Phantom of the Opera Will Go On in Their Memories

From a Times Insider column by Sarah Bahr headlined “‘Phantom’ Will Go On in Their Memories”:

I turned to the internet a week before heading to London for the first time in the summer of 2016:

“Must-dos in London,” I intrepidly typed into the search box. Alongside going to Buckingham Palace and drinking tea was “See ‘Phantom of the Opera’ in the West End.”

Intrigued, I found a music video of the actors who originated the lead roles, Michael Crawford and Sarah Brightman, singing “The Music of the Night” — and proceeded to play it at least 50 times a day for a week straight. (Three days in, I managed to tear myself away for long enough to watch a bootleg recording of the full production online.)

My obsession only deepened when I saw the show live for the first time at Her Majesty’s Theater in London that summer, where the show had its world premiere in 1986. After a night spent dreaming of papier-mâché musical boxes in the shape of barrel organs, I returned to the box office the next day to get tickets to see the show again a few weeks later. I’ve since seen it three more times in New York, including the 35th anniversary celebration last year, as well as hundreds of other shows — a theatrical obsession for which I have “Phantom” to thank.

But there will be no 40th anniversary party — at least, not in New York. The show, the longest-running in Broadway history, announced last September that it would close, citing high costs and a drop-off in audiences since the pandemic. The last Broadway performance was Sunday.

Michael Paulson, the theater reporter for The New York Times, recently spent time with six devoted “Phans,” among them a man who said he had seen the show 140 times, a woman who has the address of the Majestic Theater tattooed on her midriff and a man who regularly attends shows in a mask and fedora. They shared what the show has meant to them.

As it turns out, a number of Times staff members also have connections to the musical. In the accounts below, Times theater lovers reflect on their bonds with “Phantom,” including backstage tours, a post-9/11 viewing and knowing the show’s female lead.

Jordan Cohen, executive director, corporate communications

“Phantom” was the first Broadway show my family and I saw after 9/11. I was 12, and I remember feeling anxious to be in Times Square. But seeing the show made me hopeful and reminded me that New York is the greatest city in the world where a production like “Phantom” can happen eight times a week, even after a tragedy. It was also one of the first shows I saw when Broadway reopened after the pandemic. The audience clapped and gave a standing ovation when the chandelier was raised.

Peter Blair, editor, Flexible Editing desk

When I was a copy editor with hours that revolved around print deadlines, I commuted to and from work in the evenings alongside people who also worked odd hours (think custodians, bartenders, nurses). One fellow commuter I got to know happened to be a stagehand for “Phantom.” Six years ago, when I told him I was taking one of my daughters to see the show for the first time, he invited the two of us backstage for a private tour before the performance. It was an experience we’ll never forget.

Sherry Gao, senior engineering manager

“Phantom” was the first Broadway show I saw, when a group of friends and I made a trip to New York during my freshman year at M.I.T. We didn’t have a lot of money and had to cram five of us in a hotel room, but we hit the TKTS ticket booth and ended up getting tickets to “Phantom.” Now I live in Boston, but I make sure to see a show every time I’m in New York.

Robbie Magat, event and sponsorship manager

In the summer of 2016, a family friend, Ali Ewoldt, made history as the first actress of color to play Christine on Broadway. We were especially proud to see a Filipina mark this milestone. Ali took us backstage to her dressing room and gave us a full tour of the iconic set. I was surprised at how heavy her dresses were on the rack!

Christine Zhang, visual editing resident, Graphics

I’m almost certain my parents named me after the female protagonist of “The Phantom of the Opera.” Like many immigrants, we adopted Americanized first names in the mid-1990s shortly after settling in the United States. My dad told me that he and my mom chose their own names out of a list of American names for “no special reason.” They had a list for me, too, and for a long time I never thought twice about my name being Christine. Until I remembered my parents’ love for the music of “Phantom.”

They had gotten a tape of the “Phantom” cast recording in China. Long before we watched the Broadway show, we memorized the songs on long car rides, where we did our best to interpret the plot (mostly correctly) and took part in family karaoke sessions belting out “The Music of the Night.” When they decided to find a name for me, Christine — the name featured most prominently in the lyrics of the show — rose to the top of the list. The musical was “one of the things that put this name in our minds,” my dad said.

Debra Kamin, reporter, Real Estate

I saw “Phantom” for the first time when I was in the second grade, during a trip to Toronto with my parents and my sister. At the close of the first act, as the chandelier fell, I was so terrified that I dove under the seat in front of me. After the show, hoping to prevent nightmares, my father took me to the stage door and requested to see the Phantom himself, Colm Wilkinson.

My father, a major Broadway buff, had seen Mr. Wilkinson play Jean Valjean in “Les Misérables,” and so he slipped him a note that said, “Mr. Wilkinson, if you keep up this ‘Phantom’ act, Javert will never find you!” Mr. Wilkinson was charmed, invited us backstage and showed me how all the props and costumes created make-believe on the stage. That night, not only did I not have a single nightmare, but my love of the theater was born

Sarah Bahr is a senior staff editor at The Times. She has reported on a range of topics, most often theater, film and television, while writing for the Culture, Styles and National desks.

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