The 'Phantom' chandelier defines 'coup de teatre'

Flashier than the rising tire in “Cats” and less overbearing than the helicopter in “Miss Saigon,” the chandelier in “The Phantom of the Opera” is one of the most beloved set pieces in Broadway history. Despite its precarious nightly travels — rising from the stage to its perch above the house at the beginning of the show and then crashing back down at the end of the first act — the delicate centerpiece of the late Maria Bjornson’s Tony-winning set is pretty crisis-proof.

As “Phantom” becomes the longest-running musical in Broadway history, the production’s chandelier is celebrating, too. Though the plastic decorations — the 6,000 beads, the globes and the gold lyres — have been replaced twice, the aluminum frame is the same one that was used on opening night. “It’s given us relatively few problems,” says Peter von Mayrhauser, who has been the production supervisor overseeing all U.S. companies of “Phantom” for 11 years.

The famous drop is highly choreographed. Two cables attached to the ceiling above the house lower the chandelier until it’s 10 feet above the heads of the audience. Then, four cables attached to the top of the proscenium bring the chandelier over the first few rows of the audience and over the orchestra pit until it’s just inches from the stage. A flash of light — from a strobe hidden inside the chandelier’s frame and two crash lights on the stage floor — blinds the audience, so they cannot see the hulking mass as it settles onto the stage like someone with a backache collapsing into an armchair, steadied by two stagehands holding onto handles behind it.

Craig Jacobs, who has been the Broadway production stage manager for nine years, says while audiences still duck when the chandelier swoops downward, it floats deceptively high above the audience’s heads. Few have to worry. “If you were Tommy Tune, you could probably touch it,” he notes.

The only Broadway perf when the chandelier did not fall came in 1999, Jacobs recalls. As a result of a power surge, the angel that descends from the top of the proscenium would not go back up, and it was blocking the chandelier’s path. During intermission, it took the crew 20 minutes to hand-crank the angel upward, with the Phantom still on it.

Since the creators did not want an obtrusive, anachronistic electrical cord hanging out of the chandelier, its lights run on batteries and are triggered by remote control. Jacobs says whenever the Secret Service is in the area — such as during the 2004 Republican Convention, when New York GOP biggies Pataki, Giuliani and Bloomberg went around visiting theatergoing delegates — its communication system interferes with the remote control, sometimes causing the chandelier’s lights to flash out of turn.

On the road, there have been relatively few problems. Von Mayrhauser says the chandelier has failed to fall only once or twice in the stix. When that happens, the crew has let the chandelier fall during the bows so the audience can see the effect.

For each theater on tour, months before “Phantom” arrives, a crew installs a steel structure above the auditorium ceiling to hold two of the cables (though at this point, most big road houses have it already). The touring company has two chandeliers, so the run in City A can continue while a second chandelier is installed in City B.

Each of the chandeliers is affectionately named “Ruthie,” after director Hal Prince’s longtime associate Ruth Mitchell, who died in 2000. The Broadway version has “Ruthie II” engraved on its back (“Ruthie I” is in London).

Still bigger thrills await chandelier fans. Jacobs says for the upcoming Las Vegas production, since the theater is being custom-built and automation technology has progressed over 18 years, the chandelier there will be twice as big as the Broadway version.

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