On Phantom of the Opera's Record-Breaking Silver Anniversary: Remembering January 26, 1988
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January 26, 1988: It was one of New York’s coldest, windiest nights, but outside the Majestic Theatre, there was nothing but hot excitement as hundreds of media captured the arrival of celebrities in black ties and elegant evening wear and sparkling jewels emerging from limos onto the red carpet as audience members and a crowd worthy of a Hollywood premiere shivered to observe and gawk. This was the opening night of Andrew Lloyd Webber and Charles Hart’s The Phantom of the Opera.
It was no ordinary opening, as word and critical acclaim from London’s West End had long before reached New York – actually, all of the U.S.
Inside, against the backdrop of Maria Bjôrnson's decadent faux proscenium of golden Gothic erotica, all those cascading curtains and swags and, under the brilliance of that gigantic chandelier, amid the flamboyance and color of Ms.Bjôrnson's colorful costumes, things warmed up considerably and quickly. There was an aura of excitement in the air. Something special, memorable was about to unfold.
Who in the world ever knew that this musical adaptation of Gaston Leroux’s classic novel Le Fantôme de L’Opéra would become a worldwide phenomenon and a century-hopping smash – not to mention one of the highest-grossing shows of all time?
Things hadn’t gone well the night before at the dress run through that precedes the first preview. Tony-winning producer/director Hal Prince paced backstage, praying that everything in that early era of computer-driven shows would work. It didn't. Not long into the first act, the ghost of the Phantom struck. One of the huge swags (curtain drops) fell right onto the middle of the stage. No one was hurt and eventually the show went on. But not without incident.
As the Phantom, Michael Crawford, snatched his pupil Christine (Sarah Brightman; pictured with Crawford at left; photo: Joan Marcus) from a Paris Opera dressing room and the segue began that takes them to the Phantom’s lair in the bowels of the catacombs below, amid mist from dry ice and maneuvering on the dog track through candelabra, the gondola went berserk. It followed a trajectory of its own, crushing candles in its wake with sparks of electricity flooding the stage.
There was fear from backstage that a fire might erupt. It didn't and, in the truest sense of tradition, the show went on.
When Christine and Raul, the Vicomte de Chagny (the late Steve Barton), enraptured in love and fear, escaped to the rooftop of the Opera, it was actually pretty hard to figure out where the heck they were. Ms.Bjôrnson took care of that by changing the lighting and adding the effect of moving clouds.
Everything was in working order by opening night. "When the house lights dimmed,” says director Prince, “the audience started to applaud and it was before the show even started! From there, it just kept going. Very electric!"
Thunderous applause welcomed the unveiling and illumination of the item that had bi-continental buzz, buzz, buzz before there was buzz, buzz, buzz: the huge chandelier. It continued as it rose from the Opera House ash heap and was lifted high into the Majestic’s dome.
There was some fear and trepidation in the audience when it came time for the big payoff moment – the part of the show that was the most eagerly awaited: The Phantom’s dastardly deed of crashing the chandelier. It had been ominously wobbling quite a bit throughout the first act. But the audience had nothing to worry about. For weeks, the rigging had been tested and retested and tested again. Then the chandelier plummeted. Hearts raced. There were dropped jaws and uhhhs and ahhhs – and applause, applause, and more applause.
Lloyd Webber, his fingers twitching and heart quite heavily pounding, was as nervous as always, but managed to sum up the night best. "It was quite simply a magical evening!"
Hal Prince, Michael Crawford, Andrew Lloyd Webber, and Sarah Brightman on opening night, January 1988. Photo: Joan Marcus
Surely it was. He, Hart, Stilgoe, and Prince had reason to celebrate. It turned out to be the composer’s finest hour, his most lavish show to date, and (this will continue to be debated for years), certainly, one of his very best scores. Lloyd Webber’s music has never been the darling of critics, but audiences have devoured almost every show he’s written. It has been fun for years for those in the know to pinpoint what music is Aaron Copeland’s, Verdi’s, and Puccini’s; but audiences haven’t give it a second thought. They just keep coming and coming and coming.
Thanks to Prince dropping in from time to time and mainly the day-to-day attention to detail from the production supervisors and Gillian Lynne (Cats), associate director/choreographer/musical staging, who does more than look in on the dancers a few times a year. She's a stickler for structure and gives pages and pages of notes. (I only hope the Shuberts got the cleaning contractors into the auditorium to dust the banks of lighting and stagehands to dust that magnificent faux proscenium.)
Prince stated not long ago that he'd been reading a lot about POTO statistics, “but I’m not that interested in knowing the weight of the chandelier, but very proud of the fact that over these 25 years that The Phantom of the Opera has employed over 8,000 people on Broadway and the various touring companies."
Michael Crawford, the original West End and Broadway Phantom, proved to be quite the elusive star. He would arrive early for the long and arduous make-up transformation (streamlined through the years). He kept his door closed and visitors had to be announced. Even Brightman, directly across the way, would never just go and knock unannounced. In January, 2006, when the show became the longest-running show in Broadway history, he thanked Lloyd Webber and Prince for selecting him "for the role that changed my life."
Like New York City, the nation, and all of Broadway, The Phantom of the Opera, experienced a rough period at the box office after 9/11, but quickly recovered. Since its debut, it’s grossed over $880 million. Even now, into its 25th year, it’s consistently among the highest-grossing shows. Earlier this year, the production shattered the house record at the Majestic by having its best weekly gross (keep in mind, prices now are considerably higher than in 1988). Attendance is estimated to be over 15 million. -- Ellis Nassour
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