In the fall of 1986, Her Majesty’s Theater in the West End of London hosted the first public performance of a musical by Andrew Lloyd Webber, Charles Hurt, and Richard Stilgoe; today, that musical, The Phantom of the Opera, is still playing at the theater, as well as on Broadway, where it has been performed over 10,000 times. Over the course of almost 30 years, the story of a deformed genius and the opera singer he loves has made more than $5.6 billion dollars while entertaining over 130 million fans, while the original cast’s album has gone on to be a multi-platinum record in numerous countries. It was my first CD, too. With a movie version, several touring shows, and cast recordings, The Phantom of the Opera is probably one of the most popular works of art ever created.
Two years before the premiere of The Phantom, Andrew Lloyd Webber was already a great success, with musicals such as Cats, Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, Evita, and Jesus Christ Superstar to his name. His iconic, modern sound was a huge hit with audiences in the 60s, 70s, and early 80s, and had he stopped with the Starlight Express, his 1984 musical that divided audiences and critics, he would still be considered a major name in musical theater. Instead, he decided to write a musical focusing on romance, and selected Le Fantôme de l’Opéra, a 1911 novel written by Gaston Leroux, as his source material. Leroux was a relatively unknown author with a great love for the theater, which becomes clear when you hear the story of the phantom.
In Lloyd Webber’s treatment of Leroux’s story, told via lyrics written by Richard Stilgoe and Charles Hart, The Phantom of the Opera begins in 1905 at the Opéra Populaire in Paris, where an auction is taking place. The auctioneer introduces the tale while selling a shattered chandelier, which rises over the stage as the overture plays and time flips back to 1881, where the chorus girl Christine Daaé astounds listeners at an audition for the lead role of the evening’s opera. Christine reveals that she’s received training from a mysterious “Angel of Music,” who is revealed to be the Phantom, a mysterious figure who lives in the watery catacombs beneath the opera house and wears a mask to hide his hideous face. The Phantom goes on to terrorize the opera house, making an enemy of Christine’s fiancé, Raoul, and entangling Christine in his nefarious plans. In the end, however, the Phantom relents in the face of Christine’s compassion.
The music of The Phantom has become iconic, and songs like the Act II opening “Masquerade,” the haunting “Music of the Night,” and the dramatic “The Phantom of the Opera” have proven their staying power. True to its title, Lloyd Webber’s score almost sounds like an opera itself. And unlike previous Lloyd Webber musicals, the score does not borrow from pop music. Despite being exposed to “Phantom” over 20 years ago, I still love listening to the soundtrack every now and again, or checking out its latest iteration. If you’re unable to get to Broadway to catch a show, you can experience the musical in the form of the 2004 film adaptation or via its original cast recording, which has sold millions of copies over the course of the musical’s life. I personally recommend the 25th Anniversary Celebration, which is currently available on Netflix. It was a simulcast performance of the stage show, and therefore comes closest to evoking the feelings of the stage show live. I’ve seen the stage show 3 times through the years, and the penultimate scene with Christine and the Phantom still brought tears to my eyes! After all this time, “Phantom” can still get to me. If that doesn’t illustrate its staying power, I’m not sure what would.