OXFORD — There have been many starry nights at the Oxford Performing Arts Center in the last decade.
One of those nights was marked by a visit of Broadway’s longest-running show and has left behind memories of the “music of the night” as well as the physical remains of the major player in the penultimate moment of the show.
The chandelier featured in “The Phantom of the Opera” literally takes center stage as The Phantom, making good on a threat, cuts the chandelier from the ceiling of the Paris Opera House.
After The Phantom’s visit to Oxford five years ago, that chandelier made an amazing resurrection to the ceiling of OPAC, where it remains to this day.
Just as The Phantom’s face was revealed in that Lon Chaney moment, the story of how an iconic piece of Broadway history continues to light the way for performers and patrons at one of east Alabama’s most prominent arts venues can now also be unmasked.
The timing for telling the story seems appropriate as Andrew Lloyd Webber’s “The Phantom of the Opera” will cease its record-setting 35-year run on the Great White Way next year after more than 14,000 performances.
Add to that the eve of Halloween and OPAC’s reveal of the 2023 Spring Season, and it’s a “ghost” of a tale screaming to be told.
OPAC director John Longshore said bringing major Broadway shows here can be challenging — especially with a show the size of “Phantom.”
“We have five-to-seven touring Broadway shows every year,” Longshore said. “While these are high caliber, they often are transported with four to six 53-foot-long tractor trailers. For the size of our venue, that’s workable.”
He explained the larger touring shows such as “Phantom” use 20 to 30 of those tractor trailers and “simply will not fit in this venue.”
When the popularity of a show crashes into seemingly impossible logistics, it calls for both creativity as well as the enthusiastic spirits of some homegrown talent.
Enter the Jacksonville Opera Theater at Jacksonville State University.
“I worked with their director, Dr. Nathan Wight, to collaborate in producing the first non-touring production of ‘Phantom’ in the state of Alabama,” Longshore said. “It was a partnership between OPAC and JSU.”
He recalled the show had student talent, full orchestra and “incredible scenery that were all built here.”
“We wanted it to be unique but also faithful to the original Broadway production – meaning a number of necessary set pieces are required,” he said. “You need the staircase for the Masquerade Ball. You need the boat for The Phantom to sail Christine across the flooded basement of the opera house.”
“And, most importantly,” Longshore added, “you have to have the chandelier.”
Designing and building a staircase and boat were easy.
Designing and building a chandelier that will fly through the air and crash to the stage floor was another matter.
“We contacted a company that specializes in aerial effects — such as flying people and scenic elements — for all kinds of Broadway shows and Super Bowls,” Longshore said. “We told them what we were doing and if they could suggest any options.”
The company offered access to a chandelier that had been on a national tour of “Phantom” and “had been well used.”
“They came and installed it just about where it is now,” Longshore said. “They also added a big truss, which formed a track to the stage and added strobe effects.”
During the show, the Phantom cuts the cord, causing the prop to fly over the audience to the point of where it crashes to the ground and sets the opera house on fire “to prove his point.”
“The production was phenomenally well received, considering it wasn’t a Broadway tour,” Longshore said. “It was remarkably well done, considering the resources we had.”
SHIP IT WHERE?
“The Phantom of the Opera” played OPAC from June 9-18, 2017.
The actors, musicians and set pieces had easy paths returning home after the run as they were all from the local area.
But the chandelier … that was another story.
“We understood from the scenic company, the chandelier was past its life as a usable set piece,” Longshore said. “We were looking at shipping it back and we understood they were going to scrap it or use it for spare parts. That’s when, on sort of a wild hare, we asked if we could just buy it from them other than just ship it back.”
The company eventually said they would sell to OPAC for the price of $800, which would have been the cost of shipping it back to the company.
OUT OF THE SHADOWS
The chandelier was in a road case “that was the size of a hot tub,” Longshore said.
“It sat in that case for two years until we renovated the theater with the new box seats and a historic theatre paint motif,” he said. “Once we did that, having the chandelier made more sense.”
It had been used a few times as a set piece on stage — one of those being an Atlanta Pops concert featuring three former “Phantom of the Opera” stage performers.
“That was lovely but, other than that, it just sat in the box,” Longshore said. “The renovations made us realize we had now found its true space.”
Longshore said the chandelier was readied for its last and forever bow with “a lot of cleaning, a lot of touch up work and replacing its control system.”
It was then lifted by a chain hoist system to the OPAC ceiling where it has remained ever since.
“It is the size of a small car weighing close to 1,000 pounds and we want to ensure the only crash it is responsible for is the one caused by The Phantom in a theatrical way,” Longshore said. “It is lowered on occasion for cleaning and maintenance, but that’s it.”
THE BROADWAY SPIRIT
The Phantom’s chandelier has added a special aura to the many performances the venue has since hosted, and many performers take note of the instantly recognizable Broadway set piece.
As recently as last month, The Texas Tenors, which have made music from “Phantom” part of their regular repertoire, joked from the stage about taking it with them when they leave.
“One thing that is fun is we do have Broadway tours come in that have some old hats who have worked on ‘Phantom’ and they are enamored by it,” Longshore said.
“It is a Broadway set piece and not necessarily an antique or historic item,” he said. “But we feel it is very much at home here and speaks to our commitment to do things at a high level where possible. It’s my favorite thing about the room.”
THE PHANTOM HAS COMPANY
The Phantom may not be alone during the dark hours at OPAC, Longshore said.
“According to many members of our staff, we have two resident ghosts,” he said. “Charles is the ghost of a person who was jailed here in the ’70s and Little Annie is the ghost of a student from the ’30s when this was a school. Annie lives upstairs and Charles is known to roam about the basement.”
OPAC will host a special reveal of its Spring 2023 season of performances at 7:30 p.m. Friday.
Tickets are free, but a very limited number remain.
The Phantom, Charles and Little Annie are the only three patrons for whom a ticket will not be required.