April 15, 2023: Theatre Yesterday and Today, by Ron Fassler
Tomorrow, after thirty-five years, the epic run of The Phantom of the Operawill come to an end. It opened January 26, 1988 at the Majestic Theatre and except for the pandemic closure, when it suspended performances between March 12, 2020, and October 22, 2021, it’s been playing on West 44th Street that entire time. Sunday’s performance on April 16th will be its 13,981st and, to fully absorb the size of that number, consider in 1997 that when Cats passed A Chorus Line to become the longest running show in Broadway history, it had played 6,138 performances. Phantom will have played twice as many, which is not only record breaking, it’s astounding. The musical has grossed more than $1.3 billion in New York alone. Worldwide, the total is closer to $6 billion. More than 145 million people have seen it in 41 countries, 183 cities, and in 17 languages. Hello.
However, all good things must come to an end. In September of 2022, due to months of up and down business on Broadway post-Covid, producer Cameron Mackintosh announced that Phantom would play its final performance February 18, 2023. Naturally, that created an upsurge at the box office, pushing that date to April 16th, which in spite of recent sellouts and it outgrossing Hamilton and The Lion King, it will definitely end its run at the Majestic as scheduled. As reported in Playbill this past week, Phantom, “in the penultimate week of its historic 35-year run, continued its victory lap, breaking the previous week’s record to again enjoy the highest-grossing week of its entire run. Bringing in $3,648,872.13.
Talk about going out on top.
According to statistics, the show created an estimated 6,500 jobs during its run, including those for more than 400 actors, more than any show in U.S. theatrical history. Onstage and offstage personnel who chose to stay with the show a decade or two (or even three) were able put their children through college or bought weekend homes with the steady salaries it provided, something that employment in few Broadway shows can guarantee.
“I never really dreamed that I would have a job like this,” its casting director Tara Rubin told CNBC. “In 1987, when we first started casting, I typed all the casting sheets that we used in auditions on a Selectric typewriter.” Other antiquated equipment, such as rotary phones, were used to contact agents instead of emails.
Below, see if you can spot Howard McGillin, who played the Phantom for close to seven years (and more than 2,500 performances). A total of sixteen actors have done the role in the New York production.
McGillin’s length of servitude is commendable, but pales next to George Lee Andrews’ run, literally one for the record books. You can find his name at Guinness World Records as the holder of the longest time in the same show on Broadway, having played 9,382 performances (in two different roles) between opening night in 1988 and 2011.
It was the early 1980s when Andrew Lloyd Webber saw the possibilities in musically adapting Gaston Leroux’s novel. Famous since the time of its 1910 publication, it became even more so after its 1925 silent film version with Lon Chaney (the first of many onscreen iterations). But LLoyd Webber didn’t get the idea from rummaging through an old book store and stumbling on it. No, that was how Ken Hill, a British writer and producer, got the idea to make a musical out of the public domain property. Hill got to it first, with a production in 1976 for which he wrote the book and lyrics, with music by Ian Armit. But ultimately, Hill came to the decision to abandon an original score altogether, and instead, cull the music from different operas by such classical masters as Verdi and Mozart. After a number of productions, in the provinces, it was edging its way closer to West End respectability with a 1984 staging at the Theatre Royal Stratford East in East London. As the story goes, Lloyd Webber’s then-wife, Sarah Brightman, had been asked to appear in it, but turned it down. Curious how the project turned out, she and her husband went to see it, bringing along Cameron Mackintosh, who by this time had co-produced Lloyd Webber’s Cats and Song and Dance.
Lloyd Webber and Mackintosh were both taken that night with the idea of building upon what Hill had done to heighten it to a more sweeping and lavish production for the West End. Discussions of a collaboration didn’t go far though, so Lloyd Webber and Mackintosh decided to do their own thing with the property. Interesting to note that Hill’s Phantomwent on to some success (nothing like LLoyd Webber’s version, of course), and to this day has played all over the world, including the West End (this is not to be confused with ANOTHER Phantom of the Opera that was being written around the same time in America, with a book by playwright Arthur Kopit (Nine), and music and lyrics by Maury Yeston (Nine, Titanic). Their Phantom (as it’s called), premiered in 1991, and has had a 1,000 productions over the world since that time.
When Lloyd Weber embarked on a search for a lyricist, he first offered it to hit songwriter Jim Steinman (Bat Out of Hell), who wasn’t interested. Then he went to the fabled Broadway lyricist Alan Jay Lerner, who having not had a hit in years, grabbed the opportunity. Sadly, the illness that would take his life a short time later forced him to withdraw. Had Lerner lived to complete the work, he would have gone out with an even bigger hit than his My Fair Lady.
Lloyd Webber finally settled on Richard Stilgoe, who had written the lyrics for Starlight Express (the choo-choo-trains on roller blades musical). With that, work commenced on this new Phantom of the Opera. Harold Prince was brought on (he had directed Evita for Lloyd Webber and his then-lyric writing partner Tim Rice); Gillian Lynne, who had choreographed Cats would do the dances; and a first-rate design team (using every pound of what was a staggering budget in its day) all made for a smooth process. Well … almost smooth. It was decided after a workshop of Act One done at Sydmonton (Lloyd Webber’s massive estate), that the lyrics needed some help. Thus Charles Hart, a relatively unknown twenty-three year old, was enlisted. For his efforts, Hart would get the sole lyric writing credit on Phantom, which in light of the show’s phenomenal financial success, should have been enough to make Stilgoe weep with envy. But don’t cry for Stilgoe, Argentina … he still receives not only co-book writing credit with Lloyd Webber, but an “Additional Lyrics By” credit, as well (praise to all the lawyers charged with negotiating these royalties percentages).
One other thing that came out of this first time the show was put on a stage, was the discovery that by having a full mask on the face of the actor playing The Phantom (who happened to be Colm Wilkinson, famous for creating a role in another Macintosh production, Jean Valjean in Les Miserables), it rendered him not only near blind, but unintelligible. It was the production’s set and costume designer, Maria Björnson, who out of sheer necessity, came up with the now iconic half-mask, that symbolizes The Phantom and has made him recognizable the world over.
With Sarah Brightman locked into the role of Christine, and Michael Crawford, an immensely popular West End star, to play The Phantom, the musical opened at Her Majesty’s Theatre in October 1986. They both opened it on Broadway just over two years later, where it has remained ever since.
As for me, I was living in Los Angeles when Phantom hit New York and couldn’t get away from hearing about it, what with its nationwide magazine, newspaper and television coverage. During its first year, I came to town for a visit and figured that I’d be able to find my way in, even though it was the hottest ticket in town. For more than a week, I tried nearly every day and, for the first time in my theatregoing lifetime that had begun twenty years earlier, I was unsuccessful. There was not a seat to be had. I didn’t see it until 2014 when Norm Lewis took over for a short while as The Phantom. I figured this was my chance to not only catch a friend in the role, but to finally see what all the fuss was about. Well that, as much as a desire to revisit the Majestic Theatre, which I hadn’t been inside for thirty years. My last time there was in 1984, when I saw 42nd Street for a second time, midway through its nine-years on Broadway (a great run, but small change when you put it up against Phantom).
As for what the next tenant at the Majestic will be, it remains to be announced. Besides, it’s going to take some time for a heavy duty cleanup and refurbishment after thirty-five years of the theatre being occupied (the exterior was taken care of recently with a good deal of it done during Covid). As for whether The Phantom himself will stalk Broadway once again, don’t be at all surprised if the show returns to a smaller Broadway house and settles in for another extended run (smaller cast and orchestra, too). It’s what London’s already done after Phantom’s original production reopened post-Covid in July of 2021. Significant changes to its scenic design were implemented and its orchestra was halved to its former size. This hasn’t been greeted by the show’s massive fanbase with high-fives, but it’s not like anyone is out front with signs picketing either. It remains to be seen if this is the template for what things might mean for a possible return of Phantom to New York. But whatever happens, it’s a strong bet it will likely be another one for the record books.
If you enjoyed this, please check out Up in the Cheap Seats: A Historical Memoir of Broadway, available at Amazon.com in hardcover, softcover and e-book. Also, please follow me here on Medium and feel free to email me with comments or questions at Ron@ronfassler.org.