After eight years, The Phantom of the Opera is back again to haunt Hong Kong audiences. It's the world's highest-grossing musical, as well as the longest-running show on Broadway, a feat achieved in part because of Andrew Lloyd Webber's engrossing compositions.
A total of 21 songs filling up most of the two-and-a-half hour show; the man handling all that the music is Australian musical supervisor Guy Simpson. "I basically represent Andrew," he tells Young Post. "How do I know what he wants? 'Cause I do. I've been associated with the show for 24 years."
Simpson has been involved with the show in one way or another since 1990. Whenever Phantom shows in a city, Simpson arrives three months earlier to choose the orchestra. He also coaches the singers and attends rehearsals, marking minute changes in a small black leather notebook. "[Score] number three, bar 55, Raul starting note - start earlier," Simpson reads from his scribbly handwriting. "It's incredibly detailed, it's kind of scary.
"But it's the details that make it. If I don't worry about that entry of the second flute, sure, no one's going to hear it. But if I just let it go, then let [something else] go, gradually you'll have a crumbling score."
For Simpson, the orchestra is a breathing organism that brings life to a show. "A backing track has no 'live and breathe' at all. Spontaneous magic can't happen," he explains.
Incredibly, the show orchestra has only 15 musicians. There are three violins, two flutes, two clarinets, a viola, a cello, a double bass, a french horn, a bassoon, and three keyboards. "We only have three violinists, but it sounds like a tide," says Simpson. This is achieved by mixing live players on top of keyboard sounds. Using keyboard technology helps reduce costs, but live musicians are what bring "humanity" to the sound, and what separates an average orchestra from an exceptional one.
Besides impeccable technical skills, Simpson also looks for musicians with a theatrical spirit that matches the play's melodrama. "Do you ever get goosebumps when you hear music?" he asks. That's the "spiritual power" he's looking for.
The Phantom of the Opera runs from December 21 to January 18 at AsiaWorld-Expo.