January 14, 2023

Finally Seduced by "Phantom of the Opera"

January can be a quiet time on Broadway. Lots of shows close (click here for a list of some of them). Very few open. Which makes it a good time to catch up with the ones still running that you might have missed earlier. And in my case that meant seeing Phantom of the Opera.  

Yes, I know the show opened back in 1988 when Ronald Reagan was president and that it has been running for the last 35 years. But it was such a hot ticket in its early days that I couldn’t get one and over the years—maybe the result of sour grapes—I convinced myself that it was a badge of honor that I hadn’t seen the most popular and successful show in Broadway history. But then came the news that Phantom was going to close.  

So I went. I saw. And although I can’t say I got conquered, I will concede that I now understand why people so love this show. It’s got insider jokes about opera for highbrow folks, Grand Guignol melodrama for the hoi polloi and lush hummable melodies that everyone can enjoy. Plus there’s the dangling chandelier.

As you surely know, Andrew Lloyd Webber was inspired to create the musical by the 1910 French novel by Gaston Leroux and recruited Charles Hart to write the lyrics and Richard Stilgoe to adapt the book. The story centers around a mysterious outsider who wears a mask and lives in the catacombs underneath the Paris Opera House, where he has become dangerously obsessed with a fledgling soprano named Christine DaaĆ©. 

The spectacle-filled production staged by Hal Prince—a corps de ballet, a masquerade ball, a lagoon complete with a gondola and a chandelier that crashes down from the ceiling—opened to rave reviews in London in 1986. 

“It may be hokum,” wrote The Guardian's august critic Michael Billington, “but it is hokum here treated with hand on heart rather than tongue in cheek.” By the time the show made it to Broadway 18 months later, it had a $16 million advance and was featured on the cover of Time magazine. 

Phantom went on to win seven Tony awards including Best Musical. And, of course, it’s run forever. Or at least it’s run so long that many of the people who now see it can’t remember when it wasn't around. The guy sitting next to me told me he had brought his mother for her 65th birthday because she’d been wanting to see it since he was a kid; one of the two young women sitting behind me regaled her friend before the show and during intermission with her memories of having seen it as a girl.

I sat there thinking about what the show would have been like when Michael Crawford’s poignant performance of the love-crazed Phantom turned him into a Tony-winning star and, for a while, a sex symbol, while Lloyd Webber’s then-wife Sarah Brightman hit the crystalline high notes he’d written for Christine to sing. I also imagined how it must have been to see the show before it had become so familiar that people started applauding the moment something or someone appeared onstage. 

And yet, I still had a good time. I laughed at the corny jokes and I swayed to the tunes that were familiar to me even though this was my first time seeing them performed onstage. I loved the spectacle of Maria Bjornson’s witty costumes and lavish sets. 

It was particularly lovely to see the young dark-skinned actress Emilie Kouatchou making her Broadway debut as Christine and being so warmly embraced by a mostly-white audience (although it would also have been nice to see a few more black faces in the ensemble so it didn’t look as though she were the only black person in Paris). 

I left the Majestic Theatre (and it really is a majestic theater) happy that I’d seen Phantom but also a little sad that the show, which has become as iconic as the Phantom’s mask, is leaving. It’s not the best show I’ve ever seen. It’s not hip in the way that Hamilton is. Or as contemporarily innovative and diverse as The Lion King is. But now that Prince, that irreplaceable link to Broadway's Golden Age is gone, I can't imagine what will ever take its place.

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