Now, the longest running show in the history of Broadway theatre, The Phantom of the Opera is practically required viewing for all musical theatre lovers who see Broadway productions. While the synthesized music can seem dated at times, the music is as familiar as an old friend, and seeing Andrew Lloyd Webber's biggest hit show 25 years after its Broadway opening is still a thrill for those love Broadway.
Growing up in the 1980's, I fell in love with musicals thanks to the old movie musical re-runs on AMC. When I started to get involved with Musical Theatre in 1987, two shows captivated everyone I knew in the theatre. One was Les Miserables and the other was The Phantom of the Opera. A friend loaned me his double cassette tape of the soundtrack, and I never returned it. (Sorry, Fred.)
I listened to Act I for a year, then it occurred to me to listen to Act II. Before I was out of high school, every note, every nuance, every cue was embedded in my memory. Michael Crawford and Sarah Brightman became just "Michael" and "Sarah" to those of us in the theatre circles.
Time passed. I started my own career in Musical Theatre, and the tapes got lost somewhere due to moving several times and evacuating numerous hurricanes. I could recall bits of the score, but I had not listened to The Phantom of the Opera in years. In fact, due to the over-popularity of "POTO" and selections from the show being sung at every Broadway tribute engagement on TV, in concert, and at recitals, songs from The Phantom of the Opera had been banned in all corners of the Musical Theatre auditions world.
As a treat for myself and a big birthday present for my daughter, I planned a trip to New York so she could experience theatre -- real theatre, in the real theatre district -- of New York, the birthplace of excellent theatre (don't tell the English or Shakespeare I said that). For her first ever trip to New York, I wanted it to be special for her, so I got tickets to the show I had never seen on Broadway until that point -- the Tony Award-winning musical, The Phantom of the Opera.
As we walked into the theatre, a calm was evident that I don't normally feel in a theatre as an audience enters and finds their seats. This should have been a clue to what was about to happen with the actual production. Quite simply, The Phantom of the Opera is such a staple of Broadway, so "old hat" now that it is more than two decades in to its run, that people take the show for granted.
As the house lights descended, the buzz finally started. The show began and some theatre-goers kept looking up toward the chandelier. I tried not to give it away for my daughter. When the show finally started with a bang, she was thrilled that real Musical Theatre includes pyrotechnics as well as music and a real orchestra.
Hearing that opening music, suddenly I was 15 again, listening to Fred's tape and imagining what the show looked like. I had seen pictures of the production, but that was back in 1988 -- no internet or Google.
Seeing the show unfold before me, every note was as I remembered it. The lead singers were spot on, the character actors hilarious, and the dancers were lithe. Around me, I could hear different audience members mouthing the lines and sometimes humming to themselves, unable to prevent this show we all know so well from leaving their lips.
The singer playing "Christine," Jennifer Hope Wells, was a throatier soprano than Sarah Brightman, and the richer, almost spinto quality, added a layer of texture to the character. She was not so naive or ingenue-esque now. John Cudia played the "Phatom," and I pondered if he ever got tired of trying to sound like Michael Crawford who, though famous for being the first "Phantom," has never been considered a true singer. And yet, there were Crawford qualities to Cudia's voice. The sets and special effects were striking and the costumes gorgeous. I can say unabashedly, no longer 15 years old, I loved seeing The Phantom of the Opera on Broadway.
Seeing the The Phantom of the Opera on Broadway, I had the thought the no producers in the business would take a risk on this show today. In the 21st century, mounting a Broadway musical is too expensive with success too unpredictable to justify the costs of even the costumes, much less the wigs, scenery, and the orchestra. The 2011 revival of Follies featured a cast of 41 performers and an orchestra of 28 musicians, but it also had the backing of the Kennedy Center.
As producers look for pared down musicals and lean toward canned music, The Phantom of the Opera may be the last hope at seeing a full throttle Broadway musical, slightly melodramatic music and bloated reputation that it has. Even with my logical brain knowing all of this, inside, I was thrilled to be sitting in the Broadway house The Phantom of the Opera has called home for 25 years. This score was one I listened to over and over for years, and while I love Sondheim more than any other composer (besides Mozart), The Phantom of the Opera was a show a young soprano could sing and sing and sing, all the while dreaming of singing on Broadway when she grew up. Though no one wants to give Andrew Lloyd Webber credit for any of the shows he has written, inspiring young performers to look toward a career in Broadway is exactly what Webber did for so many of us in the late '80's as Rent did for the '90's thespians and Wicked did for the millennials, and The Book of Mormon seems to be doing or the '10's..
Seeing The Phantom of the Opera on Broadway over 25 years and 10,000 performances into its run, inspiring the next generation to dream of Broadway is exactly what Musical Theatre should be about.