Dallas — To paraphrase Avenue Q's opening number: What do you do with a BA in theater? The answer is lots of things, and often not theater-related, at least not at the beginning anyway. Not so for Seth Sklar-Heyn. He graduated from New York's Vassar College and walked through the stage door of The Phantom of the Opera on Broadway. And he's still there. Maybe not literally, but certainly with the production as associate director and the one charged with making sure audiences across the country see the same production that its famous producer, Cameron Mackintosh—known for such long-running Broadway stalwarts as Cats, The Phantom of the Opera, Les Misérables and Miss Saigon—wants them to see. It's a daunting task when you consider that there has been only one production of The Phantom of the Opera, the one that has been playing on Broadway for 26 years and attracts theatergoers who were not even born when the show opened. Sklar-Heyn was just a youngster when Phantom opened. His years and close ties with the show have earned him a reputation for being a walking encyclopedia of all things Phantom. He took time to chat with TheaterJones about giving a long-running, beloved show a face lift and working with its legendary producer.
TheaterJones: Your photos online look so young. How old are you?
Seth Sklar-Heyn: I'm 33. I started as a stage manager on Phantom on Broadway when I was 19. I didn't stay there all this time, but I started my stage management career there, and it was one of those old-fashioned apprenticeship journeys.
What was your career path?
When I was in my teens, I met the right people at the right time and started to just show up at the right places and the right moment to get in. In the industry, the entry level is production assistant—making copies and getting coffee. So, my first job in New York City was a coffee boy, getting coffee and lunch for people like Kander and Ebb and Angela Lansbury, which was a great start! As production assistant, the person you answer to is the stage manager. I was introduced to this craft of stage management, and I wanted to know everything about how things happened backstage.
I worked as a production assistant on Seussical the Musical before it went to Broadway as unpaid worker. Then during tech week, one of the crewmembers had a death in the family and had to leave the show. I knew the show, so they gave me my union card and a headset, and I became the stage manager for the stage left track. I came back to New York with an Equity card, and that's when I learned Phantom. Three Phantom stage managers taught me the show, and before I was 20, I started calling The Phantom of the Opera on Broadway. It was an amazing time two years ago to come back to the Majestic Theatre supervising the entire production. The people who started my career and taught me were still there and celebrating my return with me. It was very touching.
How long have you been with the current tour of Phantom?
I've been with the Phantom brand—both the original and the new one about two a half years. I came back to Phantom as the production supervisor, then my position with Cameron MacIntosh changed. The new production—the one coming to Dallas—I've been with it since October. It ran for a year in the United Kingdom before here. I sort of live and breathe Phantom at this point.
What exactly does an associate director do?
When a production happens, there is a period before the show opens when the original production team is on hand to get everyone up on the production so there is no middleman between the director and the cast. While that is going on, there is a support team for the show who are associates. Our job is to really absorb the director's tastes and concepts for the production so that moving forward beyond the official opening, we become the supervisors for the period of time the production runs. The original director and team will revisit the show every six months or so, but my job, with the help of additional support team members who travel with the show full time, is to keep the show in its original form like it was when the director signed off on it. The director signs off on everything—casting, understudies, design. My job is maintaining the show. It sounds mechanical, but I like to think of it as balancing the show.
Do you travel with the show?
No. I look after Phantom and Les Misérables as well. I visit the show whenever I can. I will rejoin the tour in the fall for a rehearsal period when we're putting new people in. When I do rejoin the show, I come in with new eyes as opposed to the resident director and stage manager who have seen it every night.
What's new about this version of Phantom that Dallas will be seeing?
It's the physical design; the physical environment has changed. In the original production, the design was much more stylized and abstract, like a black box, a void that people came in and out of that wasn't about naturalism. The new design is much more heightened. It's a much more "finished world" stage space. When we're in the wings at the opera house, we see the wings, or the phantom's lair. The opera manager's office has walls and accoutrement that fulfill a space that used to be a curtain swag. We've filled in the gaps of how the original space was conceived and grounded it in the space of a more realistic world, but we haven't lost the elements of theatricality and spectacle. Phantom is so well known for its grandeur and opulence. It looks expensive, and we've done everything in our power to maintain that level of the production.
How have the changes been received?
New audiences to Phantom have had a nice introduction to the show, especially because the original script and score are maintained, and in some ways enhanced, so it's been a nice introduction to classic material. Of course, there are the die-hards who refuse to accept any type of alteration or adjustment that they have taken ownership of. People who love the original tend to remember the first time they saw it with the chandelier crashing in a certain way and the orchestra sounding a certain way. The current production will take what you remember and the Andrew Lloyd Webber songs that ring in your head, but will go further with them and enhance them in a new way that gives the show a new perspective. Stage productions aren't meant to run 26 years on Broadway. They just aren't. I pride myself on being part of a team that keeps it fresh and not dusty. Most shows will close, then revive in 10 years with a fresh look. In this instance, it's so remarkable that the production is still alive and can be reinterpreted for new audiences.
The melodrama and style of the late '80s have changed. Young audiences today might look at the melodrama and roll their eyes, or look at what was spectacle back then and think "That's it?" With the new tour, we've held on to what people love about the show and made it more contemporary with more contemporary taste. Audiences are saying that things are clearer and they're finding it refreshing to reconnect with it in a new way. The original production had no moving lights and certainly no computerized lighting. The new production takes advantage of new technology in lighting, pyrotechnics and sound. It's still 20 trucks full of stuff—it's just as big if not bigger, but it's able to move faster from city to city.
Was it a hard decision to tinker with the popular Phantom? Was there a fear of backlash?
It wasn't necessarily a hard decision. Cameron brought on a wonderful young director who knew the original production and was able to step back and say "What are the points that I wish I could change and make more clear for an audience and reinterpret?" It's a really cool way to come at it—using the same words and music, but having the opportunity to redefine it and explore it. It's not about taking the old and erasing it. Cameron is the first to talk about the original production and not the new. For instance, the costumes from the original have been maintained and upheld. Everyone agreed that they are iconic, and the tour continues to serve that costume design.
What's it like to work with one of the most famous theatrical producers in the world?
Recently [Cameron] was quoted as saying that now that he is where he is in his career, he never expected to be working on these shows again, so it's like a renaissance for him. He says he doesn't get involved in every show, but he interferes, and it's true. These days, the word "producer" is distributed widely depending on how they contribute to a show, but usually because of investing financially in a show. What's so refreshing about Cameron is that there is one name above the title—his—and he truly takes responsibility for every aspect of a show under his name. He has opinions and tastes and expectations within every department. He interferes, but he interferes in a way that becomes the expectation. He is going to have opinions. He supports his organization, and he absolutely is involved. One of the testaments to his abilities is the great loyalty that is shared among many who work in his organization. His company in London is a small company that looks after many productions around the world, but the people have been there for a long time. He's also a terror, but it comes from a place of innocence and pride and absolute joy about what he does. It comes from a place of complete passion.
Other than Phantom what's your favorite theater experience?
I've had to come to terms with the fact that I like big shows. I like a show to have scale to it. I want to be immersed in it. One of the shows I worked on was History Boys, and at the time, I was the same age as the boys. I filled in as a swing and to move furniture, so I was on stage with them. Usually the stage manager is the person responsible behind the stage, so this was my first experience to be on stage with the actors. It was the first experience I had where I watched and listened and actually the first play I had ever worked on. I was a musical snob at the time and thought I would work only on musicals. But hearing the language and watching the performances changed things for me and what I expected from theater. Also, I directed A Little Night Music with Elaine Stritch, who just recently passed away. Her passing had me thinking about that time. It was fraught and amazing at the same time and was one of the most incredible experiences. She had absolutely no filter, she couldn't hide behind anything. There was no falsity to her at all, and working with her will always be one of my favorite experiences.