In 1986 London, a new musical on the West End from hit composer Andrew Lloyd Webber, The Phantom of the Opera, became a smash sensation, and quickly transferred to Broadway, opening at the Majestic Theatre on January 26, 1988. The production would run for a history-making 35 years on Broadway, with its closure eventually announced for April 16, 2023: an overturn of several generations later. Ask any theatre historian, Phantom fan, or musical buff what has kept the crowds coming in for years upon years—although the answers will differ, it's likely they'll all cite one aspect: the show's notorious design.
Maria Björnson, a Paris-born set and costume designer, came from a long line of stage artistry. Her maternal great-grandfather was the director of the Romanian National Theatre, and her paternal grandfather, a Norwegian playwright. She studied at the Central School of Art and Design, and went on to become one of the most renowned stage designers of the late 20th century. Björnson took on a musical here or there, but primarily worked on operas and plays, amassing a resume of approximately 125 productions in just 30 years. She passed away in 2002, but her work has lived on.
Wanting both the maximalistic opulence of opera stage design, and the blackbox minimalism of plays, Hal Prince specifically sought out Björnson for her "ability to create black box moods, even in elaborate designs." Prince, wanting to both emphasize the acting and performance onstage without diverting the eyes, while also wanting to immerse audiences into a grand Parisian opera house, knew that Björnson could execute the juxtaposition of those visions. And the rest is musical history.
Although Björnson's iconic stage design in Phantom of the Opera is most often discussed—like the universally recognized chandelier or the Phantom's white half-mask—to mark the show's closure, Playbill is taking a close look at a few of her dozens of costume designs for the long-running production. Scroll through the photos below for a detailed look at the intricate beadwork and lush fabrics found in Björnson's designs, and factoids for her various inspirations for each costume piece.
Christine's Hannibal Skirt
Beginning with Christine costume skirt for the fictional Hannibal opera, it's immediately clear within the show's first number that this is an opera onstage, with the most lavish of costuming: fabric piled atop fabric, meticulous beading and gem detailing, and no material spared.
The Phantom's Suit and Cloak
The character of the Phantom is many things...but one trait he does not receive enough credit for is being impressively stylish. To contrast his abnormality of wearing a mask (and, perhaps, in an effort to compensate for his insecurities about what lies beneath it), the Phantom's signature suit and cloak was styled to be sleek and elegant, with rich Jacquard fabric, and bejeweled embellishments on the shoulders of his cloak. He is said to have been styled somewhat after film star Rudolph Valentino, whose slicked-back hair greatly resembles the Phantom's brunette wig. Considering Valentino was not born until years after the events of Phantom of the Opera, the Phantom's fashion, similar to the music he composes, is markedly ahead of its time.
Perhaps the most important detailing of the Phantom's suit, however, is complementary to Prince's directorial vision for the character: the shortened cuff of his coat sleeves, which elongates the wrist and hands to give a much more dexterous appearance. It creates an air of seduction to his hypnotic gestures, particularly during "Music of the Night."
The "Masquerade" Costumes
In a stunning flurry of "grinning yellows and spinning reds," the word "spectacle" hardly covers the artistry that we only see flashing glimpses of as the action onstage escalates through this whirling dance number. A total of around 50 to 60 costumes appear in this scene alone (depending upon the production), and some are not even on actual performers! To create the illusion of a much more crowded ballroom, Björnson dressed mannequins atop the grand staircase, which stay fixed in place throughout the scene...which is hardly noticeable with all the shimmering, glittering details in motion that beg to catch your eye.
Each ensemble costume featured in the "Masquerade" scene is as elaborate as any costume a lead performer might wear, with jewels, fabric trims, beads, and other odds and ends attached to countless seams. As the costumes were being developed, Björnson's costume coordinator, Sue Willmington, was sent on several errands across London to search for more and more unique, eccentric materials to keep adding to the costumes. Willmington eventually stumbled upon South Asian clothing shops in London's South Hall district, which had an abundance of various fabrics, textiles, motifs, and other materials.
As Björnson conceptualized these costumes, she thought from head to toe, even designing individualized tights and stockings for each costume in the scene.
Each "Masquerade" costume has an assigned "character" or meaning. Some were based on animals or even mythical creatures, like a goldfish and even a "water sprite." But many of them were inspired by past opera and ballet designs, like the "Butterfly" costume, inspired by scenic designer Wilhelm's 1915 design for the ballet A Dream of Butterflies and Roses.
Some of the "Masquerade" designs serve a specific purpose in furthering the story, a few of them used as tools for foreshadowing, such as the Phantom's "Red Death" costume. It parallels what Piangi later wears in "Don Juan," moments before his death at the Phantom's hands. Both costumes are a red chevalier style with puffed sleeves, a doublet, breeches, a red hat and elevated heels in their red shoes.
Another foreshadowing device through costume: the monkey costume in "Masquerade" represents the Phantom's cherished music box. The monkey appears at the ball shortly before the Phantom arrives, and as the music reaches a climactic, dizzying swell, the monkey taunts Christine as she anxiously searches for Raoul in the crowd, signaling her fears to the audience.
Dubbed the "Star Princess" dress by Phantom fans, Christine's "Masquerade" costume is thought to allude 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, with the Phantom's plead to her being “Turn your face away from the garish light of day…”, while Raoul says, “No more talk of darkness.”
Christine's Blue Dress
Known amongst phans as "the Wishing dress," Christine's Act II costume worn during her soaring moment of self-empowerment in "Wishing You Were Somehow Here Again" is notably the only time we see Christine wear clothing of her own. In every other scene, she's either in a costume for the opera, a costume for the Masquerade ball...or, at the end, a wedding dress the Phantom forces her to wear. This is the one glimpse we get at Christine's personal taste and style, a modest blue dress adorned with an elegant floral pattern and a velvet floral collar. Her dress was exceedingly fashionable for its time, reminiscent of the blue dress in the 1875 painting by Jules David titled, "Two Women in Day Dresses."
The floral blue silk of the dress is supplied by one singular designer: Vanessa and Alan Hopkins, a husband-and-wife team specializing in collecting historical clothing, textiles, and accessories. Every single replica production of Phantom that has existed, whether in New York or Japan or Sweden, has ordered their fabric for the costume.
Of course, although the dress is a more casual one in the grand scheme of the show's aesthetics, there's still embellishment and flair at every angle. There's braided edges and scalloped ribbon on the sleeves, damask velvet in the center of the bodice, and a large bow at the top of the bustle that cascades down the sides of the skirt.
Christine's Il Muto/Rooftop Dress
This is arguably the most elaborate and embellished costume in the production. It's the dress Christine wears when fleeing to the rooftop before taking over Carlotta's role as the Countess in Il Muto. The gown shines from top to bottom with layers upon layers of shimmering lace fabric. Styled after the French Roccoco era, which is marked by extremely ornate design, the actual fabrics used in the dress varies across productions, but each and every Il Muto dress is always stunningly complex.
Though they technically play the same character, Carlotta's own Il Muto dress, though similar, almost always takes on a pink and black color palette. Whereas Christine's gown varies in pastel shades of mint, lavender, and even the rare aquamarine.
Christine's Wedding Dress
With the bustle alone weighing 35 pounds, Christine's wedding dress is a carefully crafted work. Comprised of cream silk and silverly lace, the dress isn't perfectly white when you look up close, giving it an almost antique look. This is to avoid the stage lights casting a bluish hue on a stark white fabric. But still, it's worth noting what the somewhat aged appearance suggests: did the Phantom hold onto this dress for years prior? Whether a design choice for lighting or a design for the character, the nuance of Björnson's design conjures endless questions, which have certainly allowed audiences and fans to dissect, decipher, and discover new things about the production even 35 years later.
Whether looking back on its countless costumes, mystifying set design, or its sweeping score, we'll be thinking of Phantom fondly for years to come, thanks to all the illustrious artistry behind this history-making production.