Dressing up ‘Phantom…’ for the stage

By MIKE CHAIKEN

EDITIONS EDITOR

It’s a safe bet that when someone thinks about “Phantom of the Opera,” the music of Andrew Lloyd Webber comes first to mind.

But the elaborate wardrobe designed by the late Maria Björnson for the musical, which takes a swing through The Palace Theater in Waterbury this month, helps shape the spectacle that unfolds on the stage each night.

Sam Fleming, the U.S. costume associate for the national tour of the show who is responsible for safeguarding Björnson’s legacy—explained the costumes help set the mood, tone, and time period of the story. Fleming also said costumes also help establish the age of the character and the character’s class.

“All over the world, we still use (Björnson’s) sketches (for the costumes),” said Fleming in a phone interview. “We try to keep the costumes as close to her vision as possible,” said Fleming.

Björnson’s meticulousness during her lifetime has helped the task 30 plus years on, said Fleming. “The sketches are really detailed.”

For her designs, Fleming said Björnson did a lot of research about the attire of the period in which “The Phantom of the Opera” is set. She found books with historic photographs of opera performances of the 19th century, and those served as some of her biggest resources, said Fleming.

Sometimes, the passage of time has necessitated some changes to Björnson’s vision, said Fleming. For example, fabrics that were part of the original designs in 1986— that were period appropriate for a show set in the 19th century— might not be available any longer. This means there has to be some changes.

But even Björnson was known to have a re-think of her original designs, said Fleming. Sometimes, for instance, she would look at a costume on stage, and decide the colors didn’t look right under the lighting design. One example is a dress worn by the character Christine. It started out a muted grey and it became a bright peach to be better showcased under the stage lighting.

A more prominent costume piece probably has evolved the most over time, said Fleming. The Phantom’s mask has changed five times since the show first took the stage at Her Majesty’s Theater in London. Björnson wanted the mask to be more defined than its original incarnation, explained Fleming. She reshaped it to accentuate the brow bone and the cheek.

The tour coming to Waterbury has the most defined mask in the history of the show, said Fleming. The nose is straighter and the face is more sculpted.

Although the costumes reflect a time period where getting dressed was a chore— and time consuming— for the person wearing them, there is no time in a stage show for an actor to linger over laces on their corsets and smoothing out their petticoats and buttoning their waistcoats.

Thus, there is a ton of trickery built into the costumes to make quick changes feasible and possible, said Fleming. For instance, the character of Carlotta in Act 1 must change from a full ruffle dress with gloves and jewelry and change into her next costume within 36 seconds. Many times actors have a mere five seconds for the change. There are zippers and Velcro everywhere to facilitate this, said Fleming.

“The audience doesn’t realize how much commotion goes on behind that scenery,” said Fleming.

The costumes also get a work out every night—and throughout the tour. Much of the fabric is heavy—and hot. And actors sweat as they stand under hot lights and plunge forth into the heat of theatrical action.

In order to protect the costumes and keep them pristine, said Fleming, actors are required to wear garment shields on everything. Skin is covered with t-shirts, tights, and more.

“The costumes don’t really touch the actors and that keeps the costumes fresh,” said Fleming.

To also keep the costumes smelling pleasant, said Fleming, they are sprayed with vodka, which is surprisingly effective. Disinfectants also are part of the maintenance arsenal.

In “Phantom of the Opera,” Fleming said there are a lot of costumes. There can be anywhere between 275 to 285 depending on the production. The swings in the cast have over eight costume racks each since they often play several roles during the course of a run.

Fleming has worked with other shows through the years and she said you can tell when an actor likes what they are wearing. They hold themselves in a certain way that indicates they like how they move in the costume and how they look. Thus, adjustments are made for the sake of the performance.

However, for “Phantom,” since the show has been around for such a long time, “We don’t make a lot of adjustments to the clothes (for the actors).” Instead, she said, they put the focus on finding the actors who will fit the costumes.

Performances at the Palace Theater, 100 East Main St., Waterbury run from Wednesday, Nov. 15 to Sunday, Nov. 26. Performances are Wednesdays and Thursdays at 7:30 p.m., Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m., Saturday at 2 p.m., and Sunday at 1 and 6:30 p.m. (on Nov. 19 only), plus Thursday, Nov. 16 at 1 p.m. and Friday, Nov. 24 at 2 p.m.

Additionally, the Mattatuck Museum, 144 West Main St., Waterbury, is hosting a special exhibit of three costumes from the original production by the late Tony Award-winning designer Maria Björnson that will be used in the upcoming production.

Comments? Email mchaiken@BristolObserver.com.

‘The Phantom of the Opera’ comes to Waterbury’s Palace Theater next week.

‘The Phantom of the Opera’ comes to Waterbury’s Palace Theater next week.