The Really Useful Group Limited, founded in 1977 by Andrew Lloyd Webber has at last brought "The Phantom of the Opera" to Taipei. The music theater, which premiered in London in 1986, is based on Gaston Leroux's novel "Le Fantome de l'opera."
For the first time the National Theater has been blocked off for a long-running musical. "The Phantom of the Opera" opened on Wednesday, January 18. Originally the Taipei run of the award-winning musical was to add up to only 32 performances. The total number of shows, however, increased to 63 performances.
The entire production required 22 cargo containers of sets, props and costumes. The volume was much more than the three or four containers that the National Chiang Kai-shek Cultural Center was accustomed to handling, but the technical set-up of the Taipei venue for 63 performances under the overall supervision of Richard Martin was even completed ahead of the expected 20 days.
The successful moving of "The Phantom of the Opera" to the stage at the National Theater in Taipei means that audiences can henceforth look forward to more similarly sophisticated musical productions as long as the expensive projects requiring state-of-the-art technology get government support and corporate sponsorship. .
Andrew Lloyd Webber's most successful musical - which has a history of nearly 20 years - has more than 16 productions worldwide. More than 20 countries on different continents have seen it. Now it is Taiwan's turn to enjoy it.
No less than 130 members from the touring company and the local production team are involved in bringing to life the musical. The cast is led by Brad Little as the Phantom and Marni Raab as Christine, taking over the original Phantom and Christine, Michael Crawford and Sarah Brightman.
Little and Raab, both very experienced acting and singing talents made an impact in Shanghai and Seoul before arriving in Taipei. They shone in the hit musical on New York's Broadway and received rave reviews during their U.S. tour. Raab was in the Andrew Lloyd Webber musical for two-and-a-half years in the United States before her year in Asia. Little played the role of Raoul in "The Phantom of the Opera" Braodway production before taking over the lead role of the Phantom.
"One of the most challenging aspects of playing the role of Christine in 'The Phantom of the Opera' is my having to be always on the stage," revealed Marni Raab, a New Yorker with a degree from the Oberlin Conservatory of Music. "If I am not on the stage, I am busy changing into another costume."
Raab gets to wear the elaborate creations of the late Maria Bjornson. Her role, in fact, calls for many costume changes. As she put it, "I need to complete a change of costume sometimes in 30 seconds. In fact, changing into one very ornate gown towards the end requires five people to assist me. One of them has to literally throw it over my head."
Because the role of Christine is so demanding, Raab has an understudy in the person of Ana Marina.
Each performance of "The Phantom of the Opera" requires not just 230 costumes and 14 dressers. Just as necessary are the 120 automated cues, 22 scene changes, 281 candles and 250 kilograms of dry ice and 10 fog and smoke machines.
Raab has met Andrew Lloyd-Webber only once, when the cast performed in Shanghai. She has posted her souvenir picture from her encounter with the famous composer on her Website.
The man who wrote the musical sent a message for the Taipei opening of his musical, saying, "I am delighted to be working with the National Theater. 'Phantom' has been seen by millions of people all over the world since its premiere in London almost 20 years ago and earlier this month it became the longest running musical in the history of Broadway. I hope very much that 'Phantom' will capture the imagination and hearts of the people of Taiwan as it has done in so many other countries."
Raab spoke of two moments, which
Unmasking the angels of music in 'The Phantom of the Opera'
really stand out in the musical: "The first one is the final scene, when we get to work together as an ensemble and as a trio. This is the culmination of all emotions and the story. It is when Christine grows up.
"The second one is when Christine sings 'Wishing You Were Somehow Here Again.' It's when she makes the decision on how to proceed and move forward as well as how she wants to grow up and be mature."
Ana Marina, who is to relieve Raab sometimes in enacting the role of Christine in Taipei, also singled out the final scene as very special. "This is when Christine grows up. It's also the first time you see Christine challenge the Phantom," she said.
Marina said she likes the dramatic role of Christine very much, and is happy to play the role originally performed on stage by Brightman. "I feel honored to follow the footsteps of Sarah Brightman, who is someone who has so established herself in this business. She was one of my inspirations for becoming a music theater singer. I used to copy her singing in 'The Phantom of the Opera.' Without her and without having heard her, I may not be here right now."
"The Phantom of the Opera" tells the story of a mysterious genius with a mutilated face, who terrorizes everyone at the Paris Opera House while living underneath it. He falls in love with the young soprano Christine and takes her under his wings.
Brad Little, who reprises the role of the Phantom, was said to take 45 minutes to put on his makeup. He makes an excellent escape at the end of "The Phantom of the Opera," a trick which has been a well-guarded secret.
Of his part, whom Leroux wrote to life in the book on which the musical has been based, Little jokingly said, "People will tell you that I'm not a nice person. All I have to do is put on a mask."
Little admitted to the appeal of dark characters, including the Phantom. "Those characters represent what we all feel in our lives and are not able to express for various reasons. Dark characters are always portrayed as underdogs, whom we like to root for despite their dark side."
Of the fans' fascination with the Phantom, Little thinks it is because of the character's ability to say, "I just want to take care of you and I can make you understand," an interesting psychology which Little learned from his admiring public.
"As for the pain that the Phantom goes through, I think everybody has something in their lives to relate to the suffering," he added.
"The first time I saw Michael Crawford play the role of the Phantom, I cried in the audience for I knew what it felt like to be shunned by the rest of the world. I don't think I am alone in feeling that."
On taking on the Phantom's role on stage, Little said, "I try to do exactly what is written. I do what I am told to do and hopefully the audience will have the same response as mine the first time I saw the show." As the show continues its run, Little will be giving his 2,000th performance in the musical in Taipei sometime in March.
Andrew Lloyd-Webber's "The Phantom of the Opera" is being recreated under the direction of Harold Prince with Arthur Masella and Rainer Fried assisting at the National Theater in Taipei until March 2006.
"We have been fortunate to have excellent direction in this production," said Little. "Arthur Masella and Rainer Fried have been guiding us in finding our own interpretations of our characters as well as remaining within the parameters of this production."
Raab pointed out, "We do bring our own selves to our roles. I know I do. What I do is to try to find the vulnerability of Christine and start from there."
Marina commented, "I draw from my own life experiences. There are times everyday when you feel vulnerable. They are a great reminder to put into the role of Christine."
John Bowles, cast in the role of Raoul, said, "Everyone is going to fall in love with the Phantom and Christine. The larger-than-life characters have such an interesting journey to go on. It's fantastic to take 2,000 people on that journey every night."
Little expressed his great joy and pride in being a part of the production. "We have a wonderful cast. We draw energy from each other every single night. 'The Phantom of the Opera' is for most people in this world the first musical they have ever seen. This show introduces people to musical theater. That is a very special thing to be a part of."
For Fried, the assistant director, "The biggest challenge with this tour is to go all over Asia and to get the show up, dealing with each country's unique way of going about things. This is a wonderful challenge. We always get things done."
"Taipei has been one of the easiest moves. The local crew is absolutely wonderful. We have very, very talented young people in the local orchestra. Our music supervisor is raving about them everyday when he comes in for rehearsal," Fried said.
About ten people, including the actor playing Raoul, have been replaced in the Taipei production, according to Fried. He was excited to learn that the musical was sold out within two or three weeks after tickets went on sale, although scams about fake tickets being sold on the Internet have come to light.
While the National Theater's stage is smaller than the last stage the production used in Seoul, it also meant the elaborate set was easier to set up. "It's always good for the show when the stage becomes a little smaller and slightly more intimate," Fried said.
The "Phantom of the Opera" took its time coming to Taiwan. The Really Useful Company Asia Pacific Pty Ltd. had decided in 2004 to bring the musical to Taipei in 2006 for their Asian tour. The production traveled first to Shanghai towards the end of 2004 for a 12-week engagement before going to Seoul. After Taipei, it will move to Hong Kong in July.
The Really Useful Group sent experts to Taipei more than once to check out the National Theater's technical capability in meeting the requirements of the spectacular musical production. According to the Management of New Arts, a private promoter in Taipei, staging "The Phantom of the Opera" costs three times more than it does to present "Cats."
With such a spectacular cast, stage, costumes, and special effects, expectations are high. Thankfully, the "Phantom" does not disappoint.
"The Phantom of the Opera" runs at the National Theater until March 12. Tickets are sold out.