When Bob Hetherington started making the rounds to promote his new musical production, he knew he had a good spiel.
It's not every day a theater professor can brag about putting on the most expensive stage production in the 100-year history of the University of Memphis.
His description had marvelous details: 140 different costumes, dozens of wigs, 200 pounds of dry ice turned into smoke each night, pyrotechnical effects, a 28-piece live orchestra, a candlelit boat ride across an underground lake, a pipe organ, and, oh, yes, an enormous chandelier.
The only flaw in the story, at least if you were one of the rapt listeners at a recent Kiwanis Club meeting, was his opening remark.
"I'm not here to sell you tickets to the 'Phantom of the Opera,'" he said.
That was because there weren't any left.
The day tickets for the university's "Phantom" went on sale on Jan. 30, a line of people, the likes of which had never been seen for a college production, snaked through the corridors of the department of theater and dance. All eight performances sold out in less than four hours.
Most producers or directors will tell you that sold-out houses are a good problem to have.
That is, of course, unless your show is tied into the University of Memphis' Centennial Celebration and everyone from current students to alumni donors is expecting to see it.
A 300-seat theater multiplied by eight shows equals just 2,400 lucky ticket holders.
"We couldn't add any more performances because of scheduling," Hetherington said. "It's a student production, and they have other commitments. This could have sold out for eight weeks."
This locally produced "Phantom" comes the same week that the Broadway production celebrates its 10,000th performance. A 25th-anniversary national tour is in the works.
The amateur rights to put on the show have been released only recently to some colleges and high schools.
"I've always wanted to do this musical," Hetherington said. "I kept asking for the rights and being told to keep checking back. A couple of years ago, the university dared me to come up with something big for the centennial, and about that time, Rodgers & Hammerstein (the organization that licenses the show) asked me to send a proposal."
After Hetherington got the green light, he approached the university about funding.
Because of the enormous sets and all the costumes, staging "The Phantom of the Opera" costs around $150,000. The budget for an entire season of college theater is typically $100,000.
Hetherington hopes the show has a lasting impact on not just viewers, but the performers as well.
He mentioned that in 1970, the university got the rights to stage the first production of the hippie musical "Hair" outside of New York City.
"Did you know that the actors who performed in 'Hair' all those years ago still have cast reunions every five years or so?" Hetherington said. "This is going to sound really corny, but I wanted to do a piece that inspires young people to do theater. Everyone who becomes an actor or director has a certain production that changed their life, made them want to stick with it. I want 'Phantom' to do that for these young people."
For Christina Hernandez and Amanda Boyd, who are sharing the lead role of the Phantom's love interest and protégé, Christine Daae, the chance to sing the role fulfills a childhood dream.
"It was the first show I saw on Broadway," said Hernandez, a musical theater major.
Boyd, who is finishing up her master's degree in music, calls the role a "big sing."
"At age 11, I knew I wanted to play Christine," Boyd said. "It's musical theater, but it's also operatic."
The only faculty member in the show is Copeland Woodruff, co-director of Opera Activities for the Rudi E. Scheidt School of Music. Hetherington said that he was cast simply because no student who auditioned met the demands of the part.
Appearing in the show are 18 theater majors and 12 music majors, while a large technical crew manages the lights, sound and set pieces, which fill every nook and cranny of the theater building, including the scene shop and the black box stage.
"This isn't like a Broadway tour where everything folds down into a tiny little box," said set designer Dave Nofsinger. "We were scheduled to start construction on our next show already, but everything will have to wait. There's no room to move. We've all given ourselves over to this one giant thing."
'Phantom of the Opera'
While the University of Memphis production of "The Phantom of the Opera" is sold out, the theater has a waiting list for those who show up on performance nights. Vacant seats will be filled at the top of the show. Performances are 7:30 p.m. tonight through Saturday, 2 p.m. Sunday and Feb. 22-24 at the University of Memphis Mainstage, 3745 Central. Tickets are $30-$35. Call (901) 678-2576.