Texas Tech is the first university to get the rights for Andrew Lloyd Webber’s play, the longest-running Broadway show in history.
The scene opens staidly enough: half a dozen people standing, bidding on dust-covered items from days gone by. The auctioneer rattles off each item – a painting, a pistol, a music box and finally a chandelier. A man in a wheeled chair raises his hand; the movement is slow.
The first words uttered by Josh Reynolds, the man in the chair, are quiet. He sings, almost to himself, as he peers at the music box. An uninitiated audience member may not know its significance, but that it is significant there is no doubt. The large room, filled with people, is silent as a cave.
Then the scene breaks and Reynolds puts his feet on the floor, pushing himself off to careen into the corner where another actor catches him. Both laugh. Dozens of people – dancers and singers in heels, sweatpants, ballet shoes, socks, jeans and dress pants – move to their places and wait for direction. Gerald Dolter, director of the Opera Theatre program at Texas Tech University, and stage manager Dimitri Pappas, a chemistry professor, wait for everyone to take position.
With a nod, the cast bursts into song. “The Phantom of the Opera” is about to make its collegiate debut with some Broadway chops; Texas Tech alumnus and returning student David Gaschen, who played the Phantom more than 1,500 times on Broadway and throughout Europe, returned to his alma mater to reprise his role once again.
“The students are performing in the most important production of their lives,” said Dolter, who is directing the show. “The audience will witness a production of historic significance for Texas Tech and Lubbock. This likely will not happen again in Lubbock.”
Get a behind-the-scenes look at the production, which opens on Friday. The show, which the Opera Theatre program in the School of Music is presenting along with Moonlight Broadway, will run Nov. 18-22 and Nov. 25-27 at the Lubbock Memorial Civic Center Theatre. Tickets are available at TexasTechPhantom.com. The final dress rehearsal will be at 9 a.m. Thursday (Nov. 17); Texas Tech students can attend for free.
Getting to know the cast
This close to showtime, rehearsals feel very real. The cast does a complete run-through, stopping only occasionally at Dolter's direction to redo a moment that was lacking. Everyone is focused; facial expressions tell a story, music fills the Moonlight Broadway studio where they rehearse.
But outside life is real, too, and doesn't stop for this biggest of performances. All of the performers are students, so multitasking is a given. Gaschen sits off to the side eating dinner. Evan Dunn, a first-semester master's student in opera performance, sits on the floor doing homework; he also filled the time between scenes with studying. Dunn plays Monsieur Andre, one of the new owners of the Paris Opera House. This is one of his early experiences on stage; he studied choral education at Brigham Young University-Idaho and intended to teach choir as a career.
He did, but after his voice teacher recommended opera, Dunn began auditioning and performing on the side. He found a love for the art form and returned to school, auditioning in the spring for this show.
He's new to acting, so this process has been a valuable learning experience, he said. Having Gaschen's insight into how the show should work helps.
Dunn highlighted two scenes, one in each act, in which multiple characters get notes from the Phantom at the same time. All are reading, digesting, discussing and reacting simultaneously, so people talk fast and loud and over each other. That confusion is part of the scene, but the audience still needs to know what's happening.
“We're kind of shooting back and forth rapid fire trying to understand what's going on,” he said.
Another performer who is almost never still is Sidney Loftin. The dance student plays Meg Giry, a ballerina who is the best friend of Christine, the protagonist. Loftin spends much of her down time stretching; her role requires her to dance, act and sing.
Filling that role would be challenging, Dolter knew. He didn't find an actress who could sing and dance, so instead he found a dancer and taught her to sing.
“I've never sung in my life,” Loftin said. “I've never been in choir or taken any voice lessons.”
That has been her biggest challenge, but one she's happy to meet. Being able to dance and sing will open additional avenues to her when she graduates and is looking for full-time work. It is, however, challenging, not least because of the caliber of singers with whom she spends her days.
“It's kind of nerve-wracking, being with all these people who really know what they're doing, and I'm faking it until I make it,” she said with a laugh.
Her favorite part is the climax – the scenes in the Phantom's underground lair when Christine, Raoul and Phantom struggle individually and as a dysfunctional love triangle with lives, love and happiness on the line for all.
“It was just so good, and it felt so real,” she said. “The tension in the room was so high I just started crying.”
Setting the stage
The tension is real throughout the rehearsal, even though they must act with very few props. The company got into the Lubbock Memorial Civic Center Auditorium on Sunday, five days before the first show. Before that they rehearsed in the Lubbock Moonlight Musical's building, imagining the objects they had to step around, the grand staircase they would come down for the masquerade and the chandelier crashing to the ground.
Although the backdrop is different, the scene is second nature to Gaschen. He has performed this role hundreds of times, and the words, notes and movements have come back to him. Despite all of his experience, however, he shares similarities with the rest of the cast: All of his family is coming to see him on stage. This show is a dream come true for him.
“It's kind of surreal,” said Gaschen, who is the youngest of eight children, all of whom attended Monterey High School and Texas Tech. “To have the opportunity to come back and do this is incredible. I'm a lucky dude.”
He speaks highly of Reynolds, who plays Raoul, and Marissa Hernandez, who plays Christine. Gaschen is performing as he would on Broadway and said the rest of the cast is keeping pace. But it's not just like Broadway. As the veteran in the room, he has the opportunity to take more of a leadership role, helping the cast fine-tune the details. It's helped, others said.
He had two favorite scenes. The first was the same Loftin liked: the love triangle's push and pull in the labyrinth beneath the Paris Opera House. The other was the finale of Act I, when Christine, frightened, runs to the roof, Raoul behind her. The two sing “All I Ask of You,” expressing their love for each other and promise of the future. Phantom lurks behind the wall – represented by two chairs during rehearsal – before singing a sad reprise of their love song.
“It really shows how brokenhearted he is and really how angry and evil he can be,” Gaschen said.
Getting to know the characters
None of the cast is new to “Phantom of the Opera,” but all are getting to know who their characters are. Dunn said they explore not only their characters, but also the others and what motivates them.
“We're really trying to understand the motivation of each character so we know how to relate to each other and tell the story,” he said.
The motivation behind Dunn's Andre is a true love for the arts. His partner, Monsieur Firmin, is a businessman, but neophyte Andre loves being in the opera house and working with the artists.
Christopher Rojas, a first-year master's student in vocal performance, said part of his process is seeking out the personality in the character he portrays. For nitpicking stage manager Monsieur Reyer, that means a desire for a perfect performance.
“It's his job to make sure everyone in the cast is taken care of,” he said. “He wants everything to be as perfect as possible.”
That's clear in an early scene when Reyer stops a rehearsal mid-song, correcting Piangi's pronunciation.
“Not Roma! Rome!” he yells at the Italian opera singer.
“Piangi likes to have a little fun with him,” Rojas said. “They kind of go at it a lot and get on each other's nerves.”
Sarah Clementire Mire, who plays opera diva Carlotta, has gotten a unique look into her character's psyche. Carlotta is repeatedly upstaged by quiet, humble Christine, and the two are frequently at odds with each other. Mire, however, is also the understudy for Christine, making her at some point in a week of rehearsals both the yeller and the yellee.
“It's very fun to do both of those characters,” she said.
No character is as unpredictable as the title character, though. It's not just Gaschen who sees the dichotomy behind the mask. Jen Townsley, a member of the chorus, loves the character, tortured soul and all.
“It's so great to see people portray the Phantom because every line can be taken differently,” she said. “You find yourself both disliking him and having sympathy for him.”
Behind the scenes
All of the roles were filled months ago, and the cast has been working, together and separately, almost every day since school started. But they couldn't get into the auditorium until Sunday. They couldn't fit sets into the rehearsal space. Maestro David Cho and the Lubbock Symphony Orchestra weren't available to rehearse every night. A week ago, the all-important chandelier was in Las Vegas.
They have five days between getting into the theater and go time, and director Dolter said they were working around the clock to get everything into place.
“That's one-tenth of the time you need for a show that's this demanding,” he said.
It's not just the logistics either. The cast has been rehearsing 15-20 hours a week for weeks. Dolter needs to find the point where they have reached their peak without pushing the cast into exhaustion, frustration or even injury. Even with the little time they have in the theater for full rehearsals, the last one will be Thursday morning instead of that evening. Dolter needs them rested.
He also needs them over Thanksgiving, since they'll perform the day before and the day after. To that end, the entire cast will eat Thanksgiving dinner at MCM Elegante.
“It's fitting that we give them Thanksgiving dinner,” he said.
Pappas, who is a frequent participant in Lubbock Moonlight Musicals both on and off stage, saw his job description change when they got onto stage and had sets to be moved, lights to coordinate and props to arrange. His job now is to make sure nothing goes wrong backstage – or if it does, that the audience has no idea.
“This is by far the most technically complex show I've done and perhaps the most complex Texas Tech has put on,” he said. “We have a lot of special effects, pyrotechnics and radio-operated set pieces, and while the cast has been rehearsing for months, the technical aspects of the show come together in just four days. In those four days our technical crew will come together and add the magic to the show.”
That's the same kind of excited pressure the rest of the cast and crew described, including Pappas' fictional counterpart on the stage.
“You never know when you're going to get to perform a show like this,” Rojas said.