My First Broadway Show: Phantom of the Opera Sparks a Lifetime Habit
By Adam Hetrick
The Phantom of the Opera's astonishing 25th anniversary on Broadway stirs the memory of Playbill staffer Adam Hetrick, whose first Broadway show surrounded him — and his parents — with "The Music of the Night."
The Majestic Theatre holds a special place for my family. It's where my mom and dad, at 26-years-old, saw the original cast of A Little Night Music during their first trip to New York City as a couple in 1973. The Majestic is also where they would take me to my own first Broadway show, The Phantom of the Opera, when I was 11 years old.
In the same way my dad recalls Hermione Gingold doing a bell-kick during her curtain call and Glynis Johns' rendition of Stephen Sondheim's "Send in the Clowns" on a chilly September evening, I remember standing on 44th Street on a hot Wednesday afternoon, Aug. 21, 1991, as the line outside the Majestic Theatre wrapped down the block past the now-long-gone Mamma Leone's. I also remember my first Phantom and Christine — Mark Jacoby and Karen Culliver.
I had lived with the Phantom cast album for over a year. I sent away for the libretto, and read through the stage directions alone in my room, picturing what the show might look like.
Phantom had opened three years prior and was still a hard-to-get ticket. Our mezzanine seats were $50; my parents bought tickets nearly a year in advance as a birthday present.
My dad still talks about my reaction during those first ominous notes of the overture. As the chandelier sparked to life over the blare of the organ, I squeezed his hands and beamed with the kind of exhilaration and anticipation you feel going down the first hill on a rollercoaster. I never wanted it to end. Thankfully, it hasn't. On Jan. 26, The Phantom of the Opera celebrates its 25th anniversary on Broadway — the longest a show has ever run on The Great White Way. (It had already broken the record of the longest-running show, by performance count, when it hit No. 7,486 on Jan. 9. 2006, surpassing producer Cameron Mackintosh and Lloyd Webber's Cats by one performance.)
A theatregoing tradition was born for me that day in August. From then on I would sit between my parents for every show we saw together. I treasure memories of my mom touching my arm as Billy Bigelow and Julie Jordan fell in love during Carousel, and seeing her well-up with emotion as the company of Les Misérables returned to solemnly whisper "Do You Hear the People Sing?"
I've revisited Phantom numerous times since that first time. The theatre opened my eyes to a unique world of storytelling that wasn't literal like the movies. The audience was an active participant in the experience. I learned that theatre requires a company of very special and dedicated people, some of whom we never see, to create hand-made magic for audiences every night.
Harold Prince, the record Tony Award-winning director of both Night Music and Phantom, worked with scenic designer Maria Björnson to conceive a small black jewel box where our imaginations are set free. Glittering and shadow-filled, Phantom's story, like its leading man, emerges from the darkness and sweeps us up in music and menace. As an audience, we are asked to participate in the process by completing the suggestive stage pictures that Prince and his team present.
A lot has changed since my first visit to Phantom over 20 years ago. I went off to study theatre in college. I became a writer and now call New York City my home. I also have the distinct pleasure of seeing my own name in Broadway Playbills, on my occasional magazine articles and as part of the Playbill.com staff credit on the contents page. The Playbill looks much like the one I first encountered at that August matinee two decades ago.
But the most significant change in my life is that our beloved theatregoing trio is now a duo — my dad and I said goodbye to my mom five years ago.
Since then, I've had the chance to give back to my dad, who on a Christmas in the early 1990s presented me with a two-tape recording of a new Andrew Lloyd Webber musical and introduced me to "The Music of the Night." My dad is now my frequent (and favorite) date to the theatre. For us, the theatre is a touchstone. It has given us a place where we can return to share joy, grief, music, magic, and, perhaps most importantly, a place to reconnect with resilience and hope.
On Father's Day in 2011, a little less than 20 years after our first visit to the Majestic together, I took my dad back to revisit Phantom. It was all still the same.
Instead of the mezzanine, we sat in the eighth row of the orchestra. When the chandelier crashed onto the stage, it swooped just above our heads. And this time, as those first notes of the orchestra bellowed through the theatre, it was my dad who grabbed my hand and grinned like a kid on Christmas.
(Adam Hetrick is a staff writer for Playbill.com whose work also appears in the pages of Playbill magazine.)
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