Over the past quarter of a century, 37 different actresses have played the female lead in "The Phantom of the Opera" on Broadway. All 37 have been dressed by one woman: Erna Dias.
"I have no favorites. You can't do that," says Dias, who has been a wardrobe attendant with the show at the Majestic Theater in New York since rehearsals began.
She oversees each actress' 16 nightly costume changes — one so short she has only 34 seconds to get it done — and has rearranged her vacations to ensure she's present for each new heroine making her debut as Christine Daae.
"To keep this fresh, when I come in, I try to think of every night as opening night," she says. "I've been in this business 36 years and I never thought this show was going to last this long. This is unbelievable."
The show is celebrating its record-setting silver anniversary and it has eye-popping numbers — grossing over $887 million, using 1,600 tons of dry ice and having its famous chandelier travel 4 million feet. But behind the numbers and behind the scenes, it is people like Dias who have kept "The Phantom of the Opera" going, one outfit at a time.
It's people like David Caddick, the Grammy-winning musical supervisor who also frequently conducts the show dressed in Edwardian tails. His hair has grown gray over the 25 years he's been with "Phantom."
"It keeps going because people want it to keep going," says Caddick, who leads the show's tours as well. "We have an audience that keeps coming back, and a new audience who have never seen it, and everyone's very grateful for that."
The musical opened on London's West End at the 1,200-seat Her Majesty's Theatre on Oct. 9, 1986, with Michael Crawford and Sarah Brightman in the lead roles. It crossed the Atlantic and opened on Broadway on Jan. 26, 1988, and has clocked more than 10,400 performances, becoming the Great White Way's longest-running show ever.
"Every single show is a pioneer into the future. Every single one makes it that much further," says actor Richard Poole, who has played Joseph Buquet in the show for 14 1/2 years. "It's an incredible blessing to be in something like this because you don't go into this business for security."
Based on a novel by Gaston Leroux, "Phantom" tells the story of a deformed composer who haunts the Paris Opera House and falls madly in love with an innocent young soprano, Christine. Andrew Lloyd Webber's lavish songs include "Masquerade," ''Angel of Music," ''All I Ask of You," ''The Phantom of the Opera" and "The Music of the Night."
The musical has played to over 130 million people in 27 countries and has grossed over $5.6 billion worldwide — more than any film in history, including "Avatar," ''Titanic," ''Gone With the Wind" and "Star Wars."
In the New York production, Poole plays an unpleasant, drunken opera stagehand who is killed before intermission — "It's rough dying eight times a week," he cracks — but returns to play various other smaller roles the rest of the night. He's a classic team player.
"Even the short time that I've been here — comparatively — I see people come and go, but I see the standard — the benchmark — remain the same," he says. "That is attributed to the people who are really in it every single day, week, month, year, decade."
The show has endured through blackouts, 9/11, economic recessions and Superstorm Sandy, a flood in the theater due to plumping problems and one Christine popping her Achilles tendon. It also survived Poole losing some teeth.
He explains that a few years back, he cracked five teeth on a piece of equipment but kept going that week with some temporary teeth. Then, one night onstage, he said the word "ghost" and two of his temporaries flew out of his mouth, landing several feet away at the foot of another actor.
"I'm realizing at that point that these teeth are worth a lot more than my dignity of picking them up," he says. "I thought, 'I'm a stagehand.' I reached down, picked them up and put them back in. Everyone was going, 'Ugh!' — which is perfect for the character."
What has fueled Dias, Caddick and Poole every night for all these years has been the sense of obligation they have to inspire another generation and pass along their passion.
"My philosophy about it is that every time that you go on the stage, you have to realize that there are some people who have never seen a theatrical production ever before. There are people who have spent half a year saving up money to come and see something," says Poole.
"The show has become a revival of itself because now the people who saw it when they were kids are bringing their kids. It's iconic. It's part of the fabric of New York."
Follow Mark Kennedy on Twitter at http://twitter.com/KennedyTwits