Returning Home

- Gillian Lynne

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Working on the musical staging and choreography for Andrew Lloyd Webber’s The Phantom of the Opera has been like returning home for me. I was lucky enough to grow up in one great Opera House – Covent Garden – and dance, direct and choreograph in several others including Théâtre Royale de la Monnaie, Brussels, Metropolitan Opera House, New York, and here, we are telling a story set in another magnificent theatre, the fabled Paris Opéra – the Opéra Populaire of our setting.

The fabric of the Opera House was composed of ordinary people like stagehands, dressers, repetiteurs, pianists and the ever-willing petits rats, the corps de ballet, little girls who were driven by their families to work very long hours for only a pittance. Over them were the fanatical ballet mistresses, the divas, the tenors and, lastly, the all-powerful enigmatic managers. These fascinating characters were as compelling to the aristocracy as they were to the great painter Degas, who brought them to life so vividly in the paintings we have all known since childhood. I’ve tried to show a little of this exotic world in the staging of the Manager’s septets, the ballets and the great Masquerade Ball.

The dance styles of the era were very different from those of today, as is shown in the most famous lithograph of all, the “Pas de Quatre” of Taglioni, Cerrito, Grahn and Elssler. Nowadays, the excessively opened, arrogant back of the Russians and high legs are de rigeur, whereas in the era of our story all the arms were carried in front of the body and the torso was tilted and pushed forward without exaggerated high legs. The “hard block” pointe shoe of today was unknown. A version of it was just coming into being and entailed the petits rats darning the ends of their shoes and inserting a little wadding to enable them to execute the fast footwork desired by the choreographers of the time – but these things are specifics.

A great Opera House is a microcosm of theatre life and within Andrew Lloyd Webber’s melodies, Hal Prince and I have tried to give you a flavour of the varied energies and personalities of over a hundred years ago, in the hope it will enchant you today.

Gillian Lynne
December 1990