Veteran Broadway musical star Brad Little will always remember China. In 2004 he starred in the first production of the now classic show The Phantom of the Opera in Shanghai. At the end of the first performance, he met a group of Chinese fans for the first time. “Many, many Chinese women were staring at me earnestly with their eyes full of tears. They kept speaking to me in Chinese, as if I would understand. Of course, I couldn’t, but I could really feel what they were feeling.”It was a special moment especially as Little is, even by international standards, a grandmaster of this show and of the lead role. Since 1996 he has played The Phantom of the Opera on more than 2,000 occasions. But encountering the fans in Shanghai was an outstanding moment in a career of spotlights and standing ovations.
“I will never forget that moment in Shanghai. I learned that many local people had to put aside three weeks of their salaries to buy a ticket. They almost couldn’t afford to buy anything extra – probably just a key ring to remember the experience of watching this show. The audiences in Shanghai really made me believe that they cherished the show much more than any other place we had toured before.”
Cherished the show
Now, almost 10 years later, in a guestroom in the historic Jin Jiang Hotel on Maoming Road South in Shanghai, Little is surrounded by Chinese again – this time it’s the media interviewing him about the return season of The Phantom of the Opera.With him, is his new “Christine,” Claire Lyon, a 26-year-old soprano from Australia who has just joined the show’s Asian tour.
The Shanghai return season for the show will open on December 3 at the Shanghai Culture Square on Fuxing Road Middle (one of the square’s stated intentions is to stage at least one imported musical every year).
Sponsored by the Shanghai Pudong Development Bank, The Phantom of the Opera will play 60 times and the season will close on January 26.
In 2004 Shanghai saw 100 performances at the Shanghai Grand Theatre in People’s Square. The theater is closed at present for renovations but the new home for The Phantom of the Opera offers a larger auditorium and stage as well as state-of-the-art technical facilities.
Fei Yuanhong is the program director at Culture Square and explained that the square’s stage is 2 meters wider and the auditorium has 200 seats more than the 1,700 seats in the Shanghai Grand Theatre.
When the musical first played in Shanghai, Fei was then working at the grand theater and experienced the thrill of the production in Shanghai. “The popularity and effect this show had on Shanghai people was unparalleled,” Fei said.
The Phantom of the Opera does have a special place in people’s hearts. Although Shanghai had previously enjoyed Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Cats and the long-running Claude-Michel Schönberg musical, Les Miserables, the Phantom broke Chinese box office records and became a phenomenon.
“Soon after the Phantom had played in Shanghai, some fans tried to create their own Shanghai version of the show. They did this for love and they said they did not want to make money, but when the international production company, the Really Useful Group heard about it, they stopped the show,” Fei said.
“When we learned that there would be new Asian tour of the show after almost 10 years, we contacted them immediately and asked that Shanghai be placed high on the list of venues because we know the Phantom will be as big as ever at the box office.”
When preliminary bookings opened on May 25, 5,000 tickets went on offer and all were sold within five hours.
The universal appeal of this musical is a tribute to the original creators and the production company that ensures the standards of the show are maintained at all times and everywhere in the world.
The stage set with its lush velvet curtains, underground canals and lakes, fountains and huge chandelier make this one of the most spectacular stage productions in history. Another highlight is the concept of the half mask the Phantom wears (the Phantom is a disfigured musical genius who haunts the opera house in Paris).
Stewart Crosbie is the technical director of the touring production and in July, he visited Culture Square and told Chinese media that these were all integral to the success of the show. And the mask was the idea of Hal Prince, the legendary Broadway producer who directed the first London production of the musical in 1986.
Prince is now 85 and in an e-mail interview with the Global Times, he explained his concept of having the star wear a half mask.“I believed that it would free the performer in a way that a conventional mask would not. It was important that you see as much of his face as possible, including his eyes, and the half mask accomplishes that.”
Prince believes that old-fashioned theatricality is one of the keys to the show’s success – and the illusion of empty space. “I really don’t care much for updated technology, primarily because films do that sort of thing much better than we can and what I worship about the theater is empty space.”
He said that while the audience would often see glimpses of items like candelabras or remnants of furniture against a black background, this let the audience members create a fuller scene in their own minds.
“So, clearly, no two people in the audience see exactly the same show, and that’s how it should be. I believe that the audience’s contribution is part of the joy of the experience.” Prince said.
“It is exactly the same for us, the cast,” Little also emphasized. “Although I have played the same role over 2,000 times with probably 10 to 15 different Christines, every night is still different for me.”
Little recalled the time in 1996 when he first auditioned for Hal Prince. “Prince told me to show all the different sides of the character – the sick, the sympathetic and the vengeful. There are many ways to interpret the role and none of them are really wrong.”
And why does he, a performer who has appeared in dozens of major roles on stage, keep coming back to the Phantom? “Every time I’m asked that, I have to say I really don’t know. Who can explain about romance, about love?”
Playing the Phantom has helped Little in an unexpected way, he confessed to the Global Times. He suffers from dyslexia and his experience with this helped mold the way he portrayed the character. “I know what it is like to be called stupid by people so I could relate to the character. And by playing this role I have found self-confidence and got my self-esteem back.”
An Australian star
The Australian soprano Claire Lyon won the part of Christine after auditioning in Australia last year. Previously she had worked with Opera Australia in several productions at the Sydney Opera House.
“But I was singing songs from The Phantom of the Opera when I was about 5 years old in a singing contest and I always dreamed of performing this role,” Lyon told the Global Times. Lyon started to learn ballet when she was 3 years old and later studied music before joining Opera Australia.
Andrew Lloyd Webber’s show about theatrical revenge and true love has become one of the world’s most successful musicals, and is now in its 27th year on the West End stage, and its 25th year on Broadway, alongside productions in many other countries.
Reportedly it is also the most financially successful show of all time with total estimated worldwide takings of over $5.6 billion.
Fei also believes the secret of its success is its theatricality. “The story happens in a theater and it is a story within a story – as the audience is watching a play, the cast of this play is also performing another play.”