Broadway musicals can be divided into two categories: the kind we had before Andrew Lloyd Webber’s legendary adaptation of Phantom of the Opera, and those that have come after. Simply put, the stage musical, and what audiences expect from it, has never been quite the same since Phantom.
“I saw this show when it first opened in New York,” recalls director John Shillington of the Santa Rosa Junior College. “I saw it with Michael Crawford and Sara Brightman, the original stars, so I was introduced to it big-time!”
Before Phantom arrived in New York in 1988, the original cast recording of the 1986 London version had become a sensation, so Shillington was familiar with Webber’s gorgeous score long before he ever sat down to the spectacle of falling chandeliers, misty subterranean catacombs and fiery explosions.
It was, he admits, a life-changing experience.
“The music was just so incredible,” Shillington says. “It was like nothing we’d heard before. It was dazzling.”
And now Shillington himself is directing the show, which opens this weekend in what is surely one of the SRJC theater arts department’s most ambitious projects to date.
“We weren’t sure we could pull it off, to be honest,” says Shillington with a laugh. “When the rights became available a few years ago, we passed at first. We knew we needed a lot of very special talent for this. But this year I said, ‘Let’s just do it!’ And luckily we’ve ended up with an incredible group of singers and actors who really wanted to be a part of this. We have some amazing voices in our show.”
To face the demands of the score—which includes three fully costumed mini-operas—Shillington has double-cast his four primary leads.
“We’ve found, in the past, that it’s just too much to expect young voices to make it through three weekends of a show this vocally demanding,” says Shillington.
Demanding, as well, are the theatrical elements of the show—the famous falling chandelier, for instance.
“We do have a falling chandelier, by golly,” Shillington says. “Everyone expects it, so we’ve gone and made it happen. It doesn’t fall onto the audience, though.”
Just the students onstage, right?
“Well, the show is double-cast,” he jokes. “So if anything goes wrong, we’ll still be OK.”