- by Michael S. Eddy
A look at the lighting upgrades for Broadway’s Phantom of the Opera
Broadway’s Phantom of the Opera opened 25 years ago on January 26, 1988 at the Majestic Theatre. As of February 11, 2012, it became the first Broadway show to reach 10,000 performances, and for most of those performances major parts of the lighting system remained unchanged. When Phantom opened in 1988, DMX control protocol—which we take for granted today—was in its infancy and wasn’t fully implemented by most manufacturers; it was an analog world back then. Phantom used semaphore color changers since color scrollers were also in their early days, and it would still be a few more years before moving lights would make their Broadway debut.
While Andrew Bridge’s lighting design hasn’t changed since the show opened and some of the lighting and special effects technology for the show remains the same original equipment—tenderly cared for and lovingly repaired—a large part of the lighting equipment needed to be upgraded recently as the outdated gear could no longer be supported. Dimmers, cable and the console have all been changed out as part of a two-year upgrade that the Phantom electrics team completed this past October.
25 Years, 3 Consoles
Alan Lampel, the head electrician for the production, has been operating the lighting control console since the show opened in 1988. Over the 25-year run, he’s been an integral part of the ongoing lighting maintenance and upgrades as the show continued far longer than anyone could have foreseen when they first loaded into the Majestic. Lampel worked closely with Robert Fehribach, the production electrician for Phantom, and knows all the intricacies and idiosyncrasies of the system.
The original console was a first generation Strand Light Palette that Four Star Stage Lighting, who supplied the original lighting package for the show, specifically built in a compacted form to fit into the Majestic’s lighting booth. “When the show was originally programmed it took three 5¼” floppy disks to hold all of the cueing; two for the first act alone,” explains Lampel. “I came onto the show right after it had been teched and there was a tight disk change in one scene where I had just enough time to put in the backup disk if the first one failed; it was crazy. Then in ‘95 a Strand Light Palette 90 console was swapped into the show. When we changed over to the LP90, I had to transfer all of the cues from the original console to the LP90 keystroke by keystroke; it was a painfully slow process.” By 2012, after 17 years on Phantom, the Strand Light Palette 90 console was starting to falter and finding parts to service it was a real challenge so in June the LP90 console was replaced with an ETC Ion console. Lampel notes, “Associate Lighting Designer Vivien Leone brought in Eric Cornwell from Westside Systems who was able to transfer almost all of the show data from the LP90 to the Ion. That was well worth the money; it saved us a lot of time.”
When compared to today’s Broadway shows, Phantom seems like a window into the past. It uses 200 cues and 15 effects, and while the show now uses DMX for control it only just crosses into a second 512-channel universe of DMX. Leone, who started on the original production as the assistant to the lighting designer and as of May 7, 2012 became the associate lighting designer, worked with Lampel on preparing for the transition. “The cue structure is exactly the way it was in 1988,” Leone comments. “The only thing that wouldn’t transfer cleanly were the effects since the Ion deals with effects in a different manner, so they were punched in by hand. We worked offline to transfer the show file and went through checking and cleaning everything up. On the morning of June 14 we went in to swap the consoles. We did a very careful channel check and then punched through everything; we checked the effects as well.”
Brightening the Dimmers
With the console changeover finished, Lampel resumed his work preparing for the very first major dimmer change out in the show’s run. Originally scheduled first, the dimmers had to wait when the console’s precarious state got it moved up the priority list. In anticipation of the dimmer changeover, he and the electrics crew spent the last two years changing out all of the power cabling. “All of the cables were getting old and the cases were cracking; it was time to replace them,” Lampel explains. “We replaced almost everything, including all of the cable in the air that hadn’t been on the deck in 24 years. The new dimmer racks have six-circuit Socapex connectors; all of the original multicables were 12-circuit with Pyle National connectors. We finished the last cable runs to the footlights just two weeks prior to the dimmer swap out.”
A peek at Phantom’s original dimmer setup was more like looking at an exhibit of dimming history than a currently-running hit show. The dimming included three steel racks of eight Dilor 12x2.4kW dimmer packs; a rack with 32 4kW Dilor dimmers; a “tall boy” custom rack of Strand CD80 12 packs; and a relay rack for non-dim equipment. “The dimmers on the show were a real mixed bag,” comments Lampel. “Fortunately, I was with Four Star in its R&D department when this show was put together, so I knew what I would have to work with. The shop wanted to stick the old dimmers somewhere and they said, ‘Well Alan’s on the show, he can deal with them!’ Everything was 0-10V DC analog control with analog multipin connectors.
“We used the large capacity dimmers because we needed to leave some headroom for the DHA Light Curtains, which would fry the old 2.4kW dimmers,” Lampel continues. “The Dilor dimmers started to die; they had cable issues, trigger cards that would die on us and we couldn’t get parts or service. We would watch for available Dilor packs and pick up some whenever we could, like when Les Misérables closed, or when City Center upgraded; or we would swap some Dilor’s out for Strand CD80 packs. We were losing dimmers and every few weeks I was massaging trigger cards to keep them working, but we were losing banks of 12 dimmers at a time.”
This past October the dimmers were replaced with ETC Sensor Dimmer Racks. The show now has 433 2.4kW dimmers and one 6kW dimmer along with non-dims that replace the old custom Four Star relay racks. There was also an original wireless dimming system for effects control that was also replaced with a City Theatrical WDS Wireless Data System. “We jumped into the 21st century,” Lampel happily states. “When you come in now it’s so neat and so beautiful up there; it’s a whole new world.”
Color in a Chiaroscuro World
Over the past quarter-century other changes have been made, including in 1995 when the four-color semaphore color changers were changed out for color scrollers. To maintain the integrity of Bridge’s original design Leone notes, “We did an in-depth analysis of the colors being used and laid out the scrollers with the original four colors in the semaphore changers as well as the combination colors where two colors had been used at once in the old system.” Lampel adds, “Many of the old color changers were dying or had been trashed by scenery hitting them. Also, when we moved to the LP90, we had the data protocol needed for the newer color scrollers. Also when we went to the color scrollers, we started to add in ETC Source Four ellipsoidals. A lot of the shutters were burning up on the original Altman 360Qs and they were hard on patterns. I really miss the old FEL-lamped fixtures though; the Source Fours are more efficient and we save on not having to replace so many patterns, but I miss that field.”
As much as some things have changed, some of the gear on Phantom is the same as when the curtain first rose. They’re still using the original DHA Light Curtains, the same strobes, MR-16 birdies and strips, and Rosco Lab’s Roscolene color—which, at times, requires some detective work to restock. But perhaps the original element requiring Lampel’s most meticulous attention is the candles. “We tried adding in newer models of flicker candles, but they just didn’t match or look right,” says Lampel. “We still use the Howard Eaton Lighting Ltd. versions that I maintain. Over time, the candles get trashed by scenery or burn out, so I repair them and match old wicks with new bodies or vice versa; it’s a great array of old and new. They’re all different now; it’s a great mix that looks so realistic.”
For Leone, all of the changes are bittersweet. “I am sorry to see some of the technology upgrades,” she comments. “It’s still working and successful. It’s a living lighting museum on Broadway. It’s the only musical now without moving lights. They’re still using carbon arc followspots. In fact the guy who is Followspot #1 is the son of the original spot #1; there’s a lot of continuity with the crew, which helps maintain the show. The whole show is so clear in it’s intent. The original design is still so perfect for this show.”