How “The Phantom of the Opera” Was Born

From a Wall Street Journal story by Michael Riedel headlined “How ‘The Phantom of the Opera’ Was Born”:

Last month, the producers of “The Phantom of the Opera” announced that after 35 years on Broadway, the show will play its final performance on Feb. 18, 2023. It’s a victim of Broadway’s rising costs and soft market as New York City struggles to recover from Covid-19. Tourism has not returned as fast as theater producers had hoped, and “Phantom,” as much of a tourist attraction as the Empire State Building, has taken a hit. Weekly grosses in August and September hovered around the break-even point, according to figures published by Playbill.com. Ticket sales have gone up since the closing announcement, but January, February and March can be bleak months on Broadway.

“What is sad to me is that, with the escalating costs—we have the largest orchestra on Broadway, 40 people in the cast—it’s becoming almost impossible to do a show like ‘Phantom’ anymore,” said the show’s composer, Andrew Lloyd Webber, in an interview. “It’s the end of an era, really.” Productions of “Phantom” have sold 145 million tickets in 183 cities around the world, for a worldwide gross of nearly $7 billion.

In 1984, Mr. Lloyd Webber was browsing at a used book stall on Fifth Avenue and 59th Street in New York City when he first picked up a copy of Gaston Leroux’s 1910 novel “The Phantom of the Opera,” the tale of a deformed, lonely man who falls in love with a beautiful young singer at the Paris Opera House. He thinks he spent about a dollar on the book and read it that afternoon. At the time, the story was remembered mainly as the basis for a 1925 horror movie starring Lon Cheney, but Mr. Lloyd Webber recalled that he was drawn to its “high romance.”

The idea of writing a new show didn’t come right away. In 1984, the English playwright Ken Hill mounted a musical version of “Phantom of the Opera” with new lyrics set to music from 19th-century operas, and Mr. Lloyd Webber’s then-wife, the soprano Sarah Brightman, was offered the leading role of Christine, the young singer who becomes the Phantom’s obsession. Mr. Lloyd Webber and his producing partner Cameron Mackintosh, who had a huge success with “Cats” a few years earlier, initially planned to invest in the London production as a vehicle for Ms. Brightman. But when they saw the show out of town, Mr. Mackintosh said in an interview, they thought they couldn’t bring much more to it than “to spend more money.”

Then “I got a call on Christmas Eve of 1984 from Andrew,” Mr. Mackintosh recalled. “He said he wanted to talk to me about something.” Mr. Mackintosh jumped in his car and drove to Mr. Lloyd Webber’s country estate, Sydmonton. “I want to write it,” the composer announced.

“Thank God, Andrew,” Mr. Mackintosh responded. Then they dove into Lloyd Webber’s extensive wine cellar to celebrate. “Andrew had impeccable taste in wine,” Mr. Mackintosh recalled, laughing.

Ms. Brightman’s gorgeous soprano voice inspired much of Mr. Lloyd Webber’s score. “I was on one side of the house singing, and Andrew was on the other side writing,” she said in an interview. “He could hear me, and he wrote around my voice.”

Ms. Brightman recalls it was her idea to have Michael Crawford play the seductive, menacing Phantom. Mr. Crawford was known at the time as a light comic actor in West End musicals, but Ms. Brightman knew he was a classically trained singer who had performed in operas as a child. When Mr. Crawford met with Mr. Lloyd Webber and heard the overture to “Phantom,” “the hair stood up on the back of my neck and arms,” the singer recalled.

At first, he was taken aback to learn the composer wanted him to play the role of the Phantom. “I thought I was coming in for Raoul,” the Phantom’s handsome rival for Christine’s affections, Mr. Crawford said. “I didn’t think I was that ugly.” But like the composer, the singer did not see the character of the Phantom solely as a monster. “The key for me was that he was unloved, and I can’t think of anything worse than a child being unloved.”

The West End and Broadway productions of “Phantom” were directed by Hal Prince, who had previously staged Mr. Lloyd Webber’s show “Evita.” Initially, Mr. Lloyd Webber didn’t think the new show was a good fit for Prince, who had directed Stephen Sondheim’s brittle, cynical musicals—“Company,” “Follies,” “Sweeney Todd.” “You don’t do high romance, Hal,” Mr. Lloyd Webber remembers telling him over drinks in New York.

“I’ve been wanting to do a romantic musical for years,” Prince replied. He was in. For a show set in a 19th-century opera house, the director relied on tricks from Victorian theater—drapes, trapdoors, fireworks and plenty of candles. “People think the ‘Phantom’ is this lavish production because of the chandelier,” Prince told me in an interview before his death in 2019, referring to the massive prop that comes crashing down at the end of Act I. “But it’s actually a black box set with a lot of curtains.”

Prince led a creative team that included set and costume designer Maria Bjornson, who had worked extensively in ballet and opera, and choreographer Gillian Lynne, who did the dances for “Cats.” “We worked for hours on ‘turn your face away, from the garish light of day,’” Mr. Crawford said, referring to a lyric from the song “Music of the Night.” He recalled that Lynne told him, “Stretch the arm, darling, stretch the arm.” Bjornson, watching Crawford rehearse the stretch, altered the arm of the Phantom’s costume so he could stretch even further.

“The Phantom of the Opera” was an immediate smash when it opened in London in 1986, and it roared into New York the next year on a tidal wave of publicity and advance ticket sales of $18 million, the highest in Broadway history. Over the next 35 years, the show’s financial impact was enormous, buoying the fortunes of theater district restaurants, bars, parking garages and souvenir shops. Scalpers were making millions as well.

“The Phantom of the Opera” inspired several imitators over the years, including “Jekyll & Hyde,” “Dracula, the Musical” and “Dance of the Vampires,” but none had its staying power. For people who live and work in Times Square, it will be strange to look down 44th Street and not see the huge white mask and single rose on the marquee of the Majestic Theater. But “Phantom” continues in London and other cities—and don’t rule out a return to New York one day. Lowering his voice and sounding like the Phantom himself, Mr. Lloyd Webber told me, “People need to be advised that the Phantom’s presence will never be far from Broadway. You need not be concerned about the Phantom’s future.”

Michael Riedel is the co-host of “Len Berman and Michael Riedel in the Morning” on 710 WOR and the author of “Singular Sensation: The Triumph of Broadway.”

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