On April 16, The Phantom of the Opera is closing on Broadway after a historic 35-year run. To celebrate its legacy, we’re looking back on the musical's history. And we're answering a question you probably always had but didn’t know the answer to: Why is the mask in the musical’s logo a full face mask, when in the show, the Phantom wears a mask that covers only half his face? The answer is simple: Because the Phantom initially was supposed to wear a full mask onstage.
Phantom of the Opera may be heralded as a musical masterpiece today, the development of the production, leading up to its first preview in 1986 London, was somewhat of a ticking time bomb, with countless changes being made, from direction, to casting, to even the show’s most prominent symbol: the mask. Originally, the mask covered the Phantom’s entire face save for the chin, closer to its description in Gaston Leroux’s novel, which served as the basis for Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical. However, by the time director Hal Prince and designer Maria Björnson realized the problems that accompanied a full-face mask, the show’s key art and promotional content had already been decided upon.
So, what problems did the full mask pose?
Their biggest concern was regarding the Phantom’s ability to emote. Prince believed that much of the power of acting was found in the performer’s facial expressions, and with the full face completely obscured, the sensitivity and tragedy of the character was not easily communicated to the audience. Additionally, it was noted in rehearsals that during the Phantom’s unmasking right before "Stranger Than You Dreamt It," the actor playing Christine (Sarah Brightman) struggled to remove the mask in time with the swell of the music, without accidentally taking the Phantom’s wig or prosthetics with it. She sometimes struggled to remove it at all, as the full mask didn’t offer a good angle to grip from.
Thus, a half-mask was suggested. Prince described in his 2017 memoir, Sense of Occasion: “I wanted a mask which bisected his face from forehead to chin, because it would free half of his face to express everything he was feeling.” The credit for the idea is shared with Björnson, who then sourced inspiration from masks worn by WWI veterans who sustained facial injuries. Those masks were typically made of copper, with realistic designs of skin texture, eyebrows, and even lips painted onto them. (Björnson opted for porcelain in lieu of copper.)
The post-WWI masks also notably featured false eyes, to replace an eye lost in combat. With that, here's another Phantom design feature that was lost over time. The Phantom was originally going to be partially blind. To mimic the look of a blind eye, a blue contact lens and a white contact lens was stacked on top of each other to give a clouded appearance. Michael Crawford did wear these contacts for a period of time, but eventually discontinued the use of them, due to his vision being obstructed.
Although the decision to opt for half-mask in lieu of a full-faced one is likely the most significant change that was made before the show’s opening on the West End, there were several chaotic concepts for Phantom that were nearly included in the production—and we’re not just talking about blue-and-white contact lenses.
Picture this: suspense is building in the theatre as the end of Act I is approaching, with the Il Muto opera on stage being halted by Buquet's death, and Christine has fled to the rooftop. Imagining the scene as we now know it, we see a twinkling silhouette of Paris at twilight rise in the background as Christine reaches the top. But to really enhance the romance and drama…what if a bunch of doves started flying around?
You read that right. Originally, Hal Prince wanted real, living doves to be released into the air at the start of "All I Ask Of You," marking the triumphant and romantic tone of the scene, as Raoul proposes to Christine. This concept was tested several times, until the production quickly learned that keeping track of where the doves flew off to after they were released turned into a wild goose chase. Not to mention...they eventually realized the risk of the doves unloading on audience members below (ew). Someone tell the doves—if we have to wait until intermission, so do they!
Prince and Björnson's early ideas for the production sound less like Phantom of the Opera and more like Noah's Ark, considering that at one point, a live horse was considered for the title scene. It would descend down the suspended bridge/stairway alongside Christine and the Phantom, as they enter the Phantom's lair. When this was tested, the creative team decided it didn't look as mystical as it sounded. The horse kept stopping dead in its tracks and staring off to the side of the stage. Prince even allegedly remarked: "It looked as though it was watching a show that was much more interesting, somewhere in the wings!" This idea, however, was implemented into the 2004 movie, so it wasn't fully abandoned.
One more tossed idea was to have remote-controlled rats with glowing red eyes scurry across the stage. However, the remnants of this concept remain, as a rat catcher slams its trap down onto the ground during Raoul's journey into the lair, which earns a frightened scream from Madame Giry. If you've ever wondered why she was so spooked in that moment, it wasn't the height of that bridge!
Though the thought of wild animals on stage was short-lived, the creative team had another wild idea in mind: bringing on an '80s rockstar as the Phantom. Originally slated to star in the production was Steve Harley, who did five months of workshops and preparation for the role before producers realized he wasn't the best fit, and replaced him with Michael Crawford. Cameron Mackintosh described the initial casting as "a lovely impulse, but not the right decision for the show." Still, we're left with somewhat of an idea of his performance, with this very-1980s music video starring Harley and Brightman (with Harley wearing a full face mask).
While several small costume changes occurred, one that was entirely switched out was Christine’s "Masquerade" dress, a sparkly, pink-blue-purple fluffy tulle skirt with puff sleeves. The original costume was a much simpler concept known as the “Saloon Girl” costume. As the name suggests, it looks somewhat like what a 19th-century waitress might wear in a saloon, mixed with a French maid—with black-and-white lace fabric and an apron-style skirt. The costume was used for the first year or so of the West End production, but was discontinued by the time Phantom transferred to Broadway. Though there's never been a clear explanation as to why this costume was swapped out. Fans have theorized that Christine’s finalized Masquerade costume is much more symbolic to the central conflict she experiences in the story, with the purple fading into pastel pink representing dusk and dawn—the moment when day meets night. After all, the Phantom does tell Christine, “Turn your face away from the garish light of day…”, while Raoul says, “No more talk of darkness.”
Though it may be hard to imagine a production of Phantom of the Opera with real flying doves, an '80s rockstar as the titular character, or horses and remote-control rats, it’s equally hard to imagine a world without that familiar half-mask donning the marquee of the Majestic Theatre, as it has for 35 years. But there's no question that the Phantom’s mask has become a universally recognized symbol of the Angel of Music and, by extension, of Broadway.