Digging into the archives, we unearth the original articles printed in the Playbills of yesteryear.
As The Phantom of the Opera continues on its road to a record-breaking 30 years on Broadway, Playbill looks back to 1988, when the musical was already setting records at the box office and poised to make history. Here, composer Andrew Lloyd Webber, director Hal Prince, producer Cameron Mackintosh, and title star Michael Crawford talk about creating the theatrical masterpiece before anyone knew what it would become:
Around the middle of October, a remarkable sight was to be seen at the southern end of London’s Haymarket: lines of people, many sleeping on the pavement overnight, hoping for standing-room-only returns in order to catch Michael Crawford’s last pre-Broadway appearance as The Phantom of the Opera.
After barely a year in the West End, the show had become such a public success that backstage stories such as Crawford’s heroic decision to play on despite a severe hiatus hernia, or Sarah Brightman’s return to the company after a long summer break, or the transatlantic Equity row (now happily resolved) about whether she could open in New York, were regularly making front-page headlines in Britain’s tabloid press.
And now Britain’s Phantom phenomenon is being repeated in New York. Scheduled to open at the Majestic Theatre on January 26, the advance sale is over 14 million dollars, a new Broadway record. And on the day the box office opened, another record was smashed when 19,028 tickets were sold in a single day.
One explanation for The Phantom of the Opera’s extraordinary appeal is that it seems to have caught a distinct change in the public mood: the sheer romance of the story and its return to old-fashioned theatrical values at a time when these had seemed threatened, if not abandoned, by the colder and more technical shows of the recent past. But maybe at this point we should go back to the very beginning.
It was in 1911 that Parisian drama critic Gaston Leroux published La Fantome de l’Opera, based, so he told his readers, on the “strange events” that had apparently occurred in the opera house 30 years earlier, events concerning sinister deaths and a mysteriously disfigured recluse who made his kingdom in the vast underground caverns by the lake that lay beneath the building. Curiously, the novel originally found few readers, but it was serialized by an American newspaper and seen there by a researcher for Universal who made, in 1925, the first and, many would still say, the best of all the film versions—the one that made Lon Chaney a star.
The film was frequently remade thereafter, notably by Claude Rains in 1943 and Herbert Lom in 1962; a Spanish version turned up in 1960, and in 1974 Phantom of the Paradise told of a ghostly disc-jockey terrorizing teenyboppers at a disco. Clearly Leroux had found in the vaults of the Opera House a timeless variant on the story that has always worked, whether it is done as Faust or Svengali or Beauty and the Beast—it’s the one about the innocence and corruption, beauty and ugliness, hope and despair.
Onstage its history has—until now—been less successful, though it was when Sarah Brightman was offered the role of Christine in a version of the play at Stratford East (intriguingly the London fringe theatre where Stephen Sondheim first saw a play about Sweeney Tod) that husband Andrew Lloyd Webber told me he began to think about its possibilities as a musical: “Sarah never did the Stratford East version because we were too busy getting married at the time, but then I came across a 50-cent paperback copy of the book in a New York store and discovered that it really wasn’t as campy or as much of a penny-dreadful as some of the film versions had suggested. It’s simply the story of one man’s obsession with this girl, and nothing will stop him from getting her, so he haunts the caverns below the opera house where she dances, and he scares everyone by pretending to be a ghost. The only way he can manipulate her is through music.”
It is, of course, always possible that there is something faintly autobiographical here. The idea of a composer making public his professional and private commitment to a singer through the music he creates for her seems to have brought Lloyd Webber, writing (as he has always acknowledged) in this instance specifically for the singer he married, a strong emotional power. The show comes, moreover, at a remarkable time in his professional fortunes: his Really Useful Company, which went public in January 1986, reported pre-tax income in its first year of rather more than six million dollars, figures which are unlikely to be anything but drastically increased by the Broadway arrival of Phantom.
For the director Hal Prince, this was also a show whose time had come: “The minute Andrew mentioned it to me, the minute I heard a couple of melodies, I thought I had to do it. It’s a potboiler, or a parody like Count Dracula. It’s intended—and I hate to sound pretentious about it—to be psychologically layered: there’s a lot going on in the character of the Phantom, and I think it addresses very seriously this whole question of physical deformity and how we respond to it and how tragic our initial revulsion is and how dead wrong. It’s a romance, and it’s also pretty erotic.”
Originally, as the producer Cameron Mackintosh (who also has Cats and Les Misérables to his credit, and is the impresario alone responsible for turning the hitherto insular English musical into a world box-office force over the past decade) recalls, the idea was that the Phantom score would use famous classical works, with Lloyd Webber writing only such incidental music as might be necessary. The original novel had, after all, made much use of Gounod’s Faust as an operatic background: “Then, late in 1984, Andrew and I were in Tokyo for Cats, and we met there the Australian director Jim Sharman, who had done The Rocky Horror Show and hugely successful London production of Jesus Christ Superstar. He thought the idea of a musical Phantom was fascinating and suggested that Andrew should seriously consider writing the whole score himself. Every year, in July, Andrew has a musical festival at his English home in Sydmonton, and the plan for summer ’85 was to present there a draft of the first act of Phantom for which Richard Stilgoe, Andrew’s lyrical collaborator on Starlight Express, had agreed to help out. Our designer Maria Bjornson managed by magic to stage it in a 100-seat church on Andrew’s front lawn and even managed the dropping of the chandelier.”
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Encouraged by the reception there, Lloyd Webber continued over the winter of 1985 to work on the score before an accidental meeting in New York with Hal Prince early the following spring confirmed that he too was in search of a romantic musical. By now, however, it was clear that Phantom needed a lyrical dramatist, and the late Alan Jay Lerner was approached: “He listened to the score and read the material and was encouraging, but perceptively critical. He agreed to work on the project, and we had several meetings, and some major constructional decisions were taken, but we noticed during our time together that Alan was not well. His condition worsened, and the day he was due to start working on the actual lyrics, he rang to say that he must bow out as he needed treatment for his illness. Sadly, he never recovered, and the world is a duller place for his loss.”
The problem was then, as Mackintosh recalls, “to find a replacement for an irreplaceable talent,” and their search led them to a Guildhall contest for young musical writers at which one of the finalist was a lyricist in his early twenties called Charles Hart, grandson of a legendary English theatrical couple (Glen Byam Shaw and Angela Baddeley) who thus now finds himself co-author of The Phantom: “I was auditioned for the job when work on it was already well under way and given a weekend to digest Gaston Leroux’s then little-known thriller…from the moths that followed, I have retained a wealth of indelible memories: a first glimpse of Maria Bjornson’s astonishing sets in model form, illuminated by one-man rendition-cum-resume from the director Hal Prince, and the first terrifying vision of a newspaper advertisement crediting me with a libretto I had at the time barely begun, and then a weekend of solitary industry in George Abbott’s office, 24 stories above the new York traffic.”
With a lyricist, a director, a designer, a producer and a composer now duly assembled, the central problem became the casting. It was clear that Sarah Brightman would play the role which had been written for her alone, but who would play the man in the mask on whom the whole plot eventually depends? Lloyd Webber and Mackintosh made, at once, the most obvious and surprising of choices, and one of the joys of the Broadway Phantom is that it re-introduces to American audiences an actor whom the London theatre has been keeping to itself for the best part of the last 20 years.
True, Michael Crawford was in New York back in 1967 in Peter Shaffer’s Black Comedy, a performance which brought him to the attention of Gene Kelly, another of the great musical acrobats of our time, and led to Hollywood and starring role in the otherwise less than wonderful Barbra Streisand film of Hello, Dolly!
Crawford then returned to England, to an immensely successful television comedy series called Some Mothers Do ‘Ave Em, and to establish himself on the West End stage with shows like Billy and Barnum as the natural leader of the song-and-dance profession in Britain. Though he comes of a long-line of cheery charmers who have also captivated Broadway—a line of stretching back through Robert Lindsay and Jim Dale to Tommy Steele—Crawford alone has established a supremacy in the London musical which corresponds, I guess, to the way that Ray Bolger was considered in New York. Crawford was last in Manhattan seven years ago, as a fee-paying student at one of the most punishing of all academics, the New York School for Circus Arts: “I was here for three months learning how to juggle, jump, balance, above all how to fall off the high wire. Jim Dale had already opened as Barnum on Broadway, and I was determined for London to do all the tricks he was up to and then add a few of my own, including a swing down a 30-foot rope.” When the curtain fell on that first night of Barnum in the West End, Crawford was treated to an eight-minute standing ovation, the longest I have ever heard given to a musical actor in Britain.
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Over the next five years, in London and on regional tours and television, Crawford turned Barnum into a marathon personal crusade for show business: like no other musical star in Britain, Crawford is a definition of the theatre at its most sentimental and its most courageous. His continued stunting in both Barnum and the television series that made his name has meant that for most of his recent career (one he, in fact, started as a child chorister for Benjamin Britten) he has been playing through a pain barrier more familiar to Olympic athletes than actors, and his single-minded, almost obsessive dedication to the footlights has cost him both a marriage and a private life: “People say I’m a workaholic, and it is true that after Barnum finally closed on tour last year I was meant to take a long break, so I went to St. Lucia, but after about six days there I heard about Phantom, and I was on the phone after that all the time; when the offer came in I knew I just had to do it for the contrast. In Barnum for five years, I gave everything I had to give physically, but in Phantom what you give is your soul. After hearing just eight bars of that overture, I began to feel tingly.”
The surprise in the casting was, of course that Crawford, the most agile and contortionist of actors, should agree to freeze himself behind the vertical half-mask of the Phantom, but it was precisely that bravery of casting that gave the show its element of start surprise. The story is, as one critic has already noted, “God’s gift to the musical theatre,” and Crawford brings to its rooftop-and-lakeland spectacular a kind of tortured humanity which is quite essential to the storyline. The Phantom has more than its fair share of breath-taking theatrical moments, from the crashing of the chandelier through the masked ball (marvelously choreographed by Gillian Lynne of Cats) to the arrival at the candlelit underground lake, but what Lloyd Webber and Prince and Crawford have realized is that they alone are not enough. In the end, you have to care about the Phantom himself, for his is the music of the night.
The Phantom of the Opera is essentially where the Frankenstein legend meets Citizen Kane, but it is also in some remarkable way a show about the purity of an impossible love, and what matters most about it, always apart from that soaring Lloyd Webber score, is that it puts a well-made plot back at center stage. The book had returned to its rightful place and the music and lyrics.