Why Phantom still has our hearts
See end of article for a surprise from contributor Zoë Combe: An Ode to the Phantom
“Close your eyes and let the music set you free” The Phantom of the Opera
Last night I was reminded of my first theatre memory. I was eight and my parents took me to see The Phantom of the Opera for a Saturday matinee. I don’t remember the performance itself, but what I do recall is sitting in the dress circle, the house lights coming up and the audience filing out with slightly troubled faces as they passed a sobbing child. I couldn’t stop crying. We were the last people in the theatre and when I was eventually persuaded to leave, I clung to a lamp post to steady the tears. The only words I managed to stutter out were “but he’s good and bad, good and evil”. There it was. That was it. My eight-year-old self had just identified why The Phantom of the Opera touches so many hearts across the world every year. Not only is there breathtaking music, exquisite production design and a monkey musical box, but the story is agonisingly beautiful. I thought it was utterly sublime and it was in my head for weeks.
The reason I thought of this episode last night was because I was watching the 25th anniversary performance at the Royal Albert Hall (streaming on Youtube as part of the Andrew Lloyd Webber: The Shows Must Go On series). I sat on my sofa, weeping, during the last scene in the Phantom’s lair. In a somewhat more controlled way than the first time I saw it, still weeping. I have seen this show seven times now and the hair on the back of my neck stand up every time when the mask is revealed in spotlight. I watch Phantom in the same way I watch Titanic, I stop breathing, I clench my fists, I bite my lip when that iceberg looms out of nowhere, willing for the ship not to hit it, knowing full well that the story would be rather disappointing if it drifted past. How is it that I still feel the full force of the Phantom love story every single time I see it? And how is it possible for me not to remember what I did yesterday, yet know the whole musical off by heart? Once, as part of a Summer camp, I performed on the stage of Her Majesty’s Theatre and I was given the Christine Daaé dressing room (shared of course). It is still one of the most magical things which has ever happened to me. Let’s take a closer look at how this hit musical came about, and why it constantly brings tears to my eyes.
The Phantom of the Opera, written by Andrew Lloyd Webber and lyrics by Charles Hart opened in the West End in October 1986 and is still going strong. It has a box office revenue higher than any other stage show or film and is the longest running show on Broadway (Les Mis beats it by one year in the West End). The musical won three Olivier Awards, seven Tonys and many more awards, but it was not an obvious hit at the off. It was the biggest risk Lloyd Webber had ever taken, even with theatre legends Cameron Mackintosh (Producer) and Hal Prince (Director) at the helm.
The journey to the opening night of The Phantom of the Opera started during a run of Cats, one of Lloyd Webber’s other hit musicals. Here, Lloyd Webber met the dancer Sarah Brightman, slightly famous for a single pop hit with the group Hot Gossip. The two fell in love, and after divorcing their current spouses, they married on the opening night of Starlight Express (a musical on roller skates, but that is for another article). Andrew Lloyd Webber wrote the part of Christine for Brightman; more than that, he started this whole project because of her. He wanted to propel his new, incredibly talented wife, to stardom. Lloyd Webber took the story from a book of the same name (Le Fantôme de l'Opéra) by Gaston Leroux. The story from the book focuses less on the romantic side of the relationship between Christine and Phantom and more on the very eerie nature of the Phantom’s control of her mind. It’s a good read for hard core fans.
Christine Daaé is arguably the most challenging role on the West End stage. The actor who plays her must be a trained dancer and opera singer with a massive vocal range. At one point she must reach an E6, this is more than two octaves above a middle C. Not only this, she is also on stage for nearly the entire show, with the Phantom only there for forty minutes. Every Christine since Brightman has tried to recreate her iconic performance, they even have wigs similar to Brightman’s hair.
It was decided who was to play Christine from the outset, but casting the Phantom caused far more problems. Lloyd Webber released a single of the title song: The Phantom of the Opera before starting rehearsals, to whet appetites for the show. This was sung by Brightman and a famous pop singer: Steve Harley. This was so successful that Harley was cast as the Phantom, but the creative team soon realised that he wasn’t a strong enough actor to carry the show. With five months to go they fired Harley (with £20,000 compensation) and took another risk by bringing Michael Crawford in. Lloyd Webber had noted from his Olivier Award-winning performance in Barnum that his athletic acting and versatile voice were right for the Phantom. Crawford, much better known for playing Frank Spencer in the sitcom: Some Mothers Do 'Ave 'Em, had audiences shocked when they heard him sing for the first time.
Steve Harley was not the only one axed from the production during the months or weeks before opening. Hal Prince, the top shot Broadway director, was asked to step down but was soon rehired when they realised it couldn’t be done without him. Not so for the lyricist Richard Stilgoe. He wrote the original lyrics for Phantom but soon realised that he wasn’t the right man for the job. Charles Hart took over to produce the lyrics we know (by heart) today. There is also the story of how Lloyd Webber hired a new Musical Director: Michael Reed, two weeks before opening. That’s cutting it a little fine.
In the days leading up to the show, the firings and hirings were the least of the creative teams’ worries. So many things went wrong just before the previews that some said that the curse of the Phantom had come to life to ruin the production. There was a myriad of technical difficulties and on top of this the local council were hesitant, perhaps understandably, about allowing the chandelier to fall down over the heads of the audience. They agreed only after some representatives had seen the first preview. The chandelier is integral to the performance, I do not know what they would have done without this approval. The biggest problem on the day of the first preview was that Brightman lost her voice: not ideal. Her understudy, Claire Moore, had to go on to replace the woman who created the part of Christine. Imagine the nerves. There is also the story of how Moore had no costumes of her own and so she had to squeeze into Brightman’s dresses and then sing! To end, I have to include my favourite mishap story: The boat in the Phantom’s lair is controlled by radio and for a while was on the same frequency as the local fire station. Every time a fire engine came anywhere near the theatre, the boat would go astray during the title song...
It's incredible that this musical even got to the stage given all the disasters, and at one point Lloyd Webber even threatened to withdraw his score. All I can say is that I am eternally glad he didn't. If you haven't seen this show - go, now (or maybe wait until the theatres reopen). I wish I could be in your shoes. I wish I could watch it again for the first time - to have the full force of "the power of the music of the night" hit me once again. Warning: bring tissues.
·For every performance it takes two hours to apply the Phantom’s make up. Two hours!
· The show has been translated into thirteen different languages.
· It uses 500 pounds of dry ice each performance (sometimes this is so much that the musicians in the pit can’t see their music during the title song)
· There are 200 costumes in the show.
· Each actor who plays Phantom has his own mask moulded for his face.
· The fastest falling chandelier is in Australia.
· The high note is recorded in case the actor playing Christine isn’t feeling up to it.
· Cliff Richard and Sarah Brightman released a single of All I ask of You
· The famous magician Paul Daniels was brought in to assist the Phantom’s disappearance in the Masquerade sequence
· Hal Prince wanted doves to fly out during the All I Ask of You scene, but he soon cut them (much to the relief of Alan Hatton, the stage manager).
· There is a sequel: Love Never Dies
· It’s the best musical ever written (technically not a fact but I think so)
An Ode to the Phantom
Zoë Combe Inspired by the lyrics of Notes
Who would have the wit to write this?
Someone with a gifted brain.
All we’ve seen since we came is Lloyd Webber’s name,
Here’s to him!
The Royal Albert Hall won’t stop him,
Theatre, film, on screen, it’s his to claim!
Just a spot of shoddy ballet,
Carlotta and Piangi’s sass,
And some proof on the roof that love never dies,
On that note;
The love triangle’s messy,
Probably best to just avoid ourselves the stress!
Let’s not forget the dancing monkey,
The ultimate masquerade ball,
Tragic deaths right and left left me quite bereft,
It wasn’t quite the classic,
What a shame the chandelier didn’t fall!
But really it's all we could ask for;
A phantom who we love and know.
I conclude with a frown writing from lockdown:
Without you I’d be nothing,
I can’t wait to see you in another show!