redone with mirrors rather than dummies to create an overpopulated illusion. The rotating 10-ton cylindrical wall now has a prominent role.
“It’s the idea of being able to go backstage and under the stage,” Mackintosh explains, “of the brick and the massiveness of that huge building, and the way the hidden-away Phantom cannibalized elements of the old opera.”
“The show can’t and shouldn’t stop,” Brown says. “You’re entering the brain of this man. It’s tortured, it’s twisted, it cracks open and things slide out of it. The grittier world of the bricks and the dirt are then laid on top of that.”
The Drottningholm Palace Theatre near Stockholm helped inspire a more handmade aesthetic. The Drottningholm is an 18th-century theater — elaborate for its time — that rather famously still uses its old-fashioned system of ropes and pulleys and painted scenery; it’s an artifact of a bygone theatrical era. Its limitations inform the new design, Brown says.
“I think the easiest way to think about it is there isn’t a shiny black floor,” he says. “It’s a planking floor. What you’re standing on does make a difference, I think.” The glossy suggestion of water in Bjornson’s shiny black surface has a certain allure. But, Brown adds, “it’s not something you’d spit your tobacco on.”
And is there still a chandelier?
“The chandelier is an essential part of people’s expectation of ‘Phantom,’ ” Brown says. In this staging, though, “it does different stuff.”
The Phantom of the Opera, music by Andrew Lloyd Webber, lyrics by Charles Hart (additional lyrics by Richard Stilgoe), book by Richard Stilgoe and Andrew Lloyd Webber. July 13 to Aug. 20 at the Kennedy Center Opera House. Tickets: $25-$149. Call 202-467-4600 or visit kennedy-center.org.