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FEATURE: The Chandelier in The Phantom of the Opera

The chandelier used in the current Broadway production of The Phantom of the Opera. The current touring show chandelier is proportionally taller and emphasizes other details of the model chandeliers at the Paris Opera.

At the height of the first megamusical craze, it seemed like each big budget show was trying to outdo the last with some new “never before seen on stage” design. Chess in London had a gigantic, moving chessboard. Les Misérables had its imposing barricade, which came together and then spun to display the bodies of the fallen. Miss Saigon had its helicopter landing. And, brighter than all of them, The Phantom of the Opera had its chandelier, which shot from the stage to the center of the theatre and came crashing down at the climax of Act I.

The original Broadway chandelier for The Phantom of the Opera occasioned a 1988 Valentine’s Day feature by Walter Kerr in the New York Times – not so much a love ode, so to speak, as an irate letter to a lover about their shortcomings. The chandelier, Kerr argued, was altogether too sedate in its movements. “Come the time when the Phantom must make good his dastardly threat,” he wrote, “it sways a bit in its elevated position, looking for all the world like the biggest cream puff you ever saw. Then it begins to float down like a sigh, flowing gently as Sweet Afton on its downward but discreet journey.” Over the years, the effect was greatly accelerated, adding much of the drama that Kerr demanded.

In retrospect, having seen the tact taken by the terrible Spiderman: Turn Off the Dark many years later, where effects began dangerously fast and were only gradually slowed following repeated accidents, the slower pace of the original chandelier fall was a prudent measure. Nowadays, however, improved technology and a lot of practice have vastly upgraded the chandelier. Following the 2012 redesign of the show, the new chandelier weighs in at three-quarters of a ton and drops at 10 feet per second, a rate that one of my colleagues described as “truly frightening” when he saw it headed towards him. Today’s chandelier moves 32 feet and 2 inches – completing its plunge in just over 2 seconds.

The chandelier does more than just fall: it also swings into the theatre and floats up to the ceiling during the opening scene. The 20 globe lights in two rows shine even brighter with the modern LEDs inside, and 50 pyro elements in the chandelier fire with 5 different effects during the course of the show. Prepping the pyro takes the crew half an hour per show; swathing the chandelier in silk takes another 30 minutes of preparation. When the chandelier “hits”, a practical effect showers the audience with fake glass shards made out of a (safe) soft polymer.

A character in its own right, the chandelier of The Phantom of the Opera has gone down in history as one of the show’s most memorable moments. In the 2004 film adaptation by Joel Schumacher, the chandelier crash was felt to upstage the action when it occurred mid-film – causing the filmmakers to move it to the show’s dénouement, where it occurs at the end of “The Point of No Return“.

The Phantom of the opera blackmails managers Firmin (Edward Staudenmayer) and André (David Benoit) where it counts: in their pocketbooks. The cost of replacing the chandelier (and attendant scandal) convinces them to comply with his schemes. Photo by Matthew Murphy.

Watch a compilation of different chandelier crashes from The Phantom of the Opera:

Basil Considine