On the eve of the Little Rock opening of the latest touring production of Cameron Mackintosh's new staging of Phantom of the Opera, running through March 19 at Robinson Center Performance Hall, Arkansan Jake Bell reflects on his long and successful Broadway career.
Bell, a former Cabot resident, was technical production manager on Broadway for the renowned British producer of Phantom, Les Miserables, Miss Saigon and other shows, including Wicked, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, the 2012 revival of A Streetcar Named Desire, and the 2015 production of An American in Paris.
"For about 20 years, I worked exclusively for Cameron," says Bell, who maintains an apartment in New York next to the Lincoln Center and shares a home with wife Regina in Smith Mountain Lake, Va., near Roanoke.
Bell began working for Mackintosh's Phantom in 1988 shortly after it opened and still works for the producer overseeing the technical aspects of the long-running hit. In 2000, he became an independent contractor and established his own company, Jake Bell Productions.
"In 1999 or 2000, Cameron slowed his producing down," Bell says. "And I'm not the kind of person who can sit still for very long." The pair agreed to shift Bell from being a full-time employee to an independent contractor, with him signing a contract to continue working on Les Miserables (which has since closed) and Phantom, still on Broadway in the Majestic Theater nearly 30 years after it opened. Bell does not work on the recently redesigned touring production of Phantom.
"I got really lucky," Bell says of forming his own company. "The first show I worked on independently was Wicked, which turned out to be a major hit as well."
"I take a designer's work and make the magic happen." Bell says of his profession. "A designer comes into a meeting and tells me they want to land a helicopter onstage [Miss Saigon] or fly an automobile out over the audience [Chitty Chitty Bang Bang] -- in the case of Spider-Man, fly actors side by side over the audience and land them on the balcony rail -- and I make those things happen along with the rest of the scenery for the show."
Bell, who has been in the business since the late 1970s and a technical production manager since 1988, compares his work to serving as a general contractor in building a house.
"But in the theater, it's a lot more complicated. And more expensive."
The Little Rock native was reared in Cabot, where he attended Cabot High School, graduating in 1968. The next year at Arkansas State University-Beebe, he became involved in the theater.
Rick Chudomelka, a retired assistant professor of fine arts in music and theater, remembers Bell.
"When I first met him he was a high school football player," Chudomelka recalls. "We always thought if we got him started [in theater], it would stay with him." His first show on campus was Arsenic and Old Lace and his first Shakespeare show was The Merry Wives of Windsor. He also played Judd in Oklahoma! and then the lead in The Taming of the Shrew.
After finishing his studies at the two-year college, Bell got his degree from ASU at Jonesboro in 1973.
"He's so delightful; a real extraordinary talent," says Chudomelka with whom Bell has remained in touch.
The first time Les Miserables came to Little Rock in 1988, Chudomelka and other ASU associates bought out the front row center and took 30 students to the show.
"We were going to meet Jake, who was the stage manager or production manager at the time," he says. "After the show, we waited and waited but there was no Jake. We finally learned that he was not in Little Rock. Jake had received a call offering him the job as Mackintosh's first assistant and he had to immediately fly to New York."
Chudomelka says, "He never quits, he sees everything through to the end. He likes to say 'The impossible just takes longer.'"
In 2009, Bell was named a recipient of ASU's Distinguished Alumnus award. He still speaks fondly of his home state.
"Growing up in Arkansas was the best thing in the world," he says, adding he started out working in his field at Silver Dollar City in Branson in the early 1970s during summers and right after college. "When the park was open in the summer, I was a train robber in its shows and back then, the park was closed all winter and during that time I worked in their carpentry shop building things for the next season."
He then worked at a theater in Houston as technical director for a couple of years before eventually heading to New York.
"There's an old saying, 'May you live in interesting times,' and I have. I've lived through the transformation of the theater industry when almost everything in it has changed from being manual to being computerized; I've seen a lot."
Bell, formerly a stage manager, began as an assistant technical director to Mackintosh in June 1988 and by 1990, he'd taken over the entire technical department of all of Mackintosh's shows.
During the height of it all, Bell oversaw six assistant technical directors and had 12 Broadway and touring shows running across the nation at the same time.
"At one point during a two-month period, we had 240 tractor-trailers of equipment moving around the country, I was in charge of all that, and Forbes did an article about it," Bell says. "That was when it was really crazy."
"Phantom, still on Broadway, was the first big show to have computerized automation," Bell says. It was Cameron Mackintosh's company that financed the development of computerization of automated scenery, scenery being moved by multiple winches.
All in a Day's Work
An average day at work for Bell includes handling stage manager reports coming in for the three shows he oversees (Phantom, Wicked and An American in Paris). And then there's the forthcoming 30th anniversary of Phantom to celebrate.
The most exciting part of his job?
"When a director, designer, or producer comes in and says 'I want to do something no one else has ever done before.' A lot of people's initial reaction is 'No, you're crazy. That can't happen.' What I enjoy is figuring out if it's possible and developing that idea to where maybe it's not exactly what they thought it was going to be but producing something that exceeds everybody's expectations."
"Coming up on the 30th anniversary, every piece of equipment will be looked at again and determined whether it's safe and works," Bell says.
That includes the iconic chandelier dating to 1988, which was designed by Maria Bjornson.
Bell's job includes caring for it.
These days, Bell, 67, is transitioning into retirement.
"Rather than close my company or sell my assets to someone else, as the shows close, then my income decreases and I have cut back my staff that handle just the shows that I have." Today, Bell's two sons also work on Broadway; Spencer is property master of Wicked on Broadway and Noel works in audio.
"After I've done 15 Les Miserables, I don't want to do another one. When something stops being fun, I don't want to do it anymore."
The Phantom of the Opera will be performed at Little Rock's Robinson Center Performance Hall Wednesday through March 19. Tickets are $33-153. For more information, visit ticketmaster.com or call (501) 244-8800.
Style on 03/07/2017
Print Headline: Cabot native, Phantom's technical chief in NYC, looks back