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THE PHANTOM THREAD

As anniversaries in the history of Broadway go, it would be unseemly if I let today's milestone pass without a column. On January 26, 1988, exactly thirty years ago this evening, The Phantom of the Opera opened at the Majestic Theatre. With eight shows a week over the last 1,560 weeks, that brings its performance total to just over 12,500 performances. Having played to 18 million people it has grossed more than $1.1 billion (in New York alone). Worldwide, the total is closer to $5.6 billion. Hello.

The Majestic Theatre on W 44th Street, The Phantom’s home since 1986.

The musical came out of the passion of Lord Andrew Lloyd Webber, who saw the possibilities in taking on Gaston Leroux's novel, famous from the time of its 1910 publication, then even more so after the 1920 silent film version with Lon Chaney (the first of its many film iterations). But LLoyd Webber didn't get the idea from rummaging through an old book store and stumbling on the book. No, that was how Ken Hill, a British writer and producer, got the idea to make a musical out of the public domain property. Hill got to it first, with a production in 1976 for which he wrote the book and lyrics, with music by Ian Armit. But ultimately, Hill came to the decision to abandon an original score altogether, and instead, cull the music from different operas by such classical masters as Verdi and Mozart. After a number of productions, in the provinces, it was edging its way closer to West End respectability with a 1984 staging at the Theatre Royal Stratford East in East London. As the story goes, Lloyd Webber's then-wife, Sarah Brightman, had been asked to appear in it, but turned it down. Curious how it turned out, she and her husband went to see it, bringing along Cameron Mackintosh, who by this time had co-produced Lloyd Webber's Cats and Song and Dance.

Lloyd Webber and Mackintosh were both taken that night with the idea of taking what Hill had done and heightening it to a more sweeping and lavish production for the West End. Discussions of a collaboration didn't go far though, and Lloyd Webber and Mackintosh went off to do their own thing. It's interesting to note, that Hill's Phantom went on to some success (nothing like LLoyd Webber's version, of course), and to this day has played all over the world, including the West End (this is not to be confused with ANOTHER Phantom of the Opera that was being written around the same time in America, with a book by playwright Arthur Kopit, and music and lyrics by Maury Yeston). Their Phantom (as it's called), premiered in 1991, and has had a 1,000 productions over the world since that time.

Logo for another Phantom, by Arthur Kopit and Maury Yeston.

When Lloyd Weber embarked on a search for a lyricist, he first offered it to songwriter (and hitmaker) Jim Steinman, who passed. Then he went to the fabled Broadway lyricist Alan Jay Lerner, who having not had a hit in years, grabbed the opportunity. Sadly, the illness that would take his life a short time later forced him to withdraw. Had Lerner lived to complete the work, he would have gone out with an even bigger hit than his My Fair Lady.

Lloyd Webber finally settled on Richard Stilgoe, who had written the lyrics for Starlight Express (the choo-choo-trains on roller blades musical). With that, work commenced on this new Phantom of the Opera. Harold Prince was brought on (he had directed Evita for Lloyd Webber and his then-partner Tim Rice); Gillian Lynne, who had choreographed Cats would do the dances; and a first-rate design team (using every pound of what was a staggering budget in its day), all made for a smooth process. Well ... almost smooth. It was decided after a workshop of Act One done at Sydmonton (Lloyd Webber's massive estate), that the lyrics needed some help. Thus Charles Hart, a relatively unknown twenty-three year old, was brought on. For his efforts, Hart would get the sole lyric writing credit on Phantom, which in light of the show's phenomenal financial success, should have been enough to make Stilgoe weep with envy. But don't cry for Stilgoe, Argentina ... he still receives not only co-book writing credit with Lloyd Webber, but an "Additional Lyrics By" credit, as well (praise due to all the lawyers charged with negotiating these royalties percentages).

One other thing that came out of this first time the show was put on a stage, was the discovery that by having a full mask on the face of the actor playing The Phantom (who happened to be Colm Wilkinson, later to create the role of Jean Valjean in Les Miserables), it rendered him not only near blind, but unintelligible. It was the production's set and costume designer, Maria Björnson, who out of sheer necessity, came up with the now iconic half-mask, that symbolizes The Phantom and has made him recognizable the world over.

With Sarah Brightman locked into the role of Christine, and Michael Crawford, an immensely popular West End star, to play The Phantom, the musical opened at Her Majesty's Theatre in September, 1986 (where it is still playing). It went to Broadway just over two years later, where it has remained ever since.

Kind of adorable photo during the London Phantom (top to bottom):

Michael Crawford, Sarah Brightman and Andrew Lloyd Webber.

As for me, I was living in Los Angeles when Phantom hit New York, and couldn't get away from hearing about it, what with its nationwide magazine, newspaper and television coverage. During its first year, I came to town for a visit and figured that I'd be able to find my way in, even though it was the hottest ticket in town. For more than a week, I tried nearly every day, and for the first time in my theatregoing lifetime that had begun twenty years earlier, I was unsuccessful. There was never a seat available. I didn't see it until 2014 when my friend Norm Lewis took over for a short while as The Phantom. I figured this was my chance to not only catch Norm in the role, but to finally see what all the fuss was about. Well that, as well as revisit the Majestic Theatre, which I hadn't been inside for thirty years. My last show there was in 1984, when I saw 42nd Street for my second time, midway through its nine-years on Broadway (a great run, but small change when you put it up against Phantom).

So Happy Anniversary to the longest running musical in Broadway history. And to everyone who helped get it and keep it there—bravo!

If you enjoy these columns, check out Up in the Cheap Seats: a Historical Memoir of Broadway, now at Amazon.com in both hard cover and e-book. Email me with comments or questions at Ron@ronfassler.org.

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