Theater preview: BYU to stage epic musical 'The Phantom of the Opera'

Published: Saturday, Jan. 12 2013 12:30 p.m. MST

PROVO — The massive Paris Opéra House chandelier will be crashing down to the de Jong Concert Hall stage.

“I will see it in about 10 minutes for the first time,” says Tim Threlfall. “The chandelier is sitting back there, in its big shipping container, on the stage right now.”

The signature special-effects moment of the big Broadway musical “The Phantom of the Opera” is one audiences are anticipating in the spare-no-expense staging at Brigham Young University. While whooshing down, the famed chandelier suddenly stops just over the heads of theatergoers before it hurtles onto the stage, prompting audible gasps.

“And there are a few other flying surprises in the show, as well as the chandelier,” he teases.

As director of the BYU production, Threlfall recognizes the multiple challenges of “The Phantom of the Opera,” the last of the flamboyant mega-musicals of the 1980s and ’90s, a time when live stage shows were trying to be films.

“It’s a big production; there’s no two ways about it,” he says. “The students are excited, and they recognize that it is quite an undertaking, with 44 people in the cast. There are many high expectations because really the only live production people have seen is the Broadway production, which has been running 25 years, or maybe in London, where it’s been playing for 26 years, or the touring production, which ran for about 12 years.”

In a unique occurrence, “The Phantom of the Opera” continues to play in New York City, but performance rights are available to productions in academic settings. BYU's is one of the first university stagings of the epic musical, the longest-running show by a wide margin in Broadway history. The freefalling chandelier has been seen by more than 130 million people in 145 cities in 27 countries. (“The chandelier’s gotten more publicity than any prop in the history of mankind, and I resent it, totally,” deadpanned Hal Prince, one of the original developers and the director largely responsible for the show’s runaway success.)

“Jeff Martin, one of our producers, jumped on (the show's performance rights) when they became available,” Threlfall explains. “He said, ‘Hey we want to do this, before it might be slightly less popular because people have seen it in four or five other venues locally.’ ”

Based on French writer Gaston Leroux’s 1909 book, “The Phantom of the Opera” was composed by Andrew Lloyd Webber to lyrics by Charles Hart. The plot to the gothic backstage melodrama revolves around a disfigured musical genius haunting the catacombs beneath a Paris opera house who exerts strange control over a lovely young soprano named Christine Daaé.

The opening 1988 production was awarded seven Tonys, including Best Musical. Yet in his review for the New York Times, Frank Rich faulted the show as “long on pop professionalism and melody, impoverished of artistic personality and passion.”

While Threlfall says he’s not able to confirm the figure, the $250,000 budget has been a widely discussed topic on campus and is purported to be the university’s largest for a stage production by a wide margin.

Calling the show a “tentpole” production, Threlfall says the department has been “careful to build into that budget some profit, which will help support other theater and media arts productions that are not going to have the same wide appeal.”

Along with actors and technical theater students in the university’s music-dance-theater program, performers include BYU's vocal and dance majors and the Symphony Orchestra performing the score.

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