A personal tribute from Hal Prince

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A personal tribute from Hal Prince

Post  operafantomet on Tue Mar 20, 2012 8:56 am

"Can it be 25 years ago that I met Maria Bjørnson?

I had agreed to direct Phantom of the Opera, and Cameron Mackintosh recommended five designers for the job. He sent a sampling of photos of their recent productions: all were qualified.

One stood out. Considering the assignment . a flamboyant Victorian melodrama - it must seem strange that was especially impressed with a single-set design - almost minimalist - of an Ibsen play. A rectangle, wooden louvers, beautiful furniture, architecturally spare: an inviting space to tell a powerful story. I chose Maria from a huge photo, which I assumed had originally been framed in front of a theatre.

We spoke over the phone and arranged to meet in London. I chose to stop over in Paris, and arranged for the Assistant Manager of the Paris Opéra at the Garnier to give me a tour. We covered all ten floors - five from the stage to the lake below, and five to the roof, and I met with Maria with those impressions in store.

Of the four major set pieces, one is an elaborate proscenium. It illustrates Lust - women were both escaping and succumbing with pleasure, and their attackers were brutal. All of this I describe because the audience get that message subliminally, because it is diluted - acting as a picture frame, and focusing you on what the stage contained, which was beautiful, selective, and informative, also minimalist.

Then there are three "cod" operas, which fills the stage with color.

The show opens with an auction, which contains no music and is limited to dialogue, and actually is more of a funeral than a realistic auction. It is followed by Maria's first coup de théâtre. A full-stage set, magnificent drapes, followed by canvas drops rise from the floor to create Hannibal, a lightly satirical version of the Paris Opéra production of Aida.

The second, near the end of the first act, is comic - faux Mozart, in the style of The Marriage of Figaro. Called Il Muto in our production, it is complete with pretty pink scenery and the cast in heavy white and black makeup, wearing elaborate wigs and beautiful costumes.

The third of the operas, in Act Two, is a new version of Don Juan (Don Giovanni, my note) - created by Andrew and the librettist as a twelve-tone opera, indicating that Phantom's composing is decades ahead of Schönberg and Stockhausen.

For the rest of the musical, Maria chose to leave out many visual details. Intrinsically, it is a black enamel box with bits of gilt and few exquisite props - a desk, a fragmented dressing room, and little else - and the roof of the Paris Opera House with the skyline of the city upstage. You are compelled to fill in the blanks, and each person in the audience sees it differently. There are no doors, just an entrance upstage in a blank wall. You provide the details, you provide the missing wallpaper, you even provide the elaborate sweeping Garnier staircase, which is merely unpolished wooden slats. Maria's costumes (over 500 of them) are as much the scenery as the scenery itself.

After almost 18 months, as the deadline approached to show the finished production to Cameron and Andrew, I had yet to see any costumes. Maria assured me that she could design 25 a day. And she did - elaborate, detailed, and ravishing.

The entire experience was exhilarating - energetic and professional and devoid of any disagreement. I loved every minute of the collaboration, and regret that we never managed to work together again. She often was designing for Covent Garden or elsewhere.

Oh, and one more thing: I will always be grateful to Maria for introducing me to her neighborhood favorite ritual: Sunday buffet at the Bombay Brasserie. I return there every time I'm in London. I wish she were there to reminisce about those fleeting 25 years.

Hal Prince."


(The Scenographer, October 2009)

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Re: A personal tribute from Hal Prince

Post  operafantomet on Tue Mar 20, 2012 9:34 am

In the same magazine - The Scenographer from October 2009 - there is an article written by Martin Hayes, production manager of the original London production. Instead of creating a new topic for it, I post it here:


"I have been asked if I would contribute something to this magazine, from a technical point of view, about working with Maria Bjørnson. Where to start?

I first worked with her when I was the Production Manager on the opera Toussaint at the English National Opera. Maria had come up with a stunningly original design and it incorporated various large, and very irregular, scaffolding towers on wheels that had to be manhandled around the stage constantly throughout the action. I arranged for some local building scaffolders to come in, and we started constructing these towers from Maria's scale models of them. To begin with, the scaffolders were completely bemused about the whole exercise (what exactly d'you want darling?) and what was being asked of them ("an opera?") - but Maria's complete lack of any pretense with them, and her infectious sense of humour and fun, won the round completely, and very soon they were saying "but wouldn't it look more interesting if we set this pole at this angle?".

A couple of years later; we worked together again when I was the Production Manager on The Phantom of the Opera. I still feel incredibly privileged that I was one of the very first people, other than Maria's assistant Jonathan Allen, to see the entire show. Maria asked me, very early on, to come to her small basement flat in West Brompton to see the model of her design. Everything was perfectly and beautifully modelled-up, and she took me through the show in order: the opening auction scene - where the chandelier is plugged in and flies out to its hanging position as the opera house comes back to life before your eyes. The journey from Christine's dressing room - through the mirror, down the tilting ramps, and into the boat, and then via all the lifting candles and candelabra to the Phantom's lair.

On and on the model showing went: managers' office, different opera scenes, the roof of the opera house, the masquerade ball, the mausoleum, etc. Everything completely worked out, with cut-outs of the actors in their on-stage positions, every scene change described, positions, every prop in place - and surrounding her, across all her walls, every costume drawing with accompanying material swatches, and the whole show story-boarded out from beginning to end. Going through the models took well over four hours - but it was four hours where you just knew that you were a very early witness to something that was going to be incredibly special and excited to think that you could play a part in it.

The truly staggering thing was that pretty much that entire model showing was what was presented on stage some nine months later - with hardly any alteration. It had been that well realized and thought through. That is why I saw I was one of the very first people to see the entire show. My only real recollection of anything not making it to the stage, from the model, was that there were a number of animals that were cut (a white mechanical rotating horse in which the Phantom leads Christine down to the boat, real doves on the rooftop, mechanical rats for the lair - we dubbed the show The Phantom of the Menagerie) - albeit that the monkey and the elephant stayed in!

Maria also had very clear ideas as to exactly which contractors she wanted to work with, and who would build what - from large pieces of scenery and engineering to drapes, from ornate carvings to small hand-props. She stored great loyalty in contractors who had proved themselves to be sensitive to what she wanted and who shared her artistic visions, where second-best was nowhere near good enough and where you constantly strived for perfection, and who also came up with the goods on time - and who did so with a smile on their face and a sense of humour. Terry Murphy, Peter Everett, and Stephen Pyle, deserve a special mention here.

I remember walking away from her model showing feeling blown away and somewhat daunted, knowing what a huge challenge it was to do all that she wanted with the money and the time we had available - and realizing that everything she wanted was absolutely vital to her complete way of visually interpreting the story. I've worked with designers who you sense have intentionally added a "gratuitous" scenic element or two in order that they could later generously (and tearfully!) "offer it up" as a cut, when the set was over budget and cuts were required - but not so with Maria, where everything she had designed was intrinsic and justified.

(...)

To this end, we were fortunate and privileged to work with probably two of the best theatrical design engineers and, for want of a better term, "design realisers" in Mike Barnett and WIll Bowen. Between Mike and Will, they quickly cracked the chandelier safety process and its mechanism, the travelling and tilting bridge platform, and worked out how we could squeeze that enormous set into the Victorian confines of Her Majesty's Theatre.

My Chief recollection of actually putting the show into the theatre was of extraordinary long hours (particularly as we got closer to opening), and of Maria always being there - first person in the morning to the last one at night - and being incredibly supportive, funny, and doing everything with great charm and humility. I remember being right in the thick of it, with scenery malfunctioning, re-writes meaning quicker scene changes, and Maria always just looking back at me with a wry smile as though to say "this isn't real life though is it?".

We were both sitting in the stalls one late night, particularly tired and stressed, and Maria said that she wanted to start a company called the "There, There" company. She explained that you could call this company anytime, day or night, and a group of women in white coats would arrive, wheeling a large wooden four-poster bed. The bed would have pristine white linen sheets and big fluffy pillows. The women would carry you into bed and onto the fluffy pillows, where they would gently stroke your brow and say "there, there....".

That's where I always like to see Maria now, in that pristine white linen-sheeted bed, on those big fluffy pillows, with a lady in white gently stroking her brow saying "there, there...".



(Martin Hayes, The Scenographer, October 2009).

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Re: A personal tribute from Hal Prince

Post  SenorSwanky on Tue Mar 20, 2012 2:43 pm

Just beautiful. Ever more appreciated now that we have this new tour.

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Re: A personal tribute from Hal Prince

Post  PhantomsGhost on Tue Mar 20, 2012 3:04 pm

Thank you so much for typing out those interviews!

I studied Theater design, scenery and costumes in college. Granted I never went in to the field, but Maria Bjornson and Phantom of the Opera is the reason I chose theater in college. I love that she uses the black box with just hints of design here and there, makes one wonder what's behind that curtain, or that dark corner. Could a Phantom really lurk there. I find a black box highlights the actors moreso because they don't have to compete with the stage design. I believe Phantom worked so well and stayed around for so long because the minimalist design makes the audience have to use their imagination to complete the picture. In some ways they become a part of the story themselves.

I personally don't think the replica Phantoms out there or the new tour (and to some extent the 25th anniversary show) really capture the essence of the show. They seem to be over-designed which hurts it. I get they want to be different from the original, and that's fine, but when one steps away from the black box concept it hurts the show.

(I'm a huge fan of black box theater productions, anyway though. The musicals and plays I remember the best are always those which are minimalist in design rather than those that have full sets. I find full sets boring most of the time because I can't use my imagination to fill in the blank spots.)

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Re: A personal tribute from Hal Prince

Post  LadyCDaae on Tue Mar 20, 2012 4:44 pm

I personally don't think the replica Phantoms out there or the new tour (and to some extent the 25th anniversary show) really capture the essence of the show. They seem to be over-designed which hurts it. I get they want to be different from the original, and that's fine, but when one steps away from the black box concept it hurts the show.

This is why I'd like to see a good single-set design for the show--it could capture some of the impressionistic feel of Bjornson's set without trying to mimic her work.

~LCD

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Re: A personal tribute from Hal Prince

Post  Madame Giry on Tue Mar 20, 2012 5:21 pm

Thank you for sharing those articles about Maria. She really was, by all accounts, a remarkable woman.

I think Maria's approach of considering the entire show as a cohesive synthesis of elements in a single vision - encompassing both sets and costumes, is, to a great extent, the reason for the success and longevity of Phantom. Nothing looks out of place - whether overdone, under-done, or inconsistent. It's the whole idea of creating a world that is self-contained and believable; along the lines of what the creative team did for things like the Lord of the Rings films.

Bravo, Maria. Bravo.

~Madame~

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Re: A personal tribute from Hal Prince

Post  operafantomet on Sat Mar 31, 2012 2:30 pm

I was surprised to see a new greeting from Hal Prince in the current West End brochure. It's not long or elaborate, but I always like to read what Hal Prince think of Phantom. Here goes:

"Did you have any idea Phantom would be this successful?

No. Who would? 25 years in London and still going strong, 23,5 years on Broadway. And the Japanese production, scheduled for a six-month run in April 1988, well, you can catch it tonight in Tokyo.

When ALW
(he use that spelling, true story!) asked me one evening over coffee whether I though The Phantom of the Opera was musical material, I was instantly hooked. It is surprising, isn't it, that there are so few truly romantic musicals!

I believe the secret to this unparalleled success was working with a team of consummate professionals - from the producers to its masterly composer, his musicians, his bookwriter and lyricist, a super-prodigious choreographer, a fabulous stage designer, brilliant lighting and sound, and a crew ready for anything. And then, of course, over all these years, its protean casts.

But none of this would have happened were it not for you - the audience.

My wife recalls the first day of rehearsals thus: "It was just another day when Hal went to work with a lot of talented people".

Hal Prince (October 2011)

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Re: A personal tribute from Hal Prince

Post  AlwaysChristine on Sat Mar 31, 2012 3:58 pm

PhantomsGhost wrote:Thank you so much for typing out those interviews!
I personally don't think the replica Phantoms out there or the new tour (and to some extent the 25th anniversary show) really capture the essence of the show. They seem to be over-designed which hurts it. I get they want to be different from the original, and that's fine, but when one steps away from the black box concept it hurts the show.

Why do you think that?

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Re: A personal tribute from Hal Prince

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