Harriet Clark auditioned for the U.S. production of The Phantom of the Opera on a Friday. She had one week of rehearsals and made her Broadway debut the following Tuesday. Twelve years and two children later, Clark is the dance captain of this 17-year-old musical.
Carly Sebouhian, whose background is ballet but found herself “disillusioned with the whole ballet world,” knew she wanted to attempt other forms of dance despite little experience in musical theater. She joined the cast of Phantom’s ballet chorus in 2003.
Sebouhian describes the process of learning the show as a crash course. During a new dancer’s rehearsal week, there are usually three days that the dancers rehearse from noon to 5 pm. After learning her material, the new dancer trails the person performing her future part. This means following that cast member around backstage, walking through the crossovers, costume changes, prop setting and sequencing. Next is a run with a skeleton cast, where only the new dancer is in costume. The last step is the “final dress,” which is actually the new dancer’s first performance in front of the audience.
It’s a whirlwind process that leads to eight shows a week. Only then can the new performer exhale and relax into her part. Clark says that although the preparation is done fast, the intense performance schedule allows the cast members to become comfortable in their roles very quickly. On tour the process can be even shorter. Sebouhian was recently called to join the tour cast and learned a new part in just two hours.
A ballet background makes this process easier. Clark, who danced with American Ballet Theatre and was a soloist at Pacific Northwest Ballet, says that 10 years ago, Phantom’s ballet chorus was largely made up of dancers looking for a way to transition from professional ballet careers. Now, however, more of the dancers are coming from intense ballet programs and looking to break into musicals. Either way, Clark says, “your ballet training and technique will get you the job.”
As dance captain of the show, Clark runs dance rehearsals and teaches every cast member (except the Phantom himself) his or her material. She’s also the ballet swing, which means she must be prepared to replace any of the dancers at any time.
Despite these responsibilities, Clark contends that the show is not a tremendous time commitment. Most dancers arrive at the theater about an hour before curtain and leave just after the show. “It isn’t like a ballet company where you take class and rehearse all day and then perform at night.” The cast is usually free during the day unless there’s a matinee, cast change, a new principal that needs a full-cast rehearsal or a rare visit from director Hal Prince or choreographer Gillian Lynne.
The performance schedule allows the show to remain tight and makes regular rehearsals unnecessary. “It’s quite a ship,” says Clark, referring to the amount of organization that can make the show seem easy after a while. Much of the sailing is on cruise control. But with eight shows a week, there’s still a chance that dancers can lose focus and energy. Clark believes that the cast changes help to keep the show fresh because the performers are more alert. “Thinking is a really good thing in a long-running show,” she says.
Once dancers join, the show’s flexibilty allows them to attend classes, gain experience auditioning or take a leave of absence. If the situation is right, Phantom can also provide the chance to perform different roles, which is how Sebouhian has had the opportunity to perform the part of Meg Giry.
At the audition, the supervisors notice whether someone has the right look for a part. They’re also conscious of understudy possibilities when they make their casting decisions. Clark stresses the fact that the show is set in the 1870s and requires a certain style of movement and a period look. Sebouhian’s curly hair, coloring and soft features put her in line with the look of the show. Soon after being hired, Sebouhian was told that she would eventually learn the part of Meg. She began taking voice lessons and is now the first understudy for Meg, who is a featured singer in some of the show’s songs.
Although Sebouhian has taken on the responsibility of understudying Meg, her time commitment to the show is largely the same. In addition to her usual schedule, she rehearses about once a month for the part. Clark taught her the role, and they also worked with the stage manager, musical director and musical supervisor. Meg does everything the ballet chorus does, and when she is in the chorus, Sebouhian is able to watch many of Meg’s other scenes during the show. There are some nights when she learns she’ll perform Meg an hour and a half before the 8 pm curtain. Her routine doesn’t change very much when this happens. She reviews the role mentally and does a short vocal warmup.
The primary difference is in her approach to the role. When playing Meg, Sebouhian focuses on her acting rather than her dancing. Because she had never taken an acting class before joining the show, she finds this to be one of her biggest challenges. But the guidance and performing experience she has received with the show have given her the tools she needs. The brilliance of Phantom is that it actually encourages its performers to branch out and expand their talent in other fields.
Ilona Wall dances with the Suzanne Farrell Ballet and Dances Patrelle.