The Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus doesn't arrive in Salt Lake City until sometime this fall, but what appeared for all the world like a three-ring circus . . . no, make that five . . . was going on the better part of Monday and Tuesday at the Capitol Theatre.
The head ringmaster for this activity was Mike Egan, production stage manager for the third national company of "Les Miser-ables." Egan could also be part choreographer and part construction foreman.What he choreographs isn't the show itself but "the show behind the show" - the unloading and loading of the eight semitrailer trucks, the assembly of one of the most complex sets in touring theater history, the arrangement of the backstage wardrobe and costume-changing areas, the sound equipment - his check-off list goes on and on.
We paid three visits to the Capitol Theatre prior to Tuesday's sensational opening night.
The first of the trucks, their 48-foot vans packed with intricate equipment, expensive costumes and virtually all the things it takes to put "Les Miz" on the road and on the stage, arrived about 1:30 p.m. and was being unloaded.
Both the "loading out" (on closing night) and the "loading in" (arrival at the next city) are as carefully choreographed as any of the routines on stage. It takes the same military-like precision and logistical planning that Gen. H. Norman Schwarzkopf used in mounting the Persian Gulf assault.
This is a show that uses 1,000 props, nearly 1,650 costume pieces, some 50 wigs, and all the lighting and sound equipment necessary to mount the show.
"Give us a light grid, a theater and an audience and we'll put on the show," said Egan.
The drivers of all eight trucks schedule their arrivals at predetermined intervals throughout the day. The limited space behind the Capitol Theatre doesn't allow for more than one truck at a time anyway.
During the first phase of the unloading and setup on Monday afternoon, large grids of lights were being hoisted into place and some of the show's dozen or so backdrops were in the process of being installed in the theater's fly space.
In a perfect world, of course, all theaters would be exactly the same size and shape backstage.
"That's what makes this so interesting," Egan told us.
The different configurations of all the theaters on the tour mean that Egan and his staff also have to do plenty of advance preparation. This week, for instance, Egan and his head carpenter, Nick Romano, will make a quick trip to Houston to take a look at a theater there.
Already, one prospective city in the Midwest is no longer on the tour because there isn't a theater with a large enough stage to handle the production's centerpiece - the 34-foot diameter "Lazy Susan" turntable that is a masterpiece of design and worksmanship.
When I returned to the Capitol Theatre later Monday evening, crews - 20-25 are full-time workers touring with the show itself augmented by another 60 from the local Stage Hands Alliance - were unloading the framework for the turntable.
"That goes downstage right," instructed Romano, "and that one goes right there."
I moved out of their way and into the balcony for a bird's-eye view of the operation. As the various sections were hefted into place, the slightly slanted frame began to resemble a flatter version of the circular tracks for the Tilt-A-Whirl at Lagoon.
At this point, too, two other sets of crews were busy hoisting and bolting the massive, hydraulically operated trusses for the barricades into place.
From the balcony, it looked like the stage was swarming with men playing with giant Tinker Toys or an Erector Set.
I was glad, at this point, that I had already seen "Les Miserables" several months earlier in San Francisco. Witnessing the bits and pieces of the show come together is like visiting Universal Studios in Hollywood before seeing "E.T." - the magic created when the curtain goes up loses its luster in the reality of seeing how it's done.
But it's a fascinating, behind-the-scenes operation nonetheless.JOHN NAPIER, an associate designer for the Royal Shakespeare Company of Great Britain, co-producers (with Cameron Mackintosh) of the original London production, is credited with engineering the innovative scenery that expedites putting "Les Miserables" on the road without cutting any artistic corners.
The tall, dark gray, brick-motif towers flanking the proscenium aren't just cosmetic. Both contain a mind-boggling array of electrical wiring and sound equipment.
The computerized, 30-horsepower turntable, which is utilized during most of the show, is an ingenious device, allowing for rapid, smooth shifts from scene to scene.The seven-ton disc can stop within 1/32nd of an inch.
Egan noted that while it takes about a day and a half to get all of the equipment and scenery set up, it took them about four hours and 10 minutes to strike the set and load everything back on the trucks in Spokane.
"I was worried when I learned that the Capitol Theatre was once part of the old Orpheum Circuit. They were notorious for a lack of backstage space and not having enough dressing rooms, but I was pleased to hear that the theater had been renovated to expand the stage and add more dressing rooms," he said.
"We'll fit comfortably in this theater, but we'll fill it up," Egan said. "We could fill up a place four times this size as well."
Egan has been with the bus-and-truck company for about a year and a half and was with the Broadway company a year before that.
We asked if this touring company was the same one that made the national news wires last year when a theater employee trashed several bagfuls of costumes, thinking they were meant for the garbage truck instead of the dry cleaners.
"Oooh, we don't like to talk about that," said Egan, noting that it was in Pittsburgh - his hometown.
Fortunately, the incident impacted just one scene and the wardrobe supervisor was able to improvise for one night with costumes from other scenes and apparel not being used by the understudies.
"The audience never would have known if the story hadn't hit the papers. The next day, we got a Federal Express shipment of more costumes from New York and eventually we had them all rebuilt. It worked out to be about $11,000 worth of costumes," Egan said.
Egan arrived about 8:30 a.m. Monday and was able to settle into a Snowbird-area condominium before the first truck arrived about 1 p.m. He was hoping to get in a little skiing during his free time in Utah and before the show heads off to Tucson and Tempe, Ariz., and Denver. After that, the tour goes back across the Midwest and to the East Coast.WHILE EGAN and his staff are directing traffic backstage, wardrobe and wig supervisors Jerry Wolf and Robert Bouvard are involved in one of the most heavily costumed touring shows in history - the 37 cast members make a total of about 400 costume changes during the 3-hour, 10-minute long production.
There are 50 wigs in the show.
"It's not a big `wig' show," said Bouvard, getting ready to brush an all-white wig. "But we've been out for about 21/2 years and many of our cast members have grown their own hair.
"We looked back at a videotape that was taken two-and-one-half years ago and they all looked like children because they all had such short hair. Now, of course, the cast changes. Our new people inevitably come in with short hair. I have no idea why, but they seem to love to cast people with short hair. Maybe they can sing better.
"We prefer to have [performersT in their own hair, but the last three gentlemen who joined the company had crew cuts, so they all have to be wigged. Actually a few people we do leave in short hair occasionally because during that period (1815-32) barbering had just begun. Napoleon was one of the first people who made barbering popular, and a lot of the students did have shorter hair back then, but we prefer them to have a non-contemporary look. It's more authentic."
The procession of performers through the wardrobe and wig departments is carefully orchestrated, too. Styling of actors' hair and donning the wigs begins several hours prior to curtain time, with performers scheduled with day-planner-like precision before and during the show.
"Even the traffic patterns for people's movement has to be choreographed backstage; otherwise there'd be big jam-ups. You may be trying to come up the stairs and have 10 girls in hoop skirts coming down and you could miss your cue," Bouvard said.
While Jerry Wolf's wardrobe department hires 14 local dressers to help performers in and out of their costumes, Bouvard, who has one full-time assistant, doesn't need local hairstylists.
"Very seldom do you pick up local help, unless you have a cheap producer. But Cameron Mackintosh wants a full-scale production and he gives you a full-scale production," Bouvard said.
The wigs are all custom-made by a firm in New York. The white wig Bouvard was brushing during our interview is worn by Bryan Lynch as the aged Jean Valjean during his final scene. It's valued at $1,250.
"The reason they're so expensive is that they are completely hand-tied, opera-quality wigs, using an extremely fine mesh that can't be detected by the audience. They are delicate and light-weight, comfortable and ventilated," he said.
Bouvard has been touring with various shows for 11 years, including "La Cage aux Folles" and "Dreamgirls." He was in Salt Lake City "years and years ago" but wasn't sure which production it was, he said. "You really do get confused when you're out on the road and the theaters begin looking the same."WARDROBE supervisor Jerry Wolf was literally on the run when we caught up with him, dashing from one roll-around gondola-style portable closet to another and getting the show's 1,633 costume pieces organized for opening night.
Wolf has devised a unique notation and numbering system for all of the costumes. With hundreds of costume changes, precise organization is the key to a smooth operation backstage. The costumes are numbered and hung sequentially in order of each performer's changes.
It takes about an hour to instruct the local dressers how to use the simplified numbering system.
"It really works with `Les Miz' because of the tight coordination and the short time for getting actors off and back on the stage," Wolf said.
The "sit-down" companies - those that have longer runs in larger cities such as Boston and Philadelphia, have more time. They have full dress rehearsals and a 10-day load-in schedule.
"What we used to do in 10 days we now do (on tour) in six hours. It's just a matter of being accustomed to the show and being able to predict what we need," he said.