One of the latest experiments in bringing Broadway musicals to the Las Vegas Strip is the new production of Andrew Lloyd-Webber's long-running musical, The Phantom of the Opera. Now titled Phantom-The Las Vegas Spectacular, it has been scaled back to the 95-minute Vegas formula (yet with all the songs intact) and ensconced in a purpose-built theatre designed by architect/scenic designer David Rockwell of the New York City-based Rockwell Group. Purported to cost upward of $40 million, the 1,800-seat theatre at The Venetian (in the shell of the space where the hotel once housed a motorcycle exhibit) is designed to look like a 19th-centry Paris opera house, complete with an astonishing chandelier that combines hand-strung crystal and high-tech engineering by Fisher Technical Services. As anyone who has seen Phantom knows, the chandelier makes a dramatic swoop over the audience, and the one in Las Vegas is breathtaking in its performance. The thrust of this article is on that new chandelier, but let's discuss some other components of the production first.
“The Vegas production of Phantom is true to the original design of Maria Björnson with some added scenic elements,” notes David Rosenberg, president of I. Weiss, which provided 11 grand draperies with custom silk-screened fabric, fringe, and tassels in keeping with the old-world décor of the Paris Opera House circa 1881 to 1911. “Most of them operate as working tabs or Austrian curtains,” explains Rosenberg, who adds, “The front-of-house has 18 faux opera boxes dressed with drapery and mannequins to look like a full theatre.” Scenic designer Paul Kelly recreated Phantom's scenery based on the designs by the late Björnson, with Rob Bissinger of Rockwell Group coordinating the front-of-house elements and draperies.
Andrew Bridge returned to recreate the show lighting, adding new technologies, such as automated fixtures, that did not exist when he first designed the London version in 1986. The in-house lighting system, provided and installed by 4Wall Entertainment Lighting in Las Vegas, includes ETC dimming and an Obsession console. The moving light rig, provided by PRG, includes Vari-Lite VL3500Qs, VL2500 spots, VL1000TS fixtures, VL5B wash units, Martin MAC 2000 Performance, Profile, and Wash fixtures, High End Studio Beams and Studio Colors, and Strand Beamlights with City Theatrical AutoYokes®. Control for the moving lights is via two Flying Pig Systems Hog iPCs. PRG also supplied Tomcat trussing for the lighting towers and FOH catwalk.
Mick Potter designed the sound for this go-round (the original design was by Martin Levan). Mike Cusik of Specialized Audio-Visual Inc. (SAVI) of Clifton Park, NY, specified and installed the audio system infrastructure, while the show-only rental gear came via Masque Sound in New Jersey, with Gary Stocker as project manager. The heart of the system is the Yamaha PM1 digital console.
The lights on the chandelier — 12W lamps in globes and LED strobes for extra sparkle and special effects — are run via a wireless dimming and DMX system coordinated by Peter Willis of the UK-based Howard Eaton Lighting Ltd, with wireless receivers and transmitters from New York City-based City Theatrical. “The chandelier can run for two performances. It plugs in to charge every night,” notes Phantom's technical producer, Steven Ehrenberg, vice president of technical supervision for Live Nation Theatrical. The chandelier itself was built at Copper Creek Studios in Las Vegas, with the crystal work done by Costume Armour in Cornwall, NY.
“There are some additions to the original scenery,” points out Ehrenberg. “These include an extra element to the ‘travelator,' a scenic element designed by Björnson that travels up and downstage. There is now an extra piece that looks like the fly rail for the scene where the Phantom throws the fly man over the rail and hangs him. That is done with a stunt man here rather than a dummy and uses a special winch built by Fisher Technical.”
PRG's Scenic Technologies built the stage deck with all its various traps and automation — run by their Stage Command system — as well as the bulk of the scenery. “As there is no intermission in Vegas, the show is slightly rearranged,” explains Ehrenberg. “One new scenic element built by Scenic Technologies is a 28' tall façade of the Paris Opera House that rises from a trap. It is built with winches so it can collapse into itself in the trap, but after it is seen on stage, it flies off into the grid.”
Matt Dillingham of Advanced Entertainment in Las Vegas designed all the pyrotechnics, fog, and smoke for the production. Gear includes three Vipers from Look Solutions which provide the smoke effects for the mirror (dressing room) scene and the entrance to the dungeon. There is also a Power Tiny smoke machine to provide the atmosphere for the descent into the dungeon. “The deck FX tech walks across the stage with the unit just prior to the lights coming up,” notes Dillingham.
Directed by Hal Prince, The Phantom of the Opera has won more than 50 major awards, including seven Tonys and three Oliviers, and is one of the most successful musicals of all time. Yet only time will tell how hospitable the Las Vegas Strip will be to its newest iteration.
A Light To Remember
The chandelier is the most sophisticated piece of theatre equipment in Las Vegas (and therefore, the world), and it is only fitting that the inspiration for a key aspect of its design was on a mountainside in Italy. More on that in a moment.
Built and engineered by Fisher Technical Services (FTSI), the Vegas chandelier bears little similarity to its forerunner in London or NYC. In the Venetian, the chandelier is split into four different planes of light horizontally. The sections of the chandelier are stacked on top of each other (wedding cake style) to create the full lighting effect, 16' wide and 12' tall.
Each of the four sections is attached to its own set of four cables, with each cable controlled by two winches. This is a total of 32 winches controlling the action of 16 cables that ultimately control the speed and position of each of the four slices of the light fixture.
The ceiling of the theatre is a dome, built with 20 tons of steel and 15,000 bolted connections. There are 16 tracks, each over 50' long, evenly spaced around the circumference and following the dome's profile. Most of these tracks run from the structural top of the theatre almost to the edges of the ceiling over the audience, although some are longer. The dome has two compound curves in its profile, and the tracks follow this complicated shape.
These tracks support and guide specially designed, ultra-quiet skates. The skates are required because the shape of the theatre would prevent full positioning of the chandelier in the entire theatre space with fixed mount pick-up points for the chandelier's one and a half miles of guide cables. On each track, one winch controls the position of the skate; the second winch controls a cable that feeds out though the guide rollers on the skate to terminate on one of the four respective slices of chandelier.
This arrangement allows for the FTSI Navigator computer control system to place any piece of the chandelier anywhere in the entire three-dimensional space of the theatre. Each winch has its own dedicated computer that is networked to all the other winches and the operator interface in the theatre. This peer-to-peer network allows each winch to be aware of its motion profile, health, and status as well as every other winch's motion profile, health, and status. The actions that each piece of equipment should take in the event of any failures in the system are programmed and distributed to the winches. The system also allows for alternate versions of all motion cues to be programmed and stored in the off chance that, in any given performance, an alteration to the show must be made.
The chandelier can be controlled as one piece, or any individual piece can be flown down onto the stage or anywhere else the operator chooses. Not only that, each piece can also be controlled for yaw, pitch, and roll. It is possible to program the sections to even create the look of a dogfight between four UFOs.
Aside from the elegant and quiet nature of the hardware (in a silent theatre, the loudest part of the chandelier is the cooling fans for the copious amounts of electronics), the math in the software to render fluid motion is astoundingly complicated. Assume for a minute that all an operator wishes to do is lower the chandelier, as a unit, onto the audience at 20' per second. The winches would unreel cable to achieve a steady 20' per second descent for the chandelier, but since the skates are traveling in their own three dimensional space (remember the dome has compound curves in it), the winches must let out cable slower in some parts of the curves and faster in other parts in order to achieve a steady state of descent for the light fixture.
This change in velocity of the winches has to be a perfect curve to match the dome architecture in order to render fluid motion of the chandelier slice. Once the pieces start moving independently of each other, cable collision control must be taken into account and, of course, there are the pitch, yaw, and roll aspects of the control, resulting in winches on the same slice working on their own motion profiles. The motion control issues of the chandelier required the mathematical genius of numerous hired-gun PhDs. The software had to be particularly elegant such that the rendering of the motion profiles by the computers could be accomplished in minutes and not hours.
The chandelier had daunting mathematical and software challenges, but even the skates that move along the tracks required inspiration. The skates must be able to move unimpeded along their axes. However, there must also be a series of guide pulleys (1,800 pulleys are used in the chandelier) to appropriately position the control cables. The skate must lift the cable off the pulley as it passes and then gently return the cable to its guide wheel as it passes to the other side.
This particular cable choreographing owes its heritage to the funicular cable car that runs from the dock to the mountain top town of Capri on the island off the Amalfi Coast in Italy. FTSI principal Scott Fisher was descending the mountain (giving up the valuable potential energy he had stored by initially walking up the path to Capri) in the front of the cable car and was struck with the ingenious manner in which the cables were controlled along the curving tracks of the funicular. He immediately recognized the solution to the cable control issues for the then imminent chandelier effect.
Ordinarily, when suspending moving and very heavy parts over an audience, the control cables would be shortened to mechanically prevent the 2,100 — lb. aluminum framed light sections from reaching the seats. However, because those same chandelier slices had to be able to reach any location in the three-dimensional space of the theatre, the cables had to be long enough to reach clear across the theatre and, thus, more than ample length to reach the audience. A series of heavily tested software safeties is the only thing between the audience and a ton of batteries, LEDs, and aluminum framing. Audiences might want to keep that in mind when the chandelier plunges towards them at 20' per second.
Also for safety, each winch has to be four times more powerful than is actually required to generate the effect. The 400% overbuild — 640bhp (brake horsepower) — on the winches allows the chandelier slices to be safely controlled by a single winch in the statistically improbable event that three out of four winches or cables fail. Once programmed, the entire effect is run by a single operator.
The technology behind the chandelier would all be wasted if it could not be translated into effects that can amaze, dazzle, melt, or frighten an audience. In the Venetian theatre, patrons will be treated to this full range of emotion.