How 'Phantom of the Opera' survived the pandemic

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How 'Phantom of the Opera' survived the pandemic
A clerk checks a mobile ticket before a showing of “Phantom of the Opera” at the Seoul theater, where its run has recently been extended, in South Korea, May 28, 2020. As theaters around the globe were abruptly shuttered by the pandemic, with no clear path to reopening in sight, the world tour of “Phantom” has been soldiering on in Seoul. Woohae Cho/The New York Times.

by Jennifer Schuessler and Su-Hyun Lee

NEW YORK (NYT NEWS SERVICE).- “The Phantom of the Opera” has garnered plenty of superlatives over the years, including the longest-running show in Broadway history. But in recent months, it has also laid claim to a more unlikely title: pathbreaking musical of the COVID-19 era.

As theaters around the globe were abruptly shuttered by the pandemic, with no clear path to reopening in sight, the world tour of “Phantom” has been soldiering on in Seoul, South Korea, playing eight shows a week. And it has been drawing robust audiences to its 1,600-seat theater, even after an outbreak in the ensemble led to a mandatory three-week shutdown in April.

The musical, with its 126-member company and hundreds of costumes and props, is believed to be the only large-scale English-language production running anywhere in the world. And it has remained open not through social-distancing measures — a virtual impossibility in the theater, either logistically or financially, many say — but an approach grounded in strict hygiene.

And it is one that its composer, Andrew Lloyd Webber, is arguing can show the way for the rest of the industry, a point he is hoping to demonstrate to the world, as he prepares to turn the Palladium, one of seven theaters he owns in London, into a laboratory for lessons learned in Seoul.

“I don’t think we should just be sitting on our hands and saying, ‘It’s all doom and gloom, we can’t do anything,’” he said in an interview last week. “We have got to make the theaters as safe for everybody as we possibly can,” he said. And South Korea, he said, shows that it can work.

That the show, at the Blue Square cultural complex in central Seoul, has gone on is a testament not just to the protocols in the theater, but to South Korea’s rigorous system of test, trace and quarantine, which has kept the virus largely under control.

It was also a matter of sheer timing and luck, though it did not seem that way at first.

When the tour’s previous stop in Busan, South Korea’s second biggest city, wrapped up in mid-February, the country was emerging as the latest epicenter of the pandemic.

The company mostly went home for a break to Britain, Italy, North America, Australia and elsewhere. Serin Kasif, vice president of Lloyd Webber’s company, the Really Useful Group, and the producer of the tour, said she was fielding daily messages from company members anxious about whether to return.

On March 2, when Kasif flew to Seoul to begin preparations to open there, South Korea had the second-highest number of confirmed cases, and the pandemic had not yet fully hit Britain.

She contrasted the “overwhelming sense of fear” that developed in London with what she had experienced in Seoul, with its clear governmental directives and local partners who had lived through previous epidemics like SARS.

“When I was speaking to our Korean partners, in lead-up to the decision to continue, one said, ‘The word “unprecedented” keeps getting used, but it’s not unprecedented here,’” she explained.

“Amazingly,” Kasif said, the entire company returned to Seoul. Matt Leisy, a Northwestern University graduate who plays Raoul, said that when he went home to New York during the break, friends were “freaking out” at the idea that he might go back to Korea. But he said he was reassured by the producers’ constant communication about safety protocols, as well as their videos of daily life in Seoul.

“It was quite scary leading up to us coming back,” he said. “Who knew we’d end up being in the safest place in the world?”

The protocols, which are mandated by the Korean Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, are strict, but they are not particularly space-age. Before entering the theater, audience members are sprayed with a light mist of disinfectant. Thermal sensors take each person’s temperature, and everyone fills out a questionnaire about symptoms and recent places they have visited, so they can be notified of any exposures they may have had through the country’s contract-tracing app.

There are hand-sanitizing stations throughout, and ubiquitous signs and announcements reminding everyone that masks must be worn at all times. And in contrast to movie theaters, where alternating rows or seats are left empty, no seats are blocked off (though the first row was removed).

Backstage, there is a similar drill: no embracing, no handshakes, no unessential physical contact. Reusable water bottles are forbidden, along with sharing food. Wigs, props and costumes are regularly sprayed or wiped with antibacterial cloths. Everyone must wear a mask, except for actors when they are being made up or go onstage, and some members of the orchestra.

Sharon Williams, the head of wardrobe, said that masks and “constant hand-washing” aside, protocols for the 17-member costume department are not that different from what they would be normally, beyond extra cycles of high-temperature washing with anti-bacterial soap.

The crucial element, she said, is the whole company’s rigorous cooperation. “No one is saying ‘I’m not going to do it,’” she said.

As for the onstage action, Kasif said there have been no modifications — and yes, Raoul and Christine still kiss.

Which is not to say the actors have not had nerve-racking moments. Leisy said initially he was “hyperaware” of all the saliva flying around the stage, especially in big numbers like the Act Two showstopper “Masquerade.”

“When I enunciate, the spit really flies out of my mouth,” he said. “At one point, we’re all dancing and singing our faces off and I look around and see all this saliva flying. I thought, ‘My goodness!’”

(The first row of seats is a seemingly safe 5.2 meters (17 feet) from the edge of the stage, according to a video issued by the show’s Korean producer in early May detailing the safety precautions.)

The run, which has been extended until August (after the touring production of “War Horse” set to follow in the same theater canceled), has not been without its bumps. In late March, about two weeks after the show opened, one of the show’s ballerinas said she was not feeling well. She was tested, and the result — positive — was back by 9 a.m. the next morning.

Authorities moved swiftly to lock down the theater and check if all guidelines were being followed. A mobile testing unit was installed on the roof of the apartment building where the cast and nonlocal crew live, and everyone was immediately tested both for active virus and antibodies. (A male ensemble member also tested positive but remained asymptomatic.)

All 76 members of the touring company were quarantined for 15 days in their apartments. The local employees were also tested, and quarantined at home. (A local production of “Dracula: The Musical” also decided to suspend performances in this period, in response to the outbreak at “Phantom,” according to local news reports.)

In keeping with local policies, the more than 8,000 people who had seen “Phantom” received text messages through the country’s tracing app, informing them of the outbreak. But a public announcement also made it clear that all protocols had been followed.

Kasif suggested the fact that the virus had not spread more widely in the company was proof, at least “anecdotally,” as she put it, that the protocols work.

“The ballerinas are a very close ensemble,” she said. “They share a dressing room, warm up together, perform together, warm down together. They happen to be very good friends socially. So if the guidelines weren’t working, on paper they all should have had coronavirus.”

The show reopened April 23, and ticket sales have been about 70-85% full since, Kasif said. Even last Thursday, when a spike in cases in the country led authorities to close all public museums, galleries and entertainment venues across greater Seoul until June 15, the seats were mostly full, according to a reporter who attended. (Publicists for the show declined to provide box office information.)

Private venues, like the Blue Square, were allowed to remain open, and “Phantom” continues to operate “in accordance with KCDC guidelines and instructions,” Kasif said in a statement.

Several audience members expressed concern about the spike, but said they trusted the theater’s measures and the country’s larger public health response.

Yi-seul Lee, 28, a graphic designer, had seen the musical in March and said she did not want to miss the chance to see it again. “Unless we shout very loudly while watching the show or take off our masks, I think we are more or less safe,” she said.

Still, some fans thought the uncertainties of the pandemic had dampened spirits a bit. In-hae Bae, 36, a human resources manager who was seeing “Phantom” for the sixth time, said that every time the actors embraced, the virus popped into her head. And the applause at the curtain call, she said, seemed “timid.”

“They were way too calm,” she said of the audience. “It made me think, ‘Coronavirus must have strangled our passion, too.’”

© 2020 The New York Times Company

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