The Phantom turns 25

Published September 26, 2011

As The Phantom Of The Opera prepares to celebrate its 25th birthday this weekend at the Royal Albert Hall, it marks an anniversary for Lynn Jezzard, too. Caroline Bishop speaks to the dancer and Resident Choreographer who has been with the show from the very beginning.

Lynn Jezzard, Resident Choreographer on The Phantom Of The Opera, is currently helping to rehearse ensemble dancers who are younger than her own kids. This would not be notable but for the fact that her daughter and son, aged 23 and 20, were born during the time Jezzard herself danced in the show, having been a member of the original cast, and she has remained a part of the musical ever since.

During the life of her children, The Phantom Of The Opera, which had its first performance at Her Majesty’s theatre on 27 September 1986, has become one of the world’s most iconic shows, playing in 27 countries and in 15 different languages, attracting over 130 million people to see it worldwide.

The London production will celebrate its 25th birthday this weekend, with a concert production staged on 1 and 2 October at the Royal Albert Hall, and preparations for this concert have allowed Jezzard to reflect on her status as one of the longest-serving members of the company, who stood on the stage of Her Majesty’s theatre when the curtain rose on that first performance.

“It was just so exciting,” she recalls. “Before we did our opening night we did a huge big gala for Princess Diana. Just everybody was there.”

As a 28-year-old former principal dancer with Northern Ballet Theatre, Jezzard was inordinately excited to be appearing in a musical for the first time, and had never experienced the kind of media buzz created by a high profile new opening; and this, the new musical by Joseph/Evita/Cats composer Andrew Lloyd Webber, whose then-wife was playing the female lead, was definitely high profile. “When you have the likes of Michael Crawford and Sarah Brightman leading the show… that created a huge media buzz. Coming out of the stage door every night you had hundreds of people wanting autographs, so it was just very exciting to be part of, even as a small cog.”

“I watch the show at that particular point and it makes me feel proud, I feel privileged to be part of it”

Only a rare few musicals reach their 20s. The West End’s longest running musical, Les Misérables, turned 25 last year, while Blood Brothers snaps at both their heels on 22 years. All three have now eclipsed Lloyd Webber’s Cats, which previously claimed the record when it celebrated its 21st birthday on its final performance in May 2002.

Though actress Marlene Danielle performed in the Broadway production of Cats for 18 years, this was only notable for its rarity. The ephemeral nature of musicals means the people who perform in them are adjusted to moving on, looking for the next part, never having the long-term job security that other professions can offer. And would they even want it if it was on offer? “When you’re younger and you start out in the profession you see yourself bouncing from one thing to another doing lots of amazing different things,” says Jezzard. “You wouldn’t see yourself when you’re 21 staying in a show for 20 years.” But, unusually, Jezzard not only found that security in Phantom but has relished it.

“I always said to myself right from the word go that if I got fed up with what I was doing I would move on,” she says, but she never did. Partly, she says, this was because right from the beginning she was given the chance to develop. After starting as a member of the corps de ballet she was soon made dance captain, with the responsibility of keeping a daily eye on the dancers to make sure their performance maintained choreographer Gillian Lynne’s vision, as well as dancing in the show herself. After taking maternity leave for the births of her two children, Elizabeth and Benjamin, Jezzard returned to the show and took on more responsibility still, eventually becoming Resident Choreographer. “I think it became very much part of my life, a big part of my life, so therefore I just stayed where I was.”

Being Resident Choreographer, she says, is a “completely different dynamic” from performing. “You are having to take on responsibility of making sure the show is as Gillian and Hal [Prince – the director] would want it originally. That’s a big responsibility. Anyone can do something that they want to do but to try and look after someone else’s work is really quite difficult.”

Still, despite this career progression, there’s the matter of working on the same material every day. As she says, her job is to make sure it doesn’t change. Does she never get tired of hearing the same tunes? “There are days when you think, ok…” she trails off with a laugh. “But for me, one of the most beautiful parts of the show is at the very beginning when they do the little illumination, and it still makes the hairs stand up on the back of my neck. I watch the show at that particular point and it makes me feel proud, I feel privileged to be part of it. I know that maybe sounds naff but I still do, and I think the minute I don’t feel that is the time I need to move on.”

So what is it about The Phantom Of The Opera that has made it one of the longest running shows in West End and Broadway – it celebrates 24 years there in January 2012 – history? After a quarter of a century, the musical is a worldwide brand, a ‘must-do’ on every tourist’s visit to London. It is as ingrained in the capital’s image as Big Ben and the London Eye, a reputation that has ensured a steady stream of audiences through some tough times, including the tourist dip post-9/11, the London tube bombings and the recent recession, a time, Jezzard tells me, that they wondered if the show would survive – and it did. How did it manage to carve this rock-steady place in London’s cultural scene?

“It was just very exciting to be part of, even as a small cog”

“It’s a combination of several things,” says Jezzard. “Maria Björnson’s designs for the show are wonderful, Andrew Lloyd Webber’s score which is brilliant, and then the combination of Gillian Lynne and Hal Prince staging and directing, and I think those four elements brought together something very, very special. Then of course you have [producer] Cameron Mackintosh who looks after the show and is unstinting with putting money into the show constantly to keep it to the standard that it’s at. We are never allowed to drop the standard of the show, be it the costumes, the way the show looks, the theatre, everything. Then of course, it’s a timeless story, and everybody loves a love story!”

Indeed, the tragic tale of a physically deformed man who lurks under the Paris Opera House and harbours an obsessive love for his protégée Christine Daaé is one that has endured the decades, attracting a legion of equally obsessive ‘phans’ who attend again and again. So protective are they of the show that there was some hostility on fan sites towards Lloyd Webber’s continuation of the Phantom story, Love Never Dies, which ran at the Adelphi theatre for 17 months until August this year. Such was Phantom’s ability to reach people that audiences felt ownership of the piece. It was no longer Lloyd Webber’s to do with as he liked.

Of course, during that first ever show, the original cast can have had no idea of the impact that the Phantom and his beloved Christine would make on West End audiences, even if they could already appreciate the special kind of alchemy it had. “We probably didn’t think it would last 25 years but I think we knew we were on to a winner,” says Jezzard.

At 54, Jezzard has come a long way since she debuted in musical theatre as a 28-year-old. As she teaches some of the new dancers the choreography that the now 85-year-old Lynne created a quarter of a century ago, she is passing that alchemy on to a new generation. Can it last another 25 years? “We always say that you should never think longer than the next year,” says Jezzard. “I’d like to think there’s a few more years, but I’m not quite sure if there’s another 25.”  Frankly, I can’t see what could stop it now.

CB

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