Laurence Connor has been associated with some of the biggest hits in musical theatre. But the acclaimed director says there will always be a special place in his heart for Andrew Lloyd Webber’s The Phantom of the Opera – which returns to Tennessee Performing Arts Center’s Jackson Hall on October 24.
“Phantom marked the very beginning of my work with Cameron Mackintosh, so of course, that’s very special,” Connor says. “Cameron had asked me to be the associate director for the original Phantom in London. This was before I was really a director in my own right, and although I was certainly familiar with the music and all the excitement surrounding the show, I’d never actually seen it.”
“Of course, it was an incredible, life-changing experience. But when I think of Phantom, I’m always reminded of that first meeting – that moment when we embarked on this extraordinary journey together.”
And what a journey it’s been.
Over the years, Connor has enjoyed a prolific partnership with Mackintosh, overseeing exciting new productions of iconic titles such as Les Misérables (which visited TPAC in 2017) and Miss Saigon (which arrives in June 2019).
In the case of Phantom – which remains the longest-running show in Broadway history, recently celebrating its 30-year anniversary at the Majestic Theatre – die-hard fans might not see the need for reinvention.
After all, how does one honor the original spirit of the piece, while offering an entirely fresh approach? But Connor (who also directed TPAC’s season-opener School of Rock) says he enjoys the challenge.
“What these three shows (Phantom, Les Mis and Miss Saigon) have in common is that they all have an excellent book,” he says. “And as a director, that’s such a gift. But you have to let go of everything you think you know about the show. You have to get to the heart of the story, and that really starts with the work on the page.”
“It’s like picking up a novel for the first time – you immediately start to see the story unfold in your imagination. Before long, you’re sharing ideas with your design team, and it just takes off. Suddenly, the process doesn’t seem so difficult after all.”
Still, there is one aspect of the new touring production (which last played TPAC in 2016) that Connor does find daunting – the logistical know-how required to transport the show.
It takes 20 semi-trucks to move the production from city to city, and roughly 75 local stagehands are hired in each market to load everything into the theater.
“It’s such a big show,” Connor says. “And the production team that moves it is so very good at what they do – my brain is really blown by the genius of it all. The way that it’s all organized and packed is amazing, and the attention to detail is incredible. There’s a fine art to that.”
“I went to visit the show not long ago, and I was utterly thrilled to see how well it’s being looked after. That’s important because you want everything to look just as beautiful in Nashville as it does in New York.”
Conner says Phantom suits his style as a director, with a “drama-driven, almost filmic approach.” And while fans certainly will recognize key elements – such as Maria Björnson’s sumptuous costumes and the famous chandelier – he insists that this production is quite different, visually.
“The set is completely different, but so is the way we’ve approached the storytelling. Where the original felt more abstract, this production is more literal. It feels a bit darker, grittier,” he says.
“We brought the technology up to date, and that enabled us to rethink everything – to make it feel fresh. Thanks to [set designer] Paul Brown and his huge bag of tricks, we’re really able to enter the world of the Phantom, to follow him through those dark corridors and experience the magic in a new way.”
Of course, much of that magic stems from Andrew Lloyd Webber’s haunting score, which Connor calls “miraculous.” But he also welcomed the opportunity to “explore these beloved characters as real human beings.”
“I’ve always loved these characters – they’re so fascinating. I think that’s one of the things that continues to resonate with audiences,” he says. “You have this incredible, really unexpected love story, which takes place in the most opulent setting imaginable. It’s all very dark, but beautiful and really complicated – rather reflective of life, I suppose. But that’s the beauty of this show. And it’s thrilling, as a director, to see the audience’s response as they experience this story with fresh eyes. It’s been quite remarkable.”
Amy Stumpfl has been covering Nashville’s arts scene since 2004 – first with The City Paper, and then for The Tennessean. A proud member of the American Theatre Critics Association, she was selected to participate as a Fellow in the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center’s National Critics Institute (2005) and the NEA Arts Journalism Institute in Theater & Musical Theater at the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism (2008).