Reports continue to come through at the time of writing on planned changes to the West End production of The Phantom of the Opera, in terms of modernising the set and reducing the size of its orchestra, from twenty-seven to fourteen members, increasing the amount of pre-recorded music in the show. The production’s staff, including cast, backstage crews and musicians, have apparently been let go, not that they were earning money in any event since the shutdown back in March 2020, and as I understand it, they are for all intents and purposes classed as self-employed, so would not have been covered by the Government’s furlough scheme (formally called the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme), and not all are necessarily covered by the grants paid out under the Self-Employment Income Support Scheme.
Such changes have been, I think, in discussion for some time, and have probably only been accelerated as a result of theatres being closed due to the coronavirus. There are fans of the show who are inevitably very upset by the news, further exacerbated by the apparent gagging orders placed on those (previously) involved in the production. The show was profitable as it was (if it wasn’t, changes would have been made years ago), and various stock phrases come to mind, such as ‘reinventing the wheel’, and ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’.
The problem is that the production’s set is rather dated, and the production is indeed in need of modernisation. My acknowledgement of this will not be music to the ears of the ‘phans’ who are keen for the original production to be retained in its full glory and majesty. But (spoiler alert) there have been occasions when the chandelier doesn’t fall as it is supposed to just before the interval, ostensibly for safety reasons.
There are also those who have seen the show at various points over the years who think the production has lost its passion somewhat compared to how it was when it was a new show in 1986. I simply haven’t seen it enough times over the years to comment extensively on that, though it is concerning that the work of Gillian Lynne and Harold Prince on the show is unlikely to be carried forward now that they have passed on. The reasons for the changes are undoubtedly connected to reducing the cost base (irrespective of the ‘new normal’ in the ‘post-Covid world’) of the show and therefore squeezing yet more profit margin out of theatregoers who are subjected to high ticket prices enough as it is. And, as John Barrowman put it on Twitter, “this closing… will allow producers to renegotiate everything while still keeping the huge profits for themselves. Using this pandemic as an excuse to do it is a bit shameless.”
The harsh reality is that it has always been thus – the production was born when Margaret Thatcher was in Downing Street, and private enterprise of this nature, even in the arts, was applauded (well, ‘hear-heared’), in Parliament, and used as an example of how the arts can flourish without Government funding. I have yet to see the touring production of Phantom – the ‘new’ production in the West End will, allegedly, be largely if not entirely the same scaled-down version. Fortunately or unfortunately, at the end of the day, I’m not going to slate a set I haven’t yet seen. From what I can tell it was well received when it opened at the Curve Theatre in Leicester. Take this from the ‘Not Exactly Billington’ blog: “The production is spectacular in the truest sense, and even the most curmudgeonly of spectators will find something to enthuse over.”
It was also interesting to read on social media about someone who did work experience backstage some years ago. Phantom had, she was told, considerably more stagehands than any other West End production – the staircase in ‘Masquerade’ takes a team of approximately twenty people to set up. And in all of this, I remain conscious that people have more important things to concern themselves with at the moment – the daily statistics still coming through of people passing as a result of this deadly virus are a reminder that there are too many people that will never see Phantom or any other theatre show in any capacity ever again. Finally, I couldn’t help but smile at a remark on social media that it naturally follows that The Phantom of the Opera would be among the first big musicals to reopen on the London stage. After all, the central character already wears a mask.
London lad, loving life and all that it has to offer.