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Walking up the stairs to the rehearsal room at Artscape, it is unmistakably music from a Phantom of the Opera scene being played on the piano. I walk in on Madamy Giry and Sunday Raoul rehearsing a scene under the direction of Arte Masella, the associate director out from New York.
He silently mouths the words with the two, directing Anthony Downing ( Raoul) to be careful about when he interrupts Angela Killian (Madame Giry).
Masella stands right up close to the pair as they go through the scene again, leaning out of the way at exactly the right moment.
“Yes, that’s it,” he says when the music stops.
“I’m just going to imagine you there forever,” Downing replies impishly. “Getting involved,” comes the quick rejoinder from Masella.
Though Hal Prince retains the title of director of The Phantom of the Opera, as associate director Masella is the one who (assisted by Rainer Fried) goes to the each city, casting the shows and bringing in people from all over the world to help with scenery, staging, choreography and the technical aspects.
“So, what everyone is getting in each new city is the original production,” explained Masella in a later interview.
“What you will see here is very close to the New York and London productions, with minimal adjustments, based on which theatre we use. People really are getting the real thing, not some second-rate version.”
The 58-year-old says he has a book’s worth of Phantom stories: “Recently I have thought of writing it because I think each city and each country and culture has a different story to tell about the process of putting on the production.
“I thought it would be fun to gather my colleagues for a long weekend with a tape recorder and say: ‘All right, let’s go back and remember the experience’.”
He hasn’t counted, but estimates he has worked on 20 productions since 1989.
He first watched The Phantom of the Opera in 1988 in New York.
“I was overwhelmed by it, like most people. I thought it was so beautiful and so romantic, so compelling. I was a real fan from the start.”
Masella was working for his mentor Hal Prince at the time and directing his own work.
“I saw it, loved it and shortly thereafter it became clear it was going to become an international success and there were going to be many, many productions around the world. That’s when Hal Prince asked me if I’d learn the production and stage it in the future.”
The first production Masella worked on was in Los Angeles in 1989, and the first one he directed on his own was in Stockholm, Sweden, later that year.
“We always do it in the native language. It’s only in Asia where we have toured it in English, but otherwise in Mexico we did it in Spanish, in Stockholm we did it in Swedish. You name it.”
This second time around with Phantom in South Africa he’s noticed a definitely increase in the skills pool he can draw on.
”We have, over the years, often gone into countries who have never seen anything like this, nor have they ever tried to mount anything this complicated. That’s a learning process for them and when we leave, they’ve served their apprenticeship in a way.
“They come away with better skills and have the confidence they need to do the larger-scale productions. It happens in many countries and a certain amount of that happened here the last time around. I think there’s less of that happening this time. There’s a good, skilled group that seems to know what they’re doing and that’s great, it makes our lives easier.”
Based in New York, where he still occasionally offers classes at NYU’s Tisch School of Arts, Masella has worked all over North America, South-East Asia, Europe, and South America.
“I’ve put on a lot of miles over the years,” he chuckles.
“Every different group brings their particular personality as a culture, their particular approach to music theatre and to this story and how they relate to these people. That’s always fascinating to me.”
Masella thinks of his work as a doubled-edged sword: “On the one hand our job is to be faithful to the original production and that’s important to us. On the other hand, it’s important for us not to take people and fit them into little cubbyholes, but to give them the freedom to express their interpretations of the roles.
“Yes, they’re singing the same notes and wearing the same costumes and moving the same places around the stage. But what they bring as an actor from a particular culture, and with a particular experience in musical theatre, that ultimately is what defines the role and makes it different and unique for each person who has played it.”
For Masella, the amazing thing about Phantom is how fresh the material has stayed, and he doesn’t think it needs to be updated or refreshed for a new audience: “This show still feels fresh, musically. I think the story is still pertinent and still touches people in a way that touched people 25 years ago.
“Everyone loves a good love story, and a tragic love story at that.
“So, those are timeless in the way all great musicals and operas are. They touch nerves and tell stories that will always resonate for an audience.”
l The Phantom of the Opera starts at Artscape on November 22 and runs until January 15, before moving to Joburg’s Teatro at Montecasino from January 31 to March 25.
The Phantom of the Opera is Broadway’s longest running musical and has played to more than 100 million people in 149 cities around the world.
It has won more than 50 major theatre awards since it first hit the boards in 1986.
Celebrating its 25th anniversary this year, the story tells of a disfigured musical genius, known as The Phantom (André Schwartz reprises his 2004 role in Cape Town), who haunts the depths of the Paris Opera House.
Mesmerised by the talent and beauty of young soprano Christine (Robyn Botha and Magdalene Minnaar share the role), the Phantom falls in love with her, unaware of her love for Raoul (Jonathan Roxmouth plays the role, except for Sundays when he replaces Schwartz as The Phantom and Anthony Downing replaces him).
The Phantom’s obsession sets the scene for jealousy, madness and passion to collide, and plenty of Music of the Night.
Some Phantom figures:
l The Phantom’s make-up takes two hours to put on and half an hour to remove.
l There are 130 cast, crew and orchestra members directly involved in each performance.
l Each performance makes use of 230 costumes, 14 dressers, 120 automated cues, 22 scene changes, 281 candles and uses 250kg of dry ice and 10 fog and smoke machines.
l 2 230m of fabric are used to make the drapes, 900 of them specially dyed.
l The dazzling replica of the Paris Opera House chandelier is made up of 6 000 beads, consisting of 35 beads to each string. It is 3m wide and weighs one ton. The touring version of the chandelier falls at 2.5m per second.