Mark Shenton celebrates the first quarter century of The Phantom of the Opera, the world’s top grossing single entertainment property of all time.
The facts – and especially the figures – speak for themselves. The Phantom of the Opera has now played to more than 130 million people around the world, grossing over $5 billion in the process. That’s more than ET, Star Wars, Titanic or Avatar. It has now played in 145 cities in 27 countries, in 13 different languages including Hungarian, Swedish, Polish, Korean and Spanish, and holds the record for the longest running musical in Broadway history, where it continues to run at the Majestic Theatre. The original West End run at Her Majesty’s has played more than 10,000 performances now, and a big UK tour is being planned for the show next year. There are also sit-down productions in Las Vegas (where it is adapted and billed as Phantom – the Las Vegas Spectacular), Japan and Budapest, and it will be opening in Cape Town in South Africa in November.
But this weekend sees the show reach a major landmark, with its 25th anniversary in the West End being marked with a spectacular one-off staging at the Royal Albert Hall on October 1 and 2. It provides a moment to reflect and celebrate on the birth of a global phenomenon, even as an attempt to create a sequel to it in Love Never Dies quickly floundered and expired, closing in August after a run of less than 18 months at the Adelphi Theatre (though a separate production of that show is currently proving more successful in Australia).
Maybe lightning doesn’t strike twice, at least not in the same spot, and one thing that Love Never Dies certainly proved was the powerful sense of ownership of the original Phantom of the Opera among some vociferous fans, who formed an online group that they called Love Should Die and lobbied extensively against it.
Lloyd Webber, who was diagnosed and treated for cancer shortly before Love Never Dies opened in the West End, is now frank about the reasons for its failure: “I think it was a combination of me not being very well, the team perhaps underestimating what it needed, and perhaps everybody thinking it was going to be far easier thing to do than in fact it was.”
But if Love Never Dies is full of salutary lessons about producing a musical – and even its original director Jack O’Brien presciently told this newspaper before it opened, “Nobody is going to thank us for doing this” – the birth of the original Phantom of the Opera had some equally interesting and difficult turns.
In fact, a different adaptation of Gaston Leroux’s story had already been theatricalised by Ken Hill in a version that was first seen in 1976 and subsequently revived at the Theatre Royal, Stratford East in 1984. Lloyd Webber and Cameron Mackintosh talked about transferring the latter staging to the West End as a vehicle for Sarah Brightman, to whom Lloyd Webber was by then married. Hill met with the composer, and – quoted in Michael Coveney’s Cats on a Chandelier – he remembered “Andrew sitting down and playing a song he had written for my Phantom which is now in his Phantomâ€¦. then it became harder to get him on the telephone, and after a bit of messing around, Cameron told me he was going to do his own version.”
Lloyd Webber found something personal in the material that made him want to connect to it as a composer, rather than just a producer or facilitator of the work of others. And in the case of the Phantom, life was imitating art, as the story revolves around a composer in thrall to a soprano, for whom he writes his greatest work – and Lloyd Webber duly sought to do the same for Brightman, who would originate the role of Christine.
Lloyd Webber and Mackintosh, who by then had collaborated together on Lloyd Webber’s biggest hit to date in Cats and also with Song and Dance, joined forces to bring it to the stage, and Mackintosh’s marketing expertise – working with West End ad agency Dewynters – would yield the show’s trademark logo, the famous white mask that has become an instant global branding tool for the show.
But bringing on board a lyricist proved more problematic. Tim Rice was unavailable, as he was by then working on Chess, Alan Jay Lerner was approached and signed onto the project, only to have to withdraw owing to ill health. Then Richard Stilgoe, whom Lloyd Webber had worked with on Starlight Express, was engaged, but subsequently replaced by a young, recent Cambridge graduate Charles Hart, whom Mackintosh had spotted at a competition for young musical writers.
“Andrew,” Hart commented to this paper earlier this year, “has got a great taste for the improbable and the dramatic – he lives theatre, he doesn’t just write it. So I’m sure that the 42nd Street idea appealed to him,” referring to the idea of someone going out an unknown but coming back a star.
Hart had to write fast. He was engaged in May 1986, with the show opening in October. “I think they announced it on May 1 – and it meant I had billing for a show that I’d not yet written a word for. I was still reading the old scripts, going through the vocal score and of course reading the original novel.” Speed was of the essence – and, says Hart, it was probably to his advantage. “They had to use whatever I wrote, because what were they going to do otherwise?”
There had also been controversy over the hiring of who was going to direct the show, with Harold Prince, the original director of Evita, first engaged, then Nicholas Hytner and Trevor Nunn coming into the frame, before Prince returned to the project. “I don’t think Phantom warrants a mind as good as Trevor’s”, Lloyd Webber is quoted as saying in Coveney’s book, providing an interesting comparison to Prince’s more visceral approach. “We needed a real showman, and that’s what we got with Hal.”
But the masterstroke of the production, and still its greatest asset besides its haunting, sweepingly melodic score, remains the late, great Maria Bjornson’s beautiful, epic designs, which conjure the entire theatrical habitat of the Phantom, from his lair in the bowels of the Paris Opera House to its very rooftops, and the marbled foyers themselves, all of it expertly lit by Andrew Bridge.
Musicals come together by a strange alchemy. As Lloyd Webber has himself commented earlier this year, “When you look at Cats, Phantom or Les Miserables – and let’s face it those three are the big ones of the eighties – one throw of the dice slightly the wrong way and any one of those could have been derailed. What if, for example, we’d done Phantom of the Opera with the Cats team? That could have happened, and if it had, would we even be talking about The Phantom of the Opera now?”
There’s one more reason, of course, to not only talk about it, but to sing about it – the casting. As well as Brightman, for whom it had been written, it would prove to be the career-defining role for Michael Crawford, who created the role of The Phantom in London, then reprised it on Broadway and in LA.
But great shows also transcend their original casts, and offer opportunities for many actors who follow them. Two of Crawford’s and Brightman’s many successors as the Phantom and Christine have been Ramin Karimloo (who took over the title role in London after previously playing Raoul) and Sierra Boggess (who originated Christine in the Las Vegas spectacular), and both would go on to create the same roles in Love Never Dies. Now, for the Phantom 25th anniversary concert at the Royal Albert Hall, they will both return to roles they previously played in the original musical.
Karimloo feels both humbled and honoured to be playing him again now. “Apart from doing it the first time like Michael Crawford did, you can’t get a better moment than this to do it, so I feel really blessed about it.” But he insists, it doesn’t mean he’s the best: “I don’t think there is a greatest Phantom, it’s always subjective. For me, because it was Colm Wilkinson who first emotionally moved me like he did, I’ll never experience that from another Phantom. Cameron has chosen me now, but I don’t think it means I’m better or worse than any other Phantom – everyone has just as much of a right to be there, but the timing fell in my lap.”
Theatre is, after all, all about timing, but the Phantom of the Opera is something else, too – it is a truly timeless musical masterpiece. So here’s to the next quarter of a century and beyond. As Hart told this paper earlier this year, “I’ve got this awful feeling that it is going to outlive me. There are so many people I know now who are younger than the show. They don’t remember a time when it wasn’t on.”
The Phantom of the Opera at the Royal Albert Hall’ is on October 1 and 2. It will also be screened live in cinemas across the UK from October 2 and will be available on DVD, Blu Ray, CD and download. Go to
www.phantom25th.com for details