The temperature was below freezing, when at 3 a.m. the line began forming. By sunrise, it stretched for blocks. Thousands of New Yorkers, huddled in blankets and sipping coffee to fend off the chill, had turned out by the dawn's early light to spend as much as $50 a seat for a show some of them wouldn't see for nearly a year.

It was Nov. 23, the first day tickets had gone on sale at the box office of the Majestic Theatre for "Phantom of the Opera," Andrew Lloyd Webber's latest musical. Anticipating the crush, the ticket windows opened at 7 a.m. and didn't close until midnight. By then, the sales tallied $920,000, a Broadway record.

To those who are forever lamenting the anemic state of the theater, what greater rebuttal? In their wildest dreams, this is surely what producers hope for. No matter what the critics say -- no matter what anyone says -- "Phantom of the Opera," London's hottest ticket for the past year, is already a galloping Broadway hit. And it doesn't even open until Jan. 23.

When it does, the advance is expected to hover around $20 million. That represents 40 capacity weeks, assuming another ticket is never sold, which is rather like assuming the sun won't come up tomorrow. If you want a decent orchestra seat, they're now saying, plan for November 1988.

That the theater can still whip up this kind of frenzy is, on the surface of things, eminently reassuring. Nothing is so discouraging as the sight of an unlighted theater marquee, unless it's a marquee touting a show that closed a year ago. The Majestic will clearly be hopping for years -- decades? -- to come, and that's one less empty playhouse to worry about.

At the same time, I can't say the hullabaloo over "Phantom" doesn't give me pause. Our attitude toward the theater has changed drastically in the last two or three decades and not for the better. The passing pleasures that a play or a musical can offer us no longer seem to be enough. We have come more and more to expect an Event, and if a play or musical doesn't seem to be shaping up as an Event, we're not especially interested.

Fewer of us go to the theater simply because the theater is one of the civilized and civilizing endeavors that mankind has managed to come up with over the eons. When the advance word, the hype, the sense of promise in the air is so great that we can't turn our backs on it -- then we line up.

There are plenty of explanations for our hesitancy. Theater tickets cost good money; time is precious. Who wants to squander either on a lousy evening? The theater requires advance planning and a presentable wardrobe. To borrow the sobering term I hear all too often, theater represents "an investment" of resources and energies that the movies and television don't. Black Monday notwithstanding, we demand a healthy return on our investments.

None of the above is necessarily true, of course. You can often go to the theater on the spur of the moment -- sellouts being the exception rather than the rule. Prices for Broadway attractions at the National or the Kennedy Center are steep, but elsewhere you don't have to mortgage the farm to get a seat. And, I dare say, you'll attract more astonished stares these days by dressing up for the theater than by dressing down.

No matter. All it takes is one blockbuster -- "Cats," "Nicholas Nickleby," "Les Mise'rables" and now "Phantom" -- to reinforce the notion of the theater's exclusivity and suggest that its outsized delights are available only to those who commit themselves months in advance or grease the paw of a scalper for a last-minute pair on the aisle. What begins as a little brush of publicity is soon a raging bonfire; criticism is pressed into bondage ("the best play of the 1980s," "a landmark musical"); and before long an Event is born.

By the time the average spectator gets around to seeing "Phantom," I would think his expectations would be running murderously high. That, I suggest, is not a realistic -- or even a desirable -- state in which to approach theater. We have, however, become increasingly accustomed to the idea that if we are not overwhelmed by what we see on a stage -- left breathless, goggle-eyed and preferably limp with spent emotions -- we have somehow been shortchanged.

Not too long ago, I dropped in on the final performance of "North Shore Fish" at the Studio Theatre. I'd been out of town when it opened to what were not particularly enthusiastic reviews. Now it was closing and I wanted to take a look. I was under no mandate to write about it, felt no necessity to pronounce on its merits one way or another. I was there -- with about 40 other spectators -- simply to see a play I wasn't going to see otherwise. That's all. Curious what a difference that can make.

Granted, "North Shore Fish" is not a great play. But its author, Israel Horovitz is one worth attending to. This time, he had brought his eye to bear on the lower-class women working the conveyor belt in a fish-processing plant in Gloucester, Mass. It was a cheerless locale that had seen better days, and the bullying, sexist foreman, who fought to keep the women in line and production up, didn't make it any less cheerless. Worse, efficient Japanese fishing interests were threatening the home-grown enterprise, which would close down permanently before the play was over.

But the plant was a world for the women who toiled there, as it had been for several generations before them. On one hand, Horovitz was noting how we let ourselves be defined by the work we do, how we get pressed into economic servitude just to pay the bills and put food on the table. On the other, he was acknowledging the resiliency of these women and their refusal to be simple automatons. Something besides drudgery would be lost when the plant folded: a sense of kinship, purpose, continuity. However mundane, these lives were also valuable.

Russell Metheny's set was a marvel of outdated technology, spitting out a seemingly endless supply of breaded fish cakes, which were dutifully packed, wrapped and stamped. Among the generally solid performances, Michele Schaeffer, playing a woman in her 10th month of pregnancy, was wan and understandably exhausted, but also perfectly luminous. Sure, there were flaws along the way, but if you weren't looking for blazing theatrics, the production threw little shafts of illumination on a colorful, if decaying, corner of the American workplace. In short, "North Shore Fish" had something to offer, but to say that in our current theatrical climate would appear to be the kiss of death.

Something is not enough. We seem to be looking for peak experiences, definitive performances, state-of-the-art scenery, and failing that (or in addition to that), the latest London smash. There isn't a whole lot of room for the "North Shore Fish" of the world.

Not all that long ago, however, there was a period when the theater wasn't obliged to deliver a knockout punch each time the curtain went up; when to describe a play as "slight" was not to consign it to the trash heap. As late as the 1950s, a regular Broadway audience could be counted upon to keep a respectable number of plays and musicals of varying merits alive for a season. That audience is no more.

When Broadway started falling apart in the late 1960s, it looked as if regional theaters would fill the void. Spectators were waiting out there in the hinterlands, quick to embrace the companies springing up in their midst. Instead of theatergoers, we began talking about "subscribers," loyal and devoted creatures who pledged their faith to a season of plays and turned up through thick and thin. For a while, they did. Some still do.

But I've noticed that no one much talks about "subscribers" these days, nor views them as the saviors they were once thought to be. Theatergoers of the 1980s are far less willing to lock themselves into a predetermined bill of fare. The consumer mentality that prevails among the baby-boomers, the devotion to the brand name, the concern for staying on top of the trends -- all this has also affected our playhouses, too. Even our resident theaters now employ marketing specialists, computerized mailings and slick television commercials to pique and provoke the interest of those who no longer go to the theater out of habit.

"Now and forever" was the advertising slogan for "Cats" when it opened in New York. Six sellout years later, that does not seem to be merely the expression of a publicist's wishful thinking. Fewer and fewer shows are running longer and longer. Meanwhile, the Kennedy Center -- having mopped up with the tryout of "Les Mise'rables" last year -- has announced a return engagement. The musical won't open until July, but a single newspaper advertisement early in November produced $1.5 million worth of mail-order sales. Center personnel are still working overtime to process the requests.

Welcome as such blockbusters are, they foster a polarized view of the theater and encourage us to adopt an all-or-nothing mind-set. In fact, most productions fall betwixt and between and deliver a mixture of rewards and disappointments. We used to be more accepting of that middle ground, more receptive of theatrical insights that didn't necessarily present themselves as revelations from the mount. The theater told us some things about life and people -- some plays did so better than others -- but that was enough to keep us coming back.

Now the stampede is on for "Phantom." Well, more power to it. What scares me, though, is that while we're waiting for our turn to see the big one, the little ones will slip away. I no longer remember what New York production it was, but the gist of its advertising campaign was, "If you can see only one show on Broadway this year, make it this one." That's a troubling supposition when you think of it -- a tacit recognition of our shrinking interest in the theater's diversity.

The next logical step is, "Since you are seeing only one show this year . . ." I hope we never take it. But I sometimes wonder if we aren't marching down that road to the urgent beat of the publicists' drums.

Plays come along all the time, but it can be a long wait between Events.