As Theatrical Phenomenon Phantom of the Opera Celebrates 30 Year Reign on Broadway Andrew Lloyd Webber Looks Back
By: Ellis Nassour
A gala performance on Wednesday [January 24] will celebrate Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber and Charles Hart’s The Phantom of the Opera hitting 30 years [actually on January 26, with 12,500 performances – which includes 16 previews] and continuing as Broadway’s longest-running show.
Sixteen years ago, POTO became the longest-running show in Broadway history, surpassing the composer’s “now and forever” Cats’ 7,485 performances. Who could’ve predicted reaching 25, and now breaking into a fourth decade?
The Tony-winning Best Musical, with additional lyrics by Richard Stilgoe and his book with Lloyd Webber has played to 18 million at the Majestic Theatre – where it opened in 1988 with a then-record advance of $18-million. Four years earlier, the show, based on Gaston Leroux’s Le Fantôme de L’Opéra, premiered on London’s West End, already surpassing 30 years.
However, on that long ago opening night Andrew Lloyd Webber, pacing and nervous, wasn’t sure he and co-producer with the composer’s Really Useful Company Cameron Mackintosh had a hit on their hands – or that it would go on to win more than 70 theater awards, including seven 1988 Tonys and three London Olivier Awards.
Since 2010, beyond Broadway, the national tours, and a special production for Las Vegas, thousands of high school and university productions have been licensed through R&H Theatricals.
Though London advance sales and audience reaction during previews suggested an unstoppable hit, LloydWebber states. “I wish I could say I had the best time of my life during those heady days. Phantom is the only show I’ve done that was entirely unchanged during previews. Our brilliant director Hal Prince was so certain we’d be a hit that he suggested we take a holiday and return for the opening.
“At openings,” he continues, “even when you feel you have the public with you, you’re at your most vulnerable. I couldn’t bear to sit through the show.” Everyone looked around, but there was no Lloyd Webber.
Mackintosh exited and found him and got him back for the curtain call. Amid the thunderous applause, LloydWebber explains in that moment he yearned to have loved ones around him. But (then) wife, Sarah Brightman, playing Christine, was basking in audience adulation with her Phantom, Michael Crawford. “While all were celebrating,” Lloyd Webber says, “I felt alone and frightened.”
It didn’t help when the first review, by the London Sunday Times critic, read, “Masked balls.” “Those were the only words uttered,” LloydWebber notes. “Most composers, let alone producers, would be suicidal to receive something like that from a major newspaper. It didn’t faze Cameron one bit. He called while having a jolly good breakfast and said nothing any reviewer wrote could alter the fact that Phantom had chimed with audiences.”
LloydWebber, even after blockbuster hits Jesus Christ Superstar, Cats, and Evita, was used to critical snipes. He points out POTO’s reviews “were wildly polarized between those who really did or really wouldn’t surrender to the music of the night.”
What was most upsetting was ruinous gossip that Brightman, an alumna of the West End Cats who’d been onstage since her teens, got the role because she was his wife.
“The fine line between success and failure is perilously small,” states the composer. “I’m struck 30 years hence with the phenomenon Phantom has become. Much credit goes to the late Maria Björnson for her dazzling design and costumes. And would another choreographer have understood the period as well as former prima ballerina Dame Gillian Lynne (Cats)?”
In 2014, Miss Lynne, now 90, made a DBE (Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire) by Queen Elizabeth in the New Year Honours List.
In the matter of the famed chandelier, Lloyd Webber notes, “Many said that moment could never work. It turns out to be the most theatrical moment I ever conceived – a moment that can only be achieved in live theater.”
Multi-Tony-winning director Prince says he was instantly hooked on the idea that Leroux’s classic was musical material. “The secret to the show’s unparalleled success was the team of consummate professionals – producers, musicians, our super-prodigious choreographer and fabulous designer – who were always ready for anything. Andrew’s idea to make the emotional center of the show a love triangle struck a chord with audiences. It’s the crucial difference between our musical, the novel, and other versions of the story.”
POTO certainly hasn’t been without its crisis moments.
Lloyd Webber wanted to work with his old friend “and master book and lyric writer” Alan Jay Lerner, who accepted the challenge. As plans for the musical proceeded, it became obvious that Lerner wasn’t well. His condition worsened and the day he was to start working on the lyrics, he rang Lloyd Webber to say he must bow out. It soon became known Lerner had cancer. Sadly, he never recovered.
“Now, we had to find a replacement,” explains Lloyd Webber. “This led to bringing aboard Charles Hart, a talented young lyricist I had observed at a musical writers competition and whom was commended highly.” Hart was sent a melody to set lyrics to and the result convinced Lloyd Webber he’d made a good choice.
When the move to Broadway was eminent, “the only Achilles heel we had was Sarah,” recounts Lloyd Webber. “American Equity refused to allow the girl without whom there would have been no Phantom to play Christine. I felt Sarah’s slight as if it were directed at me.” With millions of dollars in ticket sales at stake, a deal was hatched. Brightman made her Broadway debut, and won a Tony for her performance.
In addition to POTO, Lloyd Webber has School of Rock, written with Glen Slater and book adapted from the film by Julian Fellowes (Downton Abbey). A new production of Tony-winning Best Musical Cats returned this season for its first revival since closing in September 2000 after 7, 485 performances over 18 years. It closed December 30.
An estimated 140 million people in 35 countries (15 languages) have surrendered to POTO with what many feel is Lloyd Webber’s best score. The two-disk original cast album spent five years on Billboard’s charts; and a single-disc highlights recording spent over six years on the magazine’s Pop Album chart.
There’ve been 15 actors in the title role. Returning to the cast for 30th Anniversary performances is Platinum-selling Swedish recording artist Peter Jöback (through March 31), who also donned the mask on the West End. Co-starring are Ali Ewoldt as Christine Daaé (the first Asian-American actress in the role) and Rodney Ingram as Vicomte de Chagny Raoul.
There are six current productions of Phantom around the world: London, New York, Sapporo (Japan), Budapest, Prague, and Stockholm — with an engagement to begin in August in Sweden.
For more information on the 30th Anniversary of The Phantom of the Opera, visit www.PhantomBroadway.com.