PROVIDENCE, R.I. — Mark Campbell started memorizing the songs from “The Phantom of the Opera” when he was 14 – he’d sing along with his portable CD player while mowing the lawn. Not long after, he saw his first performance of the show, and waited outside the stage door to meet the man behind the mask.
Now, he’s playing the Phantom himself in a reimagined production of the longest-running show in Broadway history.
In some ways, Campbell has had to let go of the Phantom he grew up with.
“I don’t want you to reinvent this role, I want you to invent this role,” he remembers director Laurence Connor, who oversaw the original for years, telling him.
The curtain went up Wednesday at the Providence Performing Arts Center on the new “Phantom,” the story of a deformed composer who haunts the Paris Opera House and falls madly in love with an innocent young soprano, Christine, whom he grooms for stardom.
The show, with music composed by Andrew Lloyd Webber, has been seen by over 130 million people in 30 countries and grossed over $5.6 billion worldwide. The new version – with a new set, choreography, lighting and scenic design – is being performed by a cast and orchestra of 52. It will be the first U.S. tour of “Phantom” in three years.
“It’s a much edgier, darker take on the story,” said Campbell during a recent interview at the downtown theater as the crew worked to ready the set for the opening. “It’s been a pretty amazing journey.”
The reimagined version has been in the works for several years. Producer Cameron Mackintosh, whose resume also includes producing the long-running musicals “Les Miserables” and “Cats,” said the aim was not to completely overhaul the original but rather recast some of its best moments in a different way. He wanted what he called a “more muscular” production.
The overhauled set, for instance, is more realistic, he said, leaving the audience feeling more like they’re in the dark nooks of the opera house.
“The pleasure and the power of the show, I think, have remained exactly the same,” Mackintosh said recently by phone from his home in England before heading to the U.S. for the premiere. “Certainly I think there’s an argument that because there’s more reality, the plight of the Phantom is even stronger in some areas.”
The new version debuted last year in the United Kingdom, and its tour sold out.
The show’s most famous prop – the massive gleaming opera house chandelier – remains in the production, but its cascade at the end of Act 1 at the hands of the Phantom is staged differently, as are other scenes “Phantom” fans will remember, Mackintosh said.
“You don’t try and improve on something that’s absolutely wonderful,” he said. “There’s no point changing things just because it’s new; you’ve got to change things because they’re good. And I think that’s what we’ve achieved.”
Twelve cities in addition to Providence have been announced through next September, including Chicago, Philadelphia, Boston and Des Moines; more have been booked. Crew members say the show will be one of the largest on the road, traveling in 18 trucks. It will take a few days to set up in each venue.
Connor, the director, said that, in putting on the new version, he built off what he called a “sensational blueprint” – the novel by Gaston Leroux and Webber’s score – then tried to free himself up of the productions that came before.
“It just becomes a whole new living, breathing production on its own,” he said.