Opinion Goodbye, ‘Phantom’: The godfather of blockbuster musical theater

Emilie Kouatchou as Christine and Ben Crawford as The Phantom.
Emilie Kouatchou as Christine and Ben Crawford as The Phantom. (Matthew Murphy)

There is no universe, no social circle, in which it’s cool to like “The Phantom of the Opera.”

It’s not cool if you’re a normal person — that is, not an obsessive theater nerd. But it’s especially uncool if you are an obsessive theater nerd. Unlike Stephen Sondheim’s wry social commentary, or Rodgers and Hammerstein’s wholesome exuberance, Andrew Lloyd Webber’s “Phantom” is just … too much. Too melodramatic, too special-effects-driven. And definitely too ’80s. The synth. The smoke machine. The candelabras. The pyrotechnics. All those rhinestones!

It’s a cheeseball of a show. Worse — at least in the eyes of New Yorkers — it’s a show for tourists.

And yet: I adore “Phantom.”

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“Phantom” was the first musical I ever saw, at age four. It was also the show that made me fall in love with theater.

Partly, I loved the story: A mysterious, half-masked musical genius who lives beneath the Paris Opera House becomes obsessed with a beautiful young soprano, Christine. He takes Christine on as his protege and later seeks revenge when both she and the opera producers spurn his directions. Adapted from a 1909 story by Gaston Leroux, “Phantom” is one in a long line of French cautionary tales about society’s cruelty toward uggos and outcasts. Such themes have perhaps obvious appeal to misfit kids.

But it wasn’t only the story I liked. I remember being lifted by the sumptuous score, the soprano’s florid high notes, that terrifying (to a four-year-old) chandelier crash, and all those characters swishing their beautiful skirts and flourishing heavy capes. Also, did I mention the rhinestones?

For a long time, I listened to my “Phantom” cassette tapes (there were two) every night before bed.

Yet somehow, until quite recently, I hadn’t seen a live “Phantom” performance since preschool, even though I’ve had ample opportunity in the decade-plus I’ve lived in New York. It’s Broadway’s longest-running production; of course it would be there forever. I could always attend some other time.

Apparently, too many of us took the show for granted because recently the unthinkable happened: The show’s producers announced its run would end this winter, shortly after reaching a record 35th anniversary on the Great White Way.

Like many Broadway productions, “Phantom” continues to be stressed by the coronavirus pandemic. Declines in international tourism have depressed ticket sales. Meanwhile, inflation has driven running costs near an unheard-of $1 million per week. The economics of live theater were different during the 1980s, when the show was first mounted; back then, hit productions could accommodate enormous casts, multiple lavish costume changes and floating, gilded set pieces. Shows today, even the megahits, tend to be much sparer. Cost pressures force them to be.

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But “Phantom” is all about the spectral spectacle. This ghost does not do minimalism. So, he’s been losing money.

Upon hearing that “Phantom’s” final curtain call was approaching, I knew I had to see the show again. And readers, I am delighted to report: “Phantom” remains just as ridiculous and as charming as I remembered.

Whenever I felt tempted to roll my eyes — to act too cool to hang with the tourists — I succumbed to the magic. Or more precisely: to the music of the night. That iconic scene of Phantom rowing Christine across a misty lake, filled (inexplicably) with candelabras? It’s loopy but intoxicating. As is so much of the show. A friend reported that at intermission, the gents’ room was full of grown men singing to themselves “Doo-doo, the Phantom of the Operaaaaaa!”

There are few catchier, ear-wormier musical phrases than those violent minor chords in “Phantom’s” title song. And there are few songs in the Broadway canon more romantic than “All I Ask of You.” The score is laced with intricate musical gifts — in the lush contrapuntal waltz of “Prima Donna,” or the ominous hedonism of “Masquerade.”

“Phantom,” in all its masked, sequined glory, has been spoofed endlessly over the years. But a cultural phenomenon with such longevity and global reach is of course in for some mockery. Before “Rent,” before “Wicked,” before “Hamilton,” there was “Phantom” (alongside Lloyd Webber’s even more ridiculous hit, “Cats”). It is the grand poo-bah, the godfather of blockbuster musical theater. Fittingly, its titular opera ghost even signs his correspondence as the “O.G.”

I may be a closet “phan” (as “Phantom” groupies call themselves), but I’m not alone: 19.8 million people have seen the production at Broadway’s Majestic Theatre; fully 125 million others have seen it around the world — including at the original London production, which, thankfully, will continue.

Not that Phantom’s spirit will ever truly leave Broadway. As other phans have pointed out: Good luck ever getting that guy out of a theater — or, for that matter, out of your head.

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