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The first note that Jonathan Allen, assistant to Phantom of the Opera scenic designer Maria Björnson, got after each technical rehearsal and preview was simply, “The monkey’s hair.”
“You always give me that note,” he said to her once.
“Well, you always get it wrong,” she replied.
The monkey in question is the music box auctioned on the stage of the Paris Opera House in the opening scene of the Andrew Lloyd Webber, Charles Hart, and Richard Stilgoe musical. The musical, which opened at the Majestic Theatre January 26, 1988, will end its record 35-year run on April 16. Actors have come and gone, but one player has been there the longest: the monkey music box. According to one Phantom props person, the same monkey has there on Broadway for at least 21 years.
The auctioneer at the top of the musical describes the box: “Lot 665, ladies and gentlemen: a papier-mâché musical box, in the shape of a barrel-organ. Attached, the figure of a monkey in Persian robes playing the cymbals. This item, discovered in the vaults of the theatre, still in working order.”
To show it is in working order, the porter turns the music box on. The monkey’s arms move to clap the cymbals as the box plays the tune “Masquerade,” the musical’s Act II opener.
The music box is sold to Raoul, Vicomte de Chagny for 30 francs. He sings, “A collector’s piece indeed. Every detail exactly as she said. She often spoke of you, my friend. Your velvet lining, and your figurine of lead. Will you still play, when all the rest of us are dead?”
As the auction for the chandelier, Lot 666, begins, it swoops up into the air and the action of the play begins. The Paris Opera is returned to its original grandeur, and we are transported back in time to witness the famous Phantom and his love for the young singer Christine.
READ: Get an Up-Close Look at Maria Björnson’s Intricate Costumes from Phantom of the Opera
But back to the monkey. Allen says to get the monkey’s hair right, and to prevent another note from Björnson, he re-styled the hair. She approved it and he photographed the monkey, to have a template to work from every day.
“But a few years later, I came to the monkey and I said to the prop person, ‘I have a photograph of what it’s supposed to look like,’ and she said, ‘So, do I. I have one Maria did.’ And they were totally different!” Allen says laughing. “I don’t think Maria ever decided what she wanted.”
Björnson’s lush scenic and costume designs each won the 1988 Tony Award. She was then only the second woman to have won a Tony for Scenic Design, following Heidi Landesman-Ettinger’s historic 1985 win for Big River. The two lead a list of female scenic design Tony winners that includes only seven women. Before her death in 2002, Björnson designed only two other Broadway shows, Aspects of Love and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. The bulk of her work was seen in opera houses, including The Met, La Scala, and Royal Opera House.
But her creations have lived long after her, including the monkey, which is arguably as iconic as the Phantom’s white half mask. The monkey music box appears again in Act II in the Phantom’s lair. It wakens Christine from her slumber after she collapses from fright upon seeing a mannequin of herself in a wedding gown. It plays again in the final moments of the show, just as Raoul and Christine leave the Phantom in his lair with the mob descending.
The monkey music box does not appear in the source novel Le Fantôme de L’Opéra by Gaston Leroux, although there is a major character called “The Persian” who relays most of the Phantom’s former life, including his history with the Shah of Persia. In the musical, this bit of backstory is given to Madame Giry to deliver: “And an inventor too, monsieur. They boasted he had once built for the Shah of Persia, a maze of mirrors.”
The monkey’s inclusion in the musical is an invention of Lloyd Webber and book writer Stilgoe—perhaps a nod to the Phantom’s history in Persia (in the show, the Phantom even wears a Persian cap in one scene, matching the chimp). It has been part of the script since the first draft and music director David Caddick, who has been with Phantom since before its 1985 workshop preview at Sydmonton Court (Lloyd Webber’s home), confirms that it was Lloyd Webber who assigned the “Masquerade” motif to the music box.
There’s also a bit of a monkey Easter egg in the “Masquerade” number. A performer in a monkey costume, wearing the same Persian vest, appears at the ball and taunts Christine just prior to the Phantom’s entrance.
And contrary to what fans may think, there is only one monkey music box used during the show. In the Majestic Theatre, Mezick tells us, the monkey lives on a stage left prop table for his first entrance, then he’s moved stage right during intermission to be placed in the lair scenes. At the end of each performance, he goes back to his stage left table and is plugged in to charge his electrical system for the next day.
“People don’t appreciate what a complex piece it really is,” says Allen. “It’s a remote-controlled mechanical monkey that also transmits sound that’s played in the pit.” The props team turns it on and off via remote control; that’s what starts the arms to open and close as if the monkey is clapping his cymbals. The tune (again, “Masquerade”) is played on a keyboard live from the pit, but is transmitted to the monkey so that it seems like the music box is actually playing the tune. Allen says they originally tried an intake recorder inside the music box, but it proved unreliable.
Take a look at Björnson’s original drawings for the monkey (note her note about how the monkey’s cymbals “must be silent! And not touch!”:
As productions of The Phantom of the Opera open and close around the world, bits and pieces of the set are sometimes moved and reused. And more than once, monkeys have gone missing. When searching for a particular monkey for the Moscow production, it couldn’t be found anywhere in storage. But then someone just happened to see him in Germany in the wig shop where he’d been kept as a prized souvenir. Was it the work of a sneaky crew member or an opera ghost?
Allen is currently putting together the Korea production, so he recently went hunting for a monkey in the Germany storage facility where pieces from the planned 2016 French-language premiere were sent (after a fire at the Mogador Theatre in indefinitely shelved the production). “I knew it would be a bit singed, but it could work again,” he says. “In fact, we found one in better condition, so they’d had two. It was a relief.”
In 2021, Lloyd Webber donated a monkey from the West End production to an auction benefitting the Actors Fund. The prize came with a personal invitation for two to join Lloyd Webber at the re-opening of the Broadway production following the pandemic. The music box sold for $31,500. (So, that’s another monkey gone missing, but for a good cause!)
The New York Broadway production does have a backup monkey. Matt Mezick, who was the head of props for Phantom at the Majestic for 21 years before recently moving over to New York, New York, says that in his memory they’ve never had to use the backup monkey. If there was a problem with the main monkey, it was always fixed before showtime. He also says the backup (understudy?) looks a little different.
Allen has also mentioned that early on, several of the monkeys were created as one-offs, explaining not only why the two Broadway monkeys differ in appearance, but also why the West End charity monkey looks different from the Broadway one. (Although, the West End revamped production has returned to Björnson’s sketches and created a new prop per spec.) When the production was a success and more international and touring productions opened, they eventually made a carving of the face and hands so that there would be a uniformity across productions. This is true for several of the props, including many candelabras.
Mezick also confesses that the Broadway monkey has never had a name (though the West End team calls him Bob). “We just say ‘the monkey,’” he says. “And that’s how stage management cues us: ‘Stand by’ and ‘Go for the monkey.’”
Reverently, as if an opera ghost (or an opera scenic designer ghost) were instructing him, Mezick shares his nightly ritual when he was working on Phantom: “Every night before the monkey would go out in the final lair, I would make sure his hair was in place. He has a spike up, the spikes to the left and right, and then the two cheeks. So, every night, he had a little grooming session.”
And this weekend, he will be coifed one final time on Broadway. The monkey, who has inspired his own few pieces of Phantom merchandise, will live on. One can find souvenir ornaments, snow globes, and music boxes with his likeness for purchase online. And who knows, this beloved Broadway prop may pop up in another international production. Or go into storage until we see a Broadway revival or new tour of Phantom, both of which producer Cameron Mackintosh teased recently in an interview: “Of course it will return,” he says. “All the great musicals do.”
Until that triumphant return, we can only wish Phantom a spectacular closing weekend with, “Go for the monkey.”