The Phantom of the Opera
the Longest Running Show in Broadway History

By Bev Hislop 2006

The Phantom of the Opera is an icon-one glimpse of the famous mask logo and you immediately think of the show. It’s been seen by more than 100 million people worldwide and is now the longest-running show in Broadway history. It’s widely considered to be one of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s most accomplished scores and yet, ironically, the musical was originally conceived as a tongue-in cheek romp in the style of The Rocky Horror Show, with a soundtrack consisting of snatches of 19th-century operas by the likes of Delibes and Massenet.

Andrew Lloyd Webber and his Cats collaborator, Cameron Mackintosh, had long been toying with the idea of a musical version of Gaston Leroux’s famous 1911 novel, but he had not considered writing the music himself until they discussed the concept with rocky Horror director Jim Sharman, who told them it was the perfect romantic plot for a new score. Lloyd Webber decided to write it, but in a style that would deliberately pastiche the composers whose work was performed at the Paris Opera in the late 1800’s. Broadway veteran Hal Prince was brought in to direct. Alan Jay Lerner, the celebrated lyricist of musicals such as My Fair Lady, Camelot and Gigi, was originally approached to write the lyrics, but sadly had to decline due to his deteriorating Health (he died of cancer in June 1986). Richard Stilgo came on board to write the book with Lloyd Webber, as well as some of the lyrics, but the main lyric-writing credit went to an up-and-coming writer in his mid-20s called Charles Hart, whom Cameron Mackintosh had spotted the year before while judging a competition for budding composers and librettists. Cats choreographer Gillian Lynne was chosen to take care of musical staging and choreography. Unusually, the first member of the creative team was designer Maria Bjornson, distinguished in the field of opera, who succeeded in coming up with a spookily authentic and atmospheric recreation of the Paris Opera House. She had designed the very first version of the show, performed at Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Sydmonton Festival in 1985 by Sarah Brightman and the cast of Les Miserables.

The lead role of Christine had always been earmarked for singer and dancer Sarah Brightman, then married to Andrew Lloyd Webber, but the role of the Phantom was still to be cast. As a teaser, the title track of the musical was released as a single in the UK in January 1986- nine months before the London opening- with vocals shared by Sarah Brightman and ex-Cockney Rebel frontman Steve Harley. This prompted speculation as to whether Harley would then play the masked male lead on stage. But the role eventually went to an actor best known to UK audiences for his comic rather than his musical timing. Michael Crawford had had vocal training from Benjmin Britten and appeared in Noye’s Fludde and Let’s Make an Opera, as well as the shows Billy and Barnum, but to most British people he was the disaster-bound Frank Spencer in TV’s Some Mothers Do ‘Ave ‘Em. Further afield, audiences only knew him as the loveable idiot in the film versions of Hello Dolly! and A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum.

The casting was a huge success and four of the show’s songs became instant hits:
‘The Phantom of the Opera,’ ‘The Music of the Night,’ ‘All I Ask of You’ and ‘Wishing You Were Somehow Here Again.’ By the time the musical opened at Her Majesty’s Theatre in London on October 9, 1986, it had advance bookings of more than a million pounds. The opening night performance received a ten-minute standing ovation, but the nervous Andrew Lloyd Webber and Cameron Mackintosh missed it due to the fact that they’d nipped out to nearby Maxim’s in the interval and not returned. “We’d seen every preview, we couldn’t take any more so we went round the corner for a quick one,’ Andrew later told reporters.

One of the show’s most spectacular set pieces is the stunning replica of the Paris Opera House chandlier, chich is nine feet wide and made up of 6,000 beads- 35 beads to each string. It weighs one ton and the original version was built by five people in four weeks. Strangely enough, the falling of the chandelier is based on a real incident that occurred at the Paris Opera House on May 20, 1986 when an 800kg counterweight fell, killing a 56-year-old concierge. It was her one and only visit to the opera.

Everything about the show is on a huge scale. The original production costs were a then staggering 2 million pounds, 900,000 pounds of which went on set and costumes. The Phantom’s latex make-up was designed by Christopher Tucker, who had created John Hurt’s Elephant Man make-up for David Lynch’s 1980 film, and initially took three hours to apply (this was later reduced to two hours). An enormous amount of merchandise was produced to accompany the show, including books, jewelry, and even a scent called ‘Esprit de Phantom’ that became the third best selling perfume in America!

Two years after its London premiere, Phantom opened on Broadway. American Actors’ Equity applied pressure to secure American leads for the transfer, but after the success of the London production, Lloyd Webber and Prince insisted that Michael Crawford and Sarah Brightman should repeat their roles across the Atlantic (Steve Barton, who played Raoul, was American so his transfer was automatic). Equity finally conceded, and the British leads were imported for the Broadway run. By the time Phantom opened at the Majestic Theatre on January 26, 1988, it had taken $16 million in advance sales. The show was declared an instant hit, with The New York Times calling it ‘phantastic.’

Phantom has since played in 119 cities across 24 countries. In total, the show has won more than 50 major theater awards, including seven Tonys and seven Drama Desk Awards, and the original cast recording is the biggest-selling cast album of all time, with more than 40 million copies sold. In 2004 the musical was finally captured on celluloid, directed by Joel Schumacher and tarring Gerard Butler, Emmy Rossum and Patrick Wilson. It was nominated for three academy Awards, including Best Original Song for “Learn to be Lonely.’

On January 9, 2006, the show broke the record for the longest-running Broadway musical ever, surpassing the 7,485 performances achieved by Cats. In its 18-year run Phantom has also become the largest-grossing musical in Broadway history, taking a staggering $600 million at the box office. To celebrate this double landmark, the performance on 9 January was followed by a sumptious Masked Ball in the Grand Ballroom of the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel.

An all –new production of the show opens at the Las Vegas Venetian Resort-Hotel-Casino in the summer of 2006. Reinvented in a 90-minute format, the Las Vegas production will be directed once again by Hal Prince, staying true to the heart of his most successful ever theatrical endeavour.

The Phantom of the Opera is now a global phenomenon, its $3.2 billion box office (to date) far outstripping even blockbuster films like Titanic and The Lord of the Rings to make it the most successful entertainment venture of all time. The 20th anniversary of the London production will be celebrated later this year, and the Broadway show still plays to capacity audiences, proving this classic tale’s enduring popularity for audiences from all over the world.