The Music of the Night
The story of the Phantom Show
(Written in October 2003)
A year has passed
A year has passed, and at least at this late stage, maybe I should pen my thoughts down, and make public the inside story of what happened, or more correctly what didn’t happen to Colombo’s most famous theatrical cancellation: The Phantom of the Opera.
Last year, on the 17th of October 2002 to be precise, theatre goes in Colombo were astounded with the news that the long awaited ‘Phantom’, due to start in a few hours was cancelled. Cancelled. While I presume many shows have been cancelled in the past, I am certain that in Sri Lanka’s theatre history this never occurred to such a large-scale production, and just three hours before it opened.
Here is the inside story. The story of why, when and how the Phantom came to be, and not to be. (I couldn’t help that ‘theatrical’ pun, sorry!)
Before you read on, I suppose you will need to know who I am. It should be enough to say that I have been a Workshop Player from our inception. For more than ten years now, I, like a few others, have toiled and spent, quite literately, a few pints of blood, gallons of sweat and a good few litres of tears for the many productions we have staged in the past. Lost in the Stars, Cats, Les Misarables, Royal Hunt of the Sun, West Side Story, The Lion King… I survived them all.
In the Beginning… eleven years ago.
The ‘Phantom’ story starts as far back as eleven years ago, when The Workshop Players first formed. We were nothing more than school kids, all rank amateurs, and none of use having ever stepped on stage for a major production ever before. Kids, who were in it for the pure fun, exhilaration and excitement that only theatre, can bring.
Our first production (Lost in the Stars, 1993) was neither a critically acclaimed success nor a hit at the box office. Rather, it was looked at as an indication if what The Workshop Players could be. The theatre critics all had one thing in common to say: “Let’s see what these kids are capable of in five or ten years time”. Slightly disheartened at not becoming an overnight hit, on the last night of the show, I remember discussing future plans for the Workshop, and someone whimsically said that maybe in ten years from now, we could do The Phantom of the Opera. Most of us laughed, because, we all knew that The Phantom was well beyond anyone’s reach in little Sri Lanka.
The Workshop carried on in the years that followed, and slowly we went from being an unknown group of amateurs (The only famous one in our midst was Jerome, obviously!) to a group whose productions were a ‘must see’ in Colombo’s limited theatre calendar. As our numbers grew, so did our capabilities and our experience. We learnt by way of experimentation and did things that nobody else could teach us. We had to figure them out for ourselves. With Jerome’s vision to guide us, we managed to put together some of the most stunning productions Colombo has seen. (No, ‘modesty’ is NOT my middle name.) Hard work, determination, technical ingenuity and a whole load of talent mixed together by the ‘master’ made production after production more thrilling and exciting for our audiences, full house after full house.
Is the Phantom possible?
After each production we would pat ourselves on the back and then start the difficult task of figuring out how to better ourselves for next years show. Evaluating each possibility was never easy. We need to see if we had the cast and the talent, the crew, the financial resources and the technical know-how. Each time when we sat down and thought can we do The Phantom, we would say no, not yet. Why not? Well something was always missing. So many things needed to come together to get the formula just right.
Who could play the Phantom’s role? Jerome. But then who would direct?
What about Christine? Nobody we have has the voice.
We need a moving boat on stage… how do we do that? Um lets see….
Candles need to come up from the ground, and we not allowed to drill holes in the stage.
How do you get a huge chandelier to go up at the start of the show, come crashing down and burst into flaming little pieces during the show, and ten seconds later have it up, in one piece on the ceiling again?
Forget all of that, where are we going to find FOUR MILLION rupees to do all of this????
The Phantom was always deemed to be the impossible show. But we never stopped dreaming about doing it… someday.
Ten years of dreaming
Many productions later, in 1999, Jerome and I were in New York to see The Lion King in order to prepare ourselves to stage it later that year. At the same time we went to see any other show we could, with the hope of evaluating what we could re-produce over here. Talking to each other on the way home after seeing The Phantom, we both realised, that it was not as impossible as we had imagined. With all the experience we had with the recent productions, we might just manage to pull it off.
The Lion King was a huge success, but due to events beyond our control, it was a financial disaster. We needed to run it again in 2000 in order to over up our losses, and make more the money we needed to start work on the next show. So, the Phantom had to wait another year. 2001 was not a possibility either, so October 2002 was then decided on.
Ten years of dreaming, two years of planning and eight months of rehearsing went into making the show a reality.
The role of the Phantom? Jerome, obviously.
Who had the voice for Christine? Serala of course.
Moving boats, rising candles and a magical lassos? Not a problem. We have handled things much tougher.
Phenomenal lighting, special effects and pyrotechnics? Thushan Dias, computerised lighting and specially imported pyrotechnics.
Digital re-creations of the orchestral music track? Simple, Ranga Dassanayaka… again.
What about the falling chandelier? Aha! Multiple pulleys, levers, steel cables, a bit of special effects, knowledgeable and hardworking stage hands and Viola! Falling Chandelier.
After ten days in the theatre building fantastic looking sets, and never ending rehearsals that went into the wee hours of the mornings, the final rehearsal came at last. A night that shall remain etched in my memory forever. A few of us who were privileged enough to see that amazing night when everything incredibly fell into place. What a performance! The performances of the lead roles was riveting, especially Jerome. Spine-chilling, hair-raising, awe-inspiring and un-imaginable. You should have been there…. really you should have.
It was everything it was ever meant to be. Everything except one. It was never meant to be our only and our last performance of The Phantom of the Opera.
“Problem” she said
One Workshop tradition over the years has been that regardless of our religion, the cast would meet on the morning of the opening night and go for a special mass. This time it was at the All Saints Church in Borella. We gathered early morning and together prayed for the success of the show. At breakfast afterwards we laughed and chatted about the mishaps of the night before (The magical lasso didn’t work properly and Raul had to hang himself!). Everyone went his or her own way, some to work for half a day and others to kill some time before the make up call. I went on the Lionel Wendt to oversee some of the last minute work on the set.
It has rained the night before and there was a lot of painting to be done. At about 1.30 p.m., while I was busying myself with barking orders to workmen, I was suddenly pulled aside by Aunty Chitra, the manager of the theatre, who dragged me off to the office. “Problem” she said.
On the phone was a lady from Andrew Lloyd Webber’s legal office in Australia. She was calling to check if we had received the ‘cease and desist’ notice they had sent the day before via e-mail. We checked mail immediately and there it was, a notice from the regional legal office of the Really Useful Theatre Company (Andrew Lloyd Webber’s own production company) informing us that the production we were about to do was illegal and that we should not proceed. If we should do so they would take legal action against us and the Lionel Wendt.
I told her we would call her back in a few minutes, and with Aunty Chitra took off to speak to Jerome who was still at home. We called them back again and let them know that we were an amateur group made up primarily of students, and we were willing to pay for copyrights, how were we to get about it? She asked us to get in touch with the copyright division in London and apply.
We had to wait a few hours, as the London office was still closed. We then sent across to them a list of the cast, ticket prices and other details that were relevant. (They were astounded that the highest price of our tickets was only 6 sterling pounds. When a ticket in London would cost you 60!) At bout 4.00 p.m., when we finally got through to the London office we were informed that The Phantom of the Opera was one of the seven Andrew Lloyd Webber shows that no copyrights were given for performance by any outside party, amateur or professional. Performances of The Phantom were reserved only for Andrew Lloyd Webber’s company. Whatever the price we could pay, we would not be able to buy the rights.
There is no way that my feeble attempts at writing would accurately express the emotional roller coaster of the next few hour and days.
We have to tell the cast
We had to call off the show. What happens if we go ahead anyway? Can they take us to court? Do international copyright laws bind us? We needed to get legal advice. We had to let the sponsors know. We should get the word out to the public, who were about to leave their homes to see the show. How do we recover the money? We need to refund tickets.
We have to tell the cast….
We went off to the Lionel Wendt where the cast was gathered. All they knew was that something was seriously wrong because I had called and asked them to stop getting their make up done. My heart was shattered when I walked into the auditorium to find all of them, holding each others hands and praying, singing hymns. They all knew when they saw the look on my face and the tears in my eyes, that the show was off. I remember very little of what happened after that. I know that Jerome came, and with a brave face explained everything to the cast and crew, but he was performing. I know that like the rest of us, and even more, he too was in emotional pieces.
That night was hell
That night was hell. We got together at a nearby house and tried desperately to make sense of what had gone wrong. There was an overbearing feeling of unfairness. What had we ever done to deserve this? For those of us who believe in God, our faith was shaken to the core. I know, mine was. So much time and effort, so much talent, so much of dedication, so much was all totally in vain. We tried to be brave, we tried to laugh and carry on. We failed. That night was hell.
The initial decision we took was to call of the show for the first night, at least until we could seek legal advice and maybe open the show a day or two later. But the chances seemed bleak. Not only could they take us to court, they could also sue the Lionel Wendt for allowing the performance. The entire cast could be held liable and Jerome would probably take the brunt of the legal action.
We tried everything we could think of, pulled all the strings we knew and upturned all the stones we could think of. We still needed to cancel. I remember, the next day when the senior members of the Workshop met again to see if we could still run the show. We fought, yelled and cried. The meeting was supercharged with emotion. Everyone had their own point of view.
It was the most impossible decision we had ever had to face.
Finally we decided. Cancel the show.
A few words about copyrights
A few things that should be said before I rest my fingers. It is easy to ask how come The Workshop Players did not have the copyrights? Why start work on the show if you don’t have the rights?
Well, all these years international productions in this country have never been performed with copyrights. All our productions, and every other play, musical or any production you have seen have never had the rights purchased from the international rights holders. It is simply not financially possible, as paying for the rights would make the show not financially viable. (Even the cheapest theatre tickets would cost in the thousands!!!)
Secondly, for all those who wish to take the morale higher ground and point accusing fingers in our direction, take a closer look at the VHS, VCD or DVD you watch your movies from? Those are pirated copies, aren’t they? What about the software that runs your PC at home and maybe office? Cheap pirated copies. What about your music CD collection? Copied. You can’t afford the copies that are fully licensed. Most people in this country can’t.
So, as the world changes and becomes more aware of the rights of the producers, so will we. God willing, whatever the next Workshop production will be a fully licensed version.
Looking back at the events one year ago, I now know there are many things that do not add up.
For example how did the legal office Australia find out about our show in little Sri Lanka? They knew everything about the show, including the e-mail addresses of the Lionel Wendt and the manager’s name. They said it was an article in the internet version of the local papers. We tried finding that article on the net, and only succeeded when we searched for Jerome’s name. Unless you had information from here, you would never have found that article.
Even if that was true, why write to us only the day before the show? The article was nearly a month before that, why wait so long?
Something was wrong, and we will never know what it was. Were we set up? Sabotage? Did someone write to them on purpose? Can someone be so malicious? I don’t know for sure, but something tells me that our worst suspicions were probably true.
How does the story end? The cast has moved on with their lives, with only their memories of that final night to keep them company. All that remains is a rusted chandelier, boxes full of stunning costumes, a few photographs and an empty place in our hearts.
The tragedy has brought us closer to each other, more than ever before. Our production, that was supposed to me a milestone in our history, is now nothing but water under the bridge. The only satisfaction is that we actually managed to do the show that everyone said could never be done.
You may never see this show, and “The Music of the Night” has long since been silenced, but you must believe me, it was worth every ounce of effort we so readily put in. It was incredible.
Believe me, because one year ago, I saw The Workshop Players perform The Phantom of the Opera.
Believe me, I stood up and I clapped.
Surein de Silva Wijeyeratne