BroadwayCon 2016: ‘Behind the Mask: Record-Breaking Players from Broadway’s Phantom’ Panel
One of the earliest panels at BroadwayCon focused on the show that has epitomized what Broadway means for almost 28 years — Phantom of the Opera. The panel featured Howard McGillin (who played The Phantom for most of 1999-2009), Sandra Joseph (who played Christine from 1998-2006), Sam Fleming (associate costume designer), Bill Kazdan (crew member with the props department since opening) and Kristen Blodgette (musical director/supervisor/conductor). It was moderated by Christine Pedi of SiriusXM’s Broadway channel.
Pedi asked the group what they think has kept Phantom so popular. The group thought it was difficult to explain, but they offered some insights. Joseph suggested that the Phantom represented “The desire we all have to be loved and accepted.” McGillin added, “No musical works like this musical.” Blodgette spoke specifically about the music holding universal popularity, remarking, “It seems to transcend language. We have a lot of people who don’t speak English who come see it.”
One reason why the music has such an impact is because of how polished the orchestra is. Pedi asked how many members of the orchestra have been with the show since the 1988 opening. Of the 27 members of the orchestra, Blodgette said about 20 are original.
On top of the show’s impressive on stage blocking, Kasden replied that Phantom is “more tightly choreographed off stage than on-stage.” The entire group then spoke about how tight it is backstage at the Majestic. Joseph and McGillin shared memories of rushing around off-stage to make their marks, and McGillin revealed that in his days of playing the Phantom the trap door only allowed about an inch and a half of space on either side, making the nightly free-fall drop into the basement a scary experience (the trap door has since been replaced with a safer apparatus).
As for the “smoke and mirrors” that appear to be on-stage magic, Fleming revealed that during the party scene there are 18 fake people on stage who are lifted up into the rafters. The group gave credit to director Harold Prince for creating such a memorable production, but also noted how hard he pushes them. McGillin called him a “stubborn genius” and recalled hearing him instructing, “I don’t care if it’s impossible, do it.”
When asked how they remain committed to perform the show eight times a week for so long, Blodgette credited the energy from the audience, which she can feel at her back while standing at the podium. Joseph also credited the fans, and told a touching story about how she avoided burnout during her 7th or 8th year when a friend presented her with clippings he found online from dozens of fans who wrote about what the show meant to them. McGillin told a funnier story about fan reaction, revealing that he discovered that when he does a concert and he doesn’t sing “Music of the Night,” “People get angry. I mean, really angry.”
With 28 years of passionate fans and an experienced crew, it seems possible that Phantom’s run on Broadway could run indefinitely. If so, the panelists at BroadwayCon are a few of the figures in Phantom history who can be credited for laying the groundwork for continued future success.