NEW YORK -- Director Hal Prince was leaving Broadway's Majestic Theatre last week when a man stopped him. The man announced proudly that he had already seen "The Phantom of the Opera" three times. At that point the show was still two weeks from its official opening, had played only six preview performances, and tickets were, as they still are, virtually unobtainable until spring.

He obtained his, the man said, by waiting six hours in line before each show for last-minute cancellations; a total, in other words, of 18 hours of waiting for 7 1/2 hours of theater. The average temperature in New York that week was about 20 degrees.

Was he mad? Or was he just a Phantomaniac? Or are they one and the same? It's hard to tell, and it's getting harder every day.

London-born "Phantom" opens its New York run Tuesday, preceded by the largest advance sale in show business history. New Yorkers are clawing, scheming and snarling for the privilege of paying $50 for an orchestra ticket they won't be able to use before Thanksgiving. (There are rear mezzanine seats available in February, but nobody ever seems to mention that.) With that kind of advance planning necessary, people may have to write "Phantom" tickets into their wills.

"Phantom" is in, it's hot, it's got little girls saving their ticket stubs for posterity and hoping, nay, PRAYING that one bead will fall off the giant chandelier (more about that later) into their lap, like a fly ball at a Yankees game, to be kept forever in their jewelry box. Although there are 30,000 beads on this chandelier, each one is stationed with three separate knots, so such a fall is unlikely. But since this is theater -- live theater, as some are wont to call it -- you never know what might happen.

Advance publicity has been so heavy that producer Cameron Mackintosh says he's only spent $150,000 on advertising, which for a big Broadway show is like, maybe, two lunches at Sardi's. Composer Andrew Lloyd Webber, who brought us "Cats" and "Jesus Christ Superstar" before this, has made the cover of Time and The New York Times Magazine for "Phantom" already, and the show was the subject of an eight-page cover story in New York magazine. Vanity Fair flew costar Sarah Brightman, who is also Lloyd Webber's wife, to Paris for a seven-page photo spread at the Paris Opera, where the show is set.

"Phantom" is probably the only musical ever to open on Broadway accompanied by its own hard-cover book ($24.95 at bookstores everywhere) chronicling such "Phantom" arcana as the history of the Paris Opera, the author of the original "Phantom" novel, the motion picture versions of the "Phantom" story, the current show's libretto and a raft of specially commissioned photographs. (One of the many threads that weaves the Lloyd Webber net tighter: The book's British publisher, Pavillion, is partly owned by Lloyd Webber's former and perhaps future collaborator, Tim Rice. The researcher for the book was Jane Rice, Tim's wife.)

It may be the only musical in New York for which the press agent, in preparing to send out a press kit, asks: "LP, cassette or CD?" It may be the only musical with its own series of original paintings, made by artist Robert Heindel at the composer's invitation and now on sale. And surely it is the only musical with 110 trapdoors in the stage floor, including the dozens of tiny, spring-loaded ones that produce lighted candles.

At times the numbers and the hyperbole threaten to overwhelm the whole enterprise, to sink the magic and spun sugar of theater with the corporate weight and logistics of monetary excess. The producers show signs of worrying about this; they refused, for example, to allow pictures of customers buying Phantomabilia -- the $20 sweat shirts and cassettes, $10 mugs that light up when you put something hot in them, the $1 buttons and post cards -- in the theater lobby. Too much emphasis on the marketing angle, they said.

"It's like being part of an avalanche," said Mackintosh, who has "Cats," "Les Mise'rables" and the London revival of "Follies" on his re'sume'. "Now we face the problem of delivering a show that outshines the hype."

The advance word from London has generated all the excitement, Mackintosh said. "Phantom" has been playing to sold-out houses there since October 1986, where it has been acclaimed as Lloyd Webber's most sophisticated score and the first of his shows to have a real plot -- one based on the original 1911 novel by Gaston Leroux. It certainly enhances Lloyd Webber's reputation for awesome stagecraft, using to great effect every trick and gadget in the theatrical lexicon: not just the trapdoors, but great cracks of lightning, flames, sliding mirrors, a disappearing Phantom, the crashing chandelier, a radio-controlled boat, hundreds of elaborate costumes, and, of course, lots of smoke.

The music is almost mesmerizing, insistently boring into one's brain for hours afterward -- even when you'd really rather it would go away. Lloyd Webber's wife Sarah Brightman, for whom he wrote the part of Christine Daae', has a rather prominent overbite but a sweet voice, and Michael Crawford as the deformed Phantom has people yelling bravos.

So it would seem to be the musical that has everything. Offstage romance, onstage pizazz. Thrills and trills, pathos and bathos. And it will come to Washington. Someday. After Tokyo (this April), Vienna, Sydney, Munich, Los Angeles ...

So Let's Talk About Money The listed cost of delivering "Phantom" to New York is $8 million. By way of comparison, Washington's Arena Stage will spend slightly less than that this entire year to bankroll seven major productions, three workshops, a resident acting company and the rest of its full-time staff.

Why does it cost so much? Mackintosh, a pudgy, bespectacled Londoner with a genius for popular shows, said the scenery and the large crew to run it, as well as the 35-member cast and the 31-player orchestra, are the primary components of the budget.

"One of the main reasons it is so expensive is the setting, a time of great opulence in the history of the Paris Opera ... we both knew at the outset that it had to be of a certain scale."

The setting takes its cue from the Paris Opera itself, a 17-story monument (seven of them below ground) with enough backstage space for 20 -- or is it 50? -- horses, six carriages, storage for vast sets, and 1,500 working employees. The bottom-most level is water, an underground lake that figures prominently in the story, as it is the route to the Phantom's lair.

Set and costume designer Maria Bjornson, a half-Norwegian, half-Romanian dynamo, spent barely an afternoon in the opera building, but came back with a vision. Many visions. For example, she designed 23 figures, gilded angels and the like, to frame the proscenium, one of which floats down at one point bearing Crawford. They alone represent eight months of work by one team of theater crafts workers. They were carved in wood, molded in fiberglass, sanded, painted, hoisted into place and then equipped with their final details by airborne stagehands using mountain climbing equipment.

The Majestic Theatre itself had to be extensively renovated (at a cost of $1.5 million) to accommodate the understage rigs the show uses. Its stage itself is 10 feet shallower than Her Majesty's in London, and somewhat wider, which meant, among other things, that the chandelier had to be made 25 percent larger -- 30,000 beads versus 6,000 -- than the original. And so forth.

"It basically all boils down to manpower," said Mackintosh.

But at $8 million, one can't help wondering: When does a production stop being theater and start being an industry?

"Ask that of Vincent van Gogh," said Hal Prince. "Someone just paid $57 million {it was $53.9 million, actually} for one of his paintings. It's a spurious concern.

"What is not a spurious concern is whether it will overinflate people's expectations, and that is something we constantly work on ... And it means that I cannot afford, emotionally or artistically, to work in the Broadway theater. I can only work elsewhere and have Broadway beckon. "

What Prince means is that at age 60, with 47 musicals, starting with "The Pajama Game," to his credit, he can no longer originate a show in New York. Instead he goes first to, say, London, where "Phantom" was produced at a cost of only $4 million.

But it all rather depresses him. He is very aware that most of the 13,240 people a week who will see "Phantom" are wealthy, and that, like the period at the Paris Opera that the show itself portrays, the Majestic has become something of a place to see and be seen. At one recent preview even the ticket taker was wearing a fur coat, like 99.9 percent of the female members of the audience.

"It isn't just the economics that are different in London," Prince said. "Over there I'd get into a cab and the driver would recognize me and say, 'I can't wait to see your show.' Here, they don't recognize me, and a cabdriver couldn't afford to see my show. And after pushing a wheel around New York for 18 hours a day he's not in the mood."

Mackintosh said the running costs of the show ($375,000 a week) are such that the $8 million will not be recouped until the show has run -- assuming capacity houses -- for at least 65 weeks. Even with advance sales of some $17 million.

Though a company has been licensed to produce a line of "Phantom" products, the producers are being coy about announcing just what they are. Mackintosh, however, told New York magazine that the products spun off from his other smash, "Les Mise'rables," including a beach towel and a calendar, bring in $50,000 a week.

In any case, no one is going to lose any money on "Phantom," despite its cost. Certainly not Lloyd Webber or Mackintosh, who share a positive genius for making money. Lloyd Webber makes about $12 million a year and has four homes, including a 10-acre spread on the Riviera and a new $6 million flat in New York's Trump Tower.

Indeed, it is Lloyd Webber's personal wealth that, in a sense, allowed the development process that Prince finds nearly unavailable in this country. Every year the composer hosts a "festival" at his country estate near Sydmonton (Mackintosh has a place a mere four miles down the road) where he tries out new works or, if he has nothing on tap, new works by friends or colleagues. An invitation-only audience of some 150 locals and theater friends comes to a small church on Lloyd Webber's estate and, starting Friday and going all day Saturday, is treated to the first public airing of works in progress. Sunday there is a cricket match. A truncated version of "Phantom's" first act was played there in 1985.

But make no mistake, this is no charity. The audience may be invited, but it still has to pay.

Gaston Leroux, Where Are You? The originator of the "Phantom of the Opera" phenomenon, Gaston Leroux, was a flamboyant French journalist. One of the anecdotes related by George Perry in "The Complete Phantom of the Opera" concerns his transition from full-time reporter to novelist. "His editor rang him at 3 a.m. shortly after his return from a long foreign assignment. Leroux was angry at being roused from a deep sleep and then being told to dash at once on a night train to Toulon, where a French battleship had been damaged in an explosion ... Leroux bellowed into the phone and hung up. It was 1907, and Leroux had decided at that moment to become a full-time novelist."

What would you expect of a man not above donning a disguise to get a story and who, on completing a novel, would fire a gun from his balcony?

"The Phantom of the Opera" had its genesis in a few facts, largely the mysterious and somewhat threatening intricacies of the Paris Opera building itself, and its history, which includes a time when it functioned as a prison and some of its cellars as dungeons. There was also a famous incident in 1896 when, during the last moments of Act 1 of "The'tis and Pe'le'e," an electrical short circuit triggered a fire that burned through a steel hawser holding one of the counterweights to a chandelier. With a loud noise, a flash and a cloud of dust the counterweight fell through a ceiling and landed on the unfortunate patrons in Seats 11 and 13 on Level 4, killing one of them.

Leroux changed the falling counterweight to a falling chandelier. This plummets, in the show, not quite on the audience but close enough to raise gasps.

Leroux's "Phantom" harkens back to classic "Beauty and the Beast" themes. The Phantom is Erik, born with a hideously deformed face, "which earned a mother's fear and loathing ... A mask, my first unfeeling scrap of clothing," as lyricists Charles Hart and Richard Stilgoe put it.

But Erik, despite his miserable fate, manages to become an architect, musician and master magician. He is hired as one of the many architects working on the construction of the opera, and builds for himself a secret subterranean lair where he can live unseen by the rest of the world. He keeps his deformity hidden under a mask.

The Phantom is also a classic study in ambivalence and psychosis. One part of him longs to be "loved for myself" and live like "ordinary people"; the other half is consumed with rage at his fate and the rejection he has experienced. He has an unfortunate tendency to express this rage with brutal murders.

He falls in love with a young opera dancer, Christine Daae', and determines to make her an operatic star and convince her to love him, seeking redemption in her purity. Using his powers to terrify the opera's managers, he succeeds in promoting her career.

In the book and 1924 movie version of the story, she makes her debut in "Faust." Lloyd Webber sacrificed this subtlety when he decided to write the music himself (originally he wanted only to produce the show) for his new wife.

In the end, the Phantom forces Christine (can we ignore the significance of the first six letters of her name?) to choose between agreeing to love and live with him and saving the life of her lover, or dying with him and the rest of the opera, which he threatens to explode with many barrels of gunpowder. In the 1924 movie, Lon Chaney is chased into the Seine by an angry mob, but in the book and the show the ending is more subtle. Christine chooses the Phantom and life for her beloved, and Erik is indeed redeemed by her kiss and her genuine sympathy. He releases them.

As Leroux wrote (the ellipses are all his):

Yes, she was waiting for me ... waiting for me erect and alive, a real, living bride ... as she hoped to be saved ... And, when I ... came forward, more timid than ... a little child, she did not run away ... no, no ... she stayed ... she waited for me ... I even believe she put out her forehead ... a little ... oh, not much ... just a little ... And ... and ... I ... kissed her! ... I! ... I! ... I! ... And, she did not die!

All he asked of her was that she return after his death and place the gold band he had given her on his finger.

It was melodrama, but great melodrama. Leroux died in 1927, unable to know that while he would be forgotten, his story would live on in seven movies, several plays, and now a mega-musical.

Interesting footnote: Universal Pictures spent $1 million on the 1924 movie, seeing it as a great vehicle for "the man of a thousand faces," Lon Chaney. The set was the first in Hollywood to be built on a steel framework with a concrete foundation, built so solidly that it remains today and has been used, redecorated, in numerous motion pictures. It has played the part of auditoriums in such pictures as "Torn Curtain," "A Double Life" and "The Sting."

It is a Friday afternoon in the Majestic Theatre, a few hours before a preview performance. In the lower lobby Steve Barton, who plays Christine's fiance' Raoul, is rehearsing with a few other members of the cast, practicing some slight changes in lyrics. In the auditorium the stagehands are rerunning the dramatic descent of the chandelier, and some of the cast and crew have gathered to watch it.

Bjornson explains that in London, the fall of the chandelier was somewhat slower, because it could be seen by only part of the house at any given second. Here, the whole house can see the entire fall, so apparently it has to be faster.

The previous night the radio-controlled boat had balked (unnoticed by the average audience member) and that has to be fixed also. Michael Crawford, who is not giving any interviews before the opening and who is notorious for getting to the theater hours before the scheduled start of his two-hour makeup job, is scurrying around looking somewhat anxious.

The previous afternoon Mackintosh took off for Vienna, to finalize casting there for the next production of "Les Mise'rables" and to discuss plans for "Phantom." Next year, he said, after "Miss Saigon" is on, he plans to take a sabbatical for a few years. All he will do is fly around the world checking up on his various shows and coproducing the movie version of "Les Miz" (as if is known familiarly).

Prince is in his midtown office. CBS is coming Monday. Another camera crew has already been in. He has just sent tickets to the two ladies who run the stationery store he and his wife patronize; they are amazed and thrilled.

The Japanese actors from the Tokyo production are arriving next week to watch the show and meet with him. After Tokyo, "Phantom" will tour to Osaka, which will necessitate an entirely new, traveling scenery plan, one he says will be the prototype for touring productions such as the one he hopes will eventually play Washington.

"I remember when I was about 20 and a young stage manager, I was walking down 44th Street {where the Majestic is located} with George Abbott. Rodgers and Hammerstein had three shows playing, and I was dazzled. And Abbott said, 'Just remember, someday they'll be begging for a theater ...' "

The point, Prince said, is to remember that fame can be fleeting: "There's another life as well {as the theater}, you know. There's families, politics, a world out there ... I used to tell Michael Bennett years ago: 'It's a show, remember that. It's just a show.' "

Remember that.