In 1986, Andrew Lloyd Webber’s "The Phantom of the Opera" premiered on London’s West End. It has since become the most successful entertainment event ever, grossing over $5.9 billion worldwide.
French author Gaston Leroux wrote the original tale in 1910, and based his story on urban legends surrounding Paris’s Palais Garnier, considered by many to be the most famous opera house in the world.
The show has garnered a worldwide following, with official shows in Europe, Turkey and China. On the musical’s 25th anniversary, licensing became available to academic institutions.
In 1994, Phantom's United States tour came to Arizona State University's Grady Gammage Memorial Auditorium in Tempe. Twenty-one years later, it returns for its sixth production, running from May 27 to June 7, 2015.
Fourteen student journalists from around the country were brought to the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism at Arizona State University to look at Gammage, “Phantom,” and how the two have made an impact on the greater Phoenix area.
Story copyedited by Will True.
Story design and editorial layout by Thomas Neas and Graham Starr.
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Leroux's original story is set in Paris's famed Palais Garnier in the late 1800s, and tells the story of a disfigured man named Erik. Erik haunts the opera house as the masked Phantom, traveling throughout via a series of caves and tunnels under the building.
During a production of "Faust," Erik is drawn to the female lead, Christine. However, she loves another man, Raoul, and the two intend to run away together. The Phantom is incensed, and drops a chandelier from the ceiling during a performance.
Later, Erik kidnaps Christine and takes her to his lair, a giant lake underneath the opera house. When Christine shows kindness rather than scorn, Erik allows her to leave, resigning himself to die alone.
It’s a fantastical story, full of mystery, love and loss. But how much really happened?
We investigated the legends and truths behind Leroux's story, and shine some light on the darkness.
Berlioz, the Skull and the Phantom
Another story that inspired Leroux to write "Le Fantôme de l'Opéra" involves French composer Hector Berlioz and a human skull.
The story goes that Berlioz, a composer of the Romantic era, once attended a performance of the opera "Der Freischütz" at the Palais Garnier. Berlioz admired the composer, Carl Maria von Weber, stating, “Weber took my heart by storm.”
While Berlioz, his friend and the rest of the audience were enraptured, one man was not, booing and hissing during the entire performance. Berlioz was furious - he cursed at the man, and eventually security threw the man out.
Several years passed, and Berlioz forgot. One night, he met the friend that went with him to the play, a doctor named Eugene Sue. Sue told Berlioz what had happened in his ward earlier that day: a man with a brain disease died there, and his head was misshapen. Sue identified the man as the one that had belittled von Weber at the opera house.
Several more years passed, and Berlioz planned a production of Der Freischütz at the Palais Garnier.
In the show, a hunter casts magic bullets in an elaborate ritual featuring horse skeletons, snakes and owls. Berlioz was famous for his love of the macabre. Prior to the performance, Berlioz asked Sue for a human skull to use in the ritual as a finishing touch. Sue agreed, provided that Berlioz returned it.
As the scene started, Berlioz noticed the skull was deformed. Memories of Weber's heckler rushed back to Berlioz; Berlioz looked Sue, who was with him, and found him smiling back impishly. In a stroke of delicious irony, the man who hated Berlioz’s favorite opera was now a prop in Berlioz’s own production.
There are several variations of this story. In one version, Sue brings an entire skeleton to the Palais Garnier without Berlioz’s knowledge, and demands Berlioz use it. In another, the skeleton belongs to a ballerina from the opera house whose remains finds a home in Berlioz’s production.
Because of this myth, word spread of a ghost haunting the opera house. Leroux used this legend as inspiration for his story, citing the tale heavily in his original manuscript. The bulk of that citation was eventually cut, but when combined with the chandelier accident and the underwater network, the bigger picture of "Phantom of the Opera" comes into focus.
Written by Will True. Header image by Alexa Wybraniec.
Section by Madi Alexander, Thomas Neas and Will True.
“There is a really great scene here and it is alive and well,” says Jeffrey Nardone, a professional opera singer. “It’s exciting. They just need to keep pushing more and more.”
Nardone, 33, recently won the Phoenix Opera’s Southwest Vocal Competition. He currently teaches music at North Phoenix Preparatory Academy.
“From what I’ve seen, it’s kind of an untapped market out here,” Nardone, a native of New Jersey, says. “There’s such a great culture out here already, you know, the southwest culture.”
Nardone believes that a combination of factors created the perfect storm in Phoenix – a strong culture, a dedicated arts community and young contributors. At the Phoenix Opera, new management is especially motivated to take risks, hoping to expand their audience. Although the opera community is small, it is tight-knit.
“They’re young, they’re exciting, they’re passionate about opera and they’ve been doing a good job,” Nardone says. “They’re trying to do all of the things that opera companies and art organizations need to do.”
Without ASU’s auditorium, the area would be much quieter.
“The opening of the auditorium represented steps toward the maturation of our university and a nod towards the importance of the arts and culture,” says Robert Spindler, an archivist at Hayden Library on the Tempe campus.
The auditorium was designed by architect Frank Lloyd Wright in 1958. Due to insufficient funds, the project wasn’t completed until 1964. It was dedicated to his friend and then-president of Arizona State University, Henry Grady Gammage. Gammage committed his career to the university, spending much of his later life creating a center for the arts on campus. When it was built, it was the only performing arts center of its kind. It opened up endless opportunities for the arts in Phoenix.
According to Spindler, Henry Grady Gammage’s idea was to always have people – students, staff and community members – involved in the arts. He believed that it was very important to push for the arts and learn new things.
"I'll build you a building that will be a gateway to your university,” Wright said to Gammage in 1958. “It will be a gateway [on an intellectual] level. It will introduce what you stand for... it will make your university.”
Over the last 50 years, the Henry Grady Gammage Auditorium has played a large role in the development of the arts for both the university and the community. Its unique atmosphere stems from the support of the university and branches out to the surrounding desert. People come from everywhere — California, Nevada and even Mexico — for the unique experience Phoenix offers.
At the Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts at Arizona State University, students study art, dance, design, music, theater and film. The school has partnerships with local arts organizations, including the Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art and the Phoenix Art Museum. The school also promotes local galleries, events and studios.
“The spreading arms of Gammage Auditorium represent a welcoming of the community to the university campus,” Spindler says. “It’s an icon.”
The auditorium attracts professional artists, who inspire and expand upon local art. Its influence extends beyond academia.
The Normal Diner is a small, seven-month-old restaurant attached to the Graduate Hotel. It sits just one block away from campus and boasts a scenic view of the Henry Grady Gammage Auditorium. If the auditorium is the heart of the arts in Phoenix, The Normal Diner is the soul.
“It’s kind of new and fresh and alive,” Maria Walton, the diner’s assistant manager, says of the new restaurant. “It’s really exciting.”
The Graduate Hotel hosts actors, stage and crew during productions, and Normal is often their first stop for coffee in the morning. It also serves as a place to unwind at night.
“We do have some [regulars] that are season ticket holders,” Walton says. “They want to enjoy the show and then spend some time here.”
The walls of the diner are plastered with artwork from Arizona State University students and Native American artists. Particularly popular is a mural on the back wall featuring photographs taken from “High Times” magazine. It was designed by a local artist, and is routinely Instagrammed by customers.
Walton says that Tempe is known for its unique arts. For example, her friend sells art pieces made from metal to various places around the city, and enjoys attending festivals in the downtown district. Tempe also has a vibrant rock and pop scene.
“You know what’s really wonderful? We’ve grown up,” says Colleen Jennings-Roggensack, the executive director of the auditorium. “In 1992, we were still a fledgling city in a fledgling metropolitan area. We now get to play with the big kids, so corporations who are thinking about moving here – or potential Sun Devils – will say, ‘I’m coming to ASU because I know I can see Broadway shows.’ And we do other programs in addition to Broadway, so ‘I know I can see Philip Glass do his 20 Variations. I can see Meredith Monk. I can see the Bolshoi ballet start their American Tour here.’”
According to Spindler, the auditorium was the only one of its kind in the area when it was constructed. Now, every major city has a center for the arts. It is a cultural requirement — a mark of a true community.
As the arts grow with and around the area, so does the auditorium.
Written by Alexa Wybraniec. Header image by Graham Starr.
Section by Harrison Brink, Curtis Spicer, Graham Starr and Alexa Wybraniec.
Actors, dancers, a world-famous chandelier and an ear-grabbing musical score are what audience members expect from a "Phantom of the Opera" production. But behind the black curtain, there is a well-oiled machine, responsible for all transport, set-up and scene changes.
In preparation for opening night at the Gammage Auditorium in Tempe, stagehands spent three days unloading 20 big rigs filled with props, wardrobe and set components. As the pieces of the play were brought through the loading dock and into the backstage area, carpenters, electricians and still more stagehands began assembling the massive, heavily automated set.
Colleen Jennings-Roggensack, the executive director of Gammage, said these three days have an exciting, fast-paced atmosphere.
“Many of the crew that come along with the show have been here before, so they know all of the quirks [of Gammage],” she said.
And Gammage has a surprising number of quirks, since it was never intended to house a show like "Phantom."
ASU Gammage opened in 1964, and the Philadelphia Orchestra was its first performance. When Frank Lloyd Wright designed Gammage, it was meant for orchestral performances. As a result of its intended use, Gammage has put millions of dollars into renovations so “mega-hit” Broadway shows like "Phantom" can take the stage, as it has six times now.
In 1994, when "Phantom" came to Gammage for the first time, Jennings-Roggensack reinforced the ceiling with steel. That way, the chandelier – which plays an important role in the show – could hang safely above the audience.
One of the biggest obstacles that year was determining how to remove an orchestral shell that had been adhered to the stage. The 8-ton shell was blocking 12 feet of usable stage.
“As Broadway shows were getting larger, I knew we had to figure out a way to move [the shell],” Jennings-Roggensack said.
Gammage invested $2 million into the effort to move the shell. With the help of engineers from NASA, Gammage designed a system that inflated air bladders underneath the shell. With it safely off the stage, the team moved it to a new building, designed and built specifically to store the shell.
Because of Gammage's investments then, there were fewer large-scale changes that had to be done for this new production. Still, Gammage had to invest more in more ceiling reinforcements.
Even with all these changes, some aspects of Gammage’s quirkiness can’t be altered. For instance, a curved loading dock limits the number of trucks that can unload at once – an aspect of the venue that stagehands must simply work around.
Starting at 8 a.m., stagehands worked tirelessly, using forklifts and dollies to transport different parts of the show into Gammage. Once the pieces were placed, electricians, carpenters, riggers and stagehands put the set together.
Tom Bertchie, one of the stagehands who worked on the "Phantom" load-in, said some crew members had started putting the set together before the tour even reached Tempe.
“They had people in here a week ago, two weeks ago, shoring up the stage because it’s such a heavy show,” he said. Stagehands added extra reinforcements under the stage in order to better support set pieces that weigh up to ten tons.
Jennings-Roggensack said that Gammage began preparation for this show years ahead of time.
This prep work makes load-ins much smoother. As the tour goes on and they repeat these load-ins, the crew is able to streamline their process.
Robert Fedusenko, a veteran truck driver who transported the wardrobe to Tempe, said that the loading process has sped up in nearly every touring production he has worked on.
“After a while they get in a groove,” he said of touring production crews. This is true for "Phantom" as well. Jennings-Roggensack said that while the tour in 1992 took two and a half weeks to move in from 27 trucks, this version finished in just three days.
Of the 20 truck drivers who moved the "Phantom’s" set from Portland to Phoenix, only one stays with the performance for the entirety of the tour: the lead driver. The others are brought in for a “spot move.”
Fedusenko, for example, will continue to El Paso from Phoenix, where he will pick up the set for "Wicked" and move it to its next location.
The drivers are not responsible for unloading the trucks once they arrive. That duty falls to the stagehands, who usually take about two hours per truck. Because of this, many drivers have free time during load in.
Fedusenko said he used his free time during the "Phantom" load-in to learn about search engine optimization.
Once his truck is empty and his job is done, Fedusenko and his wife, Tina, who lives in his truck with him, will set off toward their next destination, indulging in their self-proclaimed “travel fever.”
Written by Matthew Leonard. Header image by Kristie Chua.
Section by Kristie Chua, Matthew Leonard, Gracie McKenzie and Danika Worthington.
The world of musical theater provides fans all over an opportunity of enjoyment and recreation. When it comes to money, musicals like "The Phantom of the Opera" also benefit the communities they play in.
When national tours come into ASU Gammage Auditorium in Tempe, they provide an economic lift for Gammage and surrounding businesses. Although the tally for this production of "Phantom" has not been finalized, an early estimate predicts the show will generate $14 million for the Tempe area.
Colleen Jennings-Roggensack, the executive director of ASU Gammage, said going to a play can cost money beyond the tickets. For instance, paying for a babysitter and for gas creates an “economic engine” within Tempe.
According to Steve Potter, the contracts and facilities manager at ASU Gammage, the current performance has already outsold the last performance of "Phantom."
The entire 2014-2015 ticket season is projected to generate $105 million for the region.
Trent Collicott, general manager of the Graduate Tempe hotel, said that because of its convenient location across the street from Gammage, the hotel experiences a surge in traffic from out-of-town theatergoers.
"The Phantom of the Opera" will be playing at Gammage until June 7. The price of a ticket varies from $60 to $225.
Written by Samantha Incorvaia. Header image by Joshua Farmer.
Section by Katrina Arroyos, Joshua Farmer and Sam Incorvaia.
Fourteen student journalists from around the country were brought to the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism at Arizona State University as part of the Dow Jones News Fund 2015 Digital Media Interns program. Over the course of one week, they completed this multimedia project. Learn more about them below:
Madi Alexander is a graduate student at the University of Missouri School of Journalism. She will be a digital intern at The New York Times.
Katrina Arroyos earned her degrees in broadcast journalism and geography from Arizona State University. She will intern with AccuWeather in State College, Pennsylvania.
Harrison Brink studies journalism at Temple University. He will intern at Comcast in Philadelphia.
Kristie Chua studies film at American University. She is headed to The Journal News in White Plains, New York.
Joshua Farmer studies journalism at Appalachian State University. He will intern at The Tampa Bay Times.
Samantha Incorvaia studies digital journalism at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication. She will intern as a web producer at The Arizona Republic in Phoenix.
Matthew Leonard is a journalism student at Virginia Commonwealth University. He will work with the digital team at The Denver Post.
Gracie McKenzie graduated from Tufts University. She will intern at The Journal News in White Plains, New York.
Thomas Neas earned his bachelor’s degree in journalism from Elon University in North Carolina. He will intern at The Palm Beach Post in Florida.
Curtis Spicer is a graduate student at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication. He will be a digital sports intern at The Arizona Republic in Phoenix.
Graham Starr studied International Relations and Applied Physics at Tufts University. He will intern at The Christian Science Monitor in Boston.
Will True is a graduate student at Carnegie Mellon University. He will intern at the International Center for Journalists in Washington, DC.
Danika Worthington studies journalism at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication. She will intern as a web producer at MSN in Bellevue, Washington.
Alexa Wybraniec studies journalism and French at Rutgers University. She will intern at The Rockford Register Star in Rockford, Illinois.
Photos by Kristie Chua and Harrison Brink.
Header graphic designed by Joshua Farmer.