When it comes to musicals, they don't get much bigger and grander than The Phantom of the Opera. So tonight, when the lavish production begins its three-and-a-half-week run at Dubai Opera, it will more than likely be further confirmation that the venue has become the premiere stage in the region.
Based on the 1909 classic novel by Gaston Leroux, the Andrew Lloyd Webber musical revolves around a French theatre company and its Phantom, a disfigured musical prodigy who lives beneath the theatre.
After the company's new vocal talent, Christine, catches the Phantom's attention, he mentors her to becoming a star soprano. With Christine's success comes the attention of the opera house's benefactor, and the singer's childhood friend, Raoul. The romance that blossoms between them sends the Phantom into a jealous frenzy and murder and mayhem ensue.
The version coming to Dubai is the real deal
Fans of the musical will know that the only way to do it justice is to go big, and the Broadway Entertainment Group production that will take place in Dubai is the real deal.
In May, The National attended a sold-out show by the company in Singapore and its version of the musical is every bit as grand as diehard Phantom of the Opera fans would expect.
There are more than 200 costumes, from the lush regalia worn by the French nobility to the lavish ballgowns and ballet attire worn by the characters in the theatre side of the story. The Phantom's Gothic lair is also beautifully realised, with candelabras and exquisite furniture steeped in a fog generated by a smoke machine. With a one-tonne chandelier crashing to the floor, a boat cruising a Parisian canal and expert use of stage lighting, the production is visually appealing. However, all the high-tech wizardry doesn't overshadow the production's major draw – great songs delivered by a fine cast.
The characters all have hidden depths
Playing the title character is Jonathan Roxmouth. The South African actor is simply immense and channels the right amount of pathos and intensity into the role. He says he is intrigued by what the Dubai audience will think of his Phantom, with a range of actors having taken on the cape and white mask.
Ever since the musical had its premiere in London's West End in 1986, the character's intentions have been debated. When it comes to his soulful take on the role, Roxmouth says the Phantom's trademark rage stems from his vulnerability. "I speak to a lot of people who saw the show and they view the Phantom as malevolent," he says in Singapore. "I never really viewed him that way at all. Like Peter Pan, the Phantom never really grew up. He never really experienced what love is. What people saw in him, particularly when he was lashing out, was that he was acting out of fear. It can be easily misunderstood as menace, but to be that way is to be calculating. The Phantom is not that at all, he lives in the moment and goes by what he feels."
The other characters in the musical also go on a journey of self-discovery. Australian actress Claire Lyon plays Christine, while British-American actor Matt Leisy, who stars in the role of Raoul, says the audience's opinion of his character will improve as the drama unfolds.
"We have Andrew Lloyd Webber to thank for that because in the book, [Raoul] was basically snivelling and immature and would just break down and break things when he doesn't get what he wants," he says. "The musical adds a few more nuggets to the story that allows him to grow up, essentially. [By the end] he is a different person to the one at the start of the play."
The differences between the musical and the original book
While Lloyd Webber has been rightly praised for composing the songs that became famous, such as The Music of the Night and Think of Me, Roxmouth says the composer should also be credited with realising the story's potential in the first place. "That's because the book itself doesn't know what it is," says Roxmouth. "It doesn't know if it is a murder mystery, a crime chronicle or a romance. What jumped out for Andrew Lloyd Webber was that the story was a high romance and that he could use that as an impetus for a musical."
One of the key character changes Lloyd Webber made while adapting Leroux's story was the creation of Madame Giry. Played in this production by American actress and singer Melina Kalomas, Giry is the theatre's caretaker whose stern methods disguise her tender affection for the young actors working for the company and the Phantom himself.
"If you read the book, her character is a combination of the girl who is the theatre usher and the character of the Persian – the person who really knows the secret of the Phantom," she says. "In the musical, Madame Giry is this powerful woman who is wise and protective of everyone. The way that I play her is similar to a big sister."
Playing The Phantom is a humbling experience
This raises the question of how much creative leeway the cast is allowed when performing one of the world's best-loved musicals. "While the story is pretty much set, we have been able to bring our lenses to the characters," says Leisy.
Kalomas says that it is casting choices that give each production its own flair. "That's because each person will bring a bit of their own personality to their roles," she says. "If you cast wise and interesting people, then they could bring interesting new qualities to the characters within the confines of the universe of the show."
While Roxmouth agrees with that sentiment, he also says that performing in The Phantom of the Opera is as much a responsibility as a thrill. "It is a double-edged sword. You can make the production your own but then you run the risk of giving a show that the audience were not promised," he says.
"The beauty of The Phantom of the Opera is that, as actors, it doesn't need any one us. The material is so strong and was written by people that remain industry legends. This allowed the show to go on after the original cast. When you realise that, it really humbles you as a performer."
Five facts about the musical
With the Dubai premiere of The Phantom of the Opera taking place tonight, here are some facts and figures about the world's most successful musical.
It is more than 30 years old
The musical first opened at Her Majesty’s Theatre in London’s West End on October 9, 1986. It starred Michael Crawford as the Phantom and Sarah Brightman as Christine.
People love the album
With more than 40 million copies sold, the original 1986 cast recording is the biggest-selling album of its genre.
It is bigger than ‘Star Wars’
Since the show's debut, it has been watched by more than 140 million people across 35 countries, grossing about $6 billion (Dh22bn). Its box office revenue is higher than that any film or stage play in history, including Titanic, Avatar and the Star Wars films.
The chandelier used in the Dubai show is a monster
It is consists of about 6,000 beads, with 35 beads attached to each of its strings. The chandelier is three metres wide and weighs one tonne. It has lots of hair
For each season of The Phantom of the Opera, up to 164 wigs are used. Made from human hair, they are rolled and then dried in an oven for 24 hours in preparation for each show.
The Phantom of the Opera starts today and runs until Saturday, November 9. Tickets start from Dh250. Dubai Opera, Downtown Dubai, www.dubaiopera.com