30 years of immaculate costumes with ‘The Phantom of the Opera’

The Company performs “Hannibal” featuring Phumzile Sojola as ‘Ubaldo Piangi’

Everyone knows that the Phantom is the face behind the infamous mask in the beloved Andrew Lloyd Webber classic, The Phantom of the Opera. But there is someone else behind the scenes, that without whom that very mask wouldn’t make it out on stage each night.

The consistent driving force behind the classic, extravagant costumes of The Phantom of the Opera is Associate Costume Designer, Sam Fleming.

Sam oversees the Broadway and international productions, along with the US tours. Her duties include fittings for new cast members, picking out fabrics and making sure that costumes in all productions are ready to go onstage eight times a week.

Original costume sketch for the Phantom

Sam has been with the show for 30 years, starting her journey in 1989 alongside original costume and set designer, Maria Björnson.

“Every time I think that I’ve got this and have a handle on things, the universe throws another thing at me. There is always something going on. I get to go to work everyday and be a part of a really beautiful show. It never gets dull.”

When Maria passed away in 2002, Sam stepped in to maintain Maria’s vision for the beloved show.

“Maria always said that when in doubt, refer to the sketch. Maria had a very specific way of drawing and many designers tend to sketch based off of their own body type. She was tall and short waisted with short legs, so her costumes are proportioned that way. It is rare to get an actress with that specific of a body type, so it’s more about capturing the spirit of the original design on each different body type.”

The Phantom of the Opera has over 230 costumes in the show depending on the cast at the time, all of which require a lot of specific attention and upkeep. Sam said that the elaborate, ornate costumes are not sturdy and must be handled with care. Costume pieces require certain fabrics, many of which come custom made from a few different shops, specifically for The Phantom of the Opera.

Sam Fleming

“In the second act, Christine wears this blue bustle dress during the second managers and mausoleum scene. That fabric is made only for Phantom at a shop called Hopkins in England. The base is woven in India and then hand printed. Every one of those dresses in every production is made from that fabric.”

The costumes in the show vary from the Broadway production to the touring productions. The fragile costumes experience a lot of wear and tear not only on stage while the actors are singing, dancing and sweating in them- but also while being transferred from city to city. Sam said that while changes are made to costume fabrics and materials on tour, that it’s all about tracking down something close enough to capture the spirit of the original.

One of the first things that Sam does when a new principal actor gets hired is bring them in to get fitted. Getting comfortable in the costumes is so important to the actor’s breathing and performance. As new people get put into the show, the excitement grows and the legacy continues.

“The excitement is contagious…we had a new Christine come in for a fitting the other day and she had been auditioning for the show for 3 years and there were real tears. We put her in that bustle dress and she just burst into tears.”

Original costume design for Carlotta

The actor playing the Phantom often expresses the same amount of surreal emotion surrounding their first fitting, especially when it comes to the infamous mask. 

Sam said that the whole point of the mask is to be a symbol of safety and misery, and is a key part of the Phantom’s characterization and story. The tour version of the mask is redesigned and is more angular, to best reflect the newest interpretation of the character. The mask is intricately made to fit the actors face, shielding half of his face to the audience, while still allowing free movement and ease of breath for the actor.

Audiences have come to adore the costumes of The Phantom of the Opera as much as they love the story itself. Sam said that Maria believed in the idea that the costume should be a deliberate indicator of who the character is. From the very first note that the orchestra plays, the costumes set the standard for the rest of the show.

“The costumes in Phantom do exactly what they’re supposed to do: help the audience understand the show and story better.”

See the costumes in person October 24-November 4 when The Phantom of the Opera makes its triumphant return to Nashville. Tickets are available now at TPAC.org or by calling the box office at 615-782-4040.