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Eight Times a Week, the Grandest Chandelier in SF Falls Down

Photos by Adam Brinklow
Photos by Adam Brinklow

Every major Broadway musical comes with technical challenges, but only one calls on the crew to take a 1,500-pound piece of scenery that shoots fire and suspend it over the audience's heads.

The Phantom of the Opera, back at the Orpheum through October 4, came with a highly singular design challenge when it was conceived almost 30 years ago: The French novel on which it's based featured a scene where a gigantic chandelier crashes onto an unsuspecting theater audience. How to recreate such a spectacle onstage? Well, how about building a gigantic chandelier, hanging it high in the theater, and actually dropping it every single night? That's what the show's original producers decided to do, and the effect became the centerpiece of its success, every bit as much a star as the leads.

Of course, that means that every new production (there are six permanent shows in six different countries, not even counting tours like the one in town now) needs a chandelier all its own. Each one must be transported (an entire truck is dedicated to the task) and installed in every new theater, and no two are exactly alike. "It really is the star of the whole show," stage manager Jovon Shuck said as he watched his crew do a safety check and reload the fireworks on the chandelier being installed in the SHN Orpheum Theatre Thursday night.

It's a beast of a decorative object, made up of: three-quarters of a ton of steel, fiberglass, gold leaf, 20 LED lights, 50 pyrotechnic elements, and 6,000 sequined beads. A mass of internal mechanisms power its various tricks: swaying, shooting flames, releasing clouds of artificial fog, and (of course) plunging toward the audience at a rate of 10 feet-per-second when the time comes. (Multiple brakes keep it from actually crushing the orchestra seats—after all, those tickets aren't cheap.)

It takes two motors to get the fixture into position each night and a third to control it when its cues come. It hangs from a winch and giant gold-leaf mount attached to the ceiling, and it all takes 10 people to install. The giant silk curtain that it's wrapped in at the start of the program takes half an hour to position every night. On top of all that, it's temperamental. "Sometimes it does things we don't expect," says associate director Seth Sklar-Heyn. "It's like an actor: It has off nights."

Considering all that, it would be fair to call it an unwieldy brute. But it's also an elegant affair: The most recent version was designed by Howard Eaton (the British lighting designer who crafted the giant flaming rings used in the opening ceremony of the 2012 Olympics) and is loosely based on the actual Paris Opera House chandelier. Its many tricks are powered by two relatively small batteries, and the crew simply plugs it in to recharge, something like a 1,500 pound, dangling smartphone. The long run of the show helps too; installing it in each theater requires sussing out the hidden steel supports in the ceiling, but in most cases, they can just look for the hole left from the last time The Phantom of the Opera played there.

Best of all, the chandelier still knocks the audience dead. Even though the original prop took its first plunge in 1986, the sudden descent is still a surprise for some. "I see it every night," says stage manager Shuck. "Some people still aren't expecting it. It gets them every time." - Adam Brinklow