You’ll be the only people in the will-call line who speak English. You’ll wave your hands for a while in front of the men’s room sink, before realizing you need to turn the knob. And then you’ll further realize: Of course, on both counts. Since January of 1988, the Majestic Theatre has been home to The Phantom of the Opera. Every English-speaking theatergoer has seen it, and the Shuberts haven’t had to renovate its bathrooms in three decades.
Phantom is the greatest warhorse on the Great White Way. Twelve thousand-plus performances, 18 million tickets sold, over a billion dollars in box office. (That’s just in New York.) When I last saw it, in October 1988, I was 12 years old and it was the hottest ticket on Broadway. (I’d played the main theme earlier that year in the spring piano recital; the next spring, the acquisition of those tickets would make its way into one of my bar mitzvah speeches.) I went to the Majestic last week, an adult Jewish man for nearly three decades, to find out what it’s like all these years, and millions, later.
It turns out: Kind of a blast.
Phantom of the Opera is so very much a product of its time. It is echt late-Reagan Broadway British invasion, full of rococo set pieces, heavy synths, all those classic Andrew Lloyd Webber swelling strings. It opens, famously, on its framing-device auction scene, when the aged aristocrat Raoul, in a wheelchair and attended by a nurse, is bidding on memorabilia from a now-defunct company at the Paris Opera House. There are some tchtochkes, a music box, and then, revealed from under a tarp, the grand chandelier that, the auctioneer reminds us, once fell from the ceiling. (Perhaps you recall the scandale?) The overtures kicks in—DUHN, duhn duhn duhn duhn—the chandelier lights up, and herkily, jerkily, it lifts itself up to its rightful home at the top of the auditorium. It’s all very Disney-animatronic.
And then we’re back a few decades earlier, at a rehearsal for a new opera, and the company is on stage, singing “Think of Me.” That’s when you realize—ah, yes, you know every word to this show.
But first, a plot refresher.
The Paris Opera House, you see, is haunted by a man known as the Phantom. He’s a musical savant who lives in the labyrinths under the building and ventures out only in evening clothes. He has a congenitally deformed face, and so he takes his revenge on the world by demanding a private box, a salary, and a deciding vote in casting decisions. He has taken a shine to a chorus girl named Christine Daaé, and is giving her voice instruction so that she may become a prima donna. (The instruction is by all accounts quite successful, although when we witness his methodology it appears to involve only him yelling “sing, sing, sing for me!” while thrusting his arms angrily in her direction. We tried this technique later, at home, and I can report that I remain unable to sing.)
The trouble is that at the very moment the Phantom elevates Christine from the chorus, she catches the eye of the patron of the Opera’s new owners, a vicomte named Raoul. They fell for each other as children, wouldn’t you know, and have finally reconnected. And so we have a love triangle. The Phantom has a musicosexual fixation on Christine; Christine appreciates his help but not his advances; Raoul loves Christine; Christine loves Raoul. This can’t, and won’t, end well. It doesn’t, of course. In part having to do with an opera the Phantom composes and forces the company to produce.
The second act is less fun than the first, as, exposition established in Act One, the plot works through its machinations. (Eventually, I realized, I know every word up through “Masquerade,” the Act Two opener, at which he presents his new score. After that, it’s a lot of semi-indecipherable recitative about putting on the show, and also a lot of Christine angst, all leading to the inevitable.) But, all the years later, just about every part of the evening remains a delight. This was not built to be a tourist-spectacle show—or, at least, not built only to be one—and it still plays as a Class A production. The sets are towering, the costumes lush, the orchestrations overwhelming (in a good way). By setting the show in the world of opera, there are perfectly good reasons for the over-the-top sets, overwrought performances. It is what today’s international tourists (and late-eighties New Yorkers) come to Broadway to see, and they get their money’s worth.
Innumerable actors have played these roles over the past 30 years, some more famous than others. The current crop is quite fine. Ali Ewoldt makes a sweet Christine, with a pretty, clear soprano. Ben Crawford is a commanding and confidently bellowing Phantom, even if the characterization never quite escapes the hamminess of its creator, Michael Crawford (to whom Ben does not appear to be related). Hal Prince’s direction remains both overwrought and sensitive, with some truly lovely moments, like when the Phantom first brings Christine into his world. The Europeans in the will-call line are thrilled.
And yet there is an unavoidable problem with a production that has hung on for three decades. As good as it is, it is stagnant. No one, I’m sure, is clamoring for a radical re-interpretation of The Mousetrap. But there is a noble tradition of reconfiguring, rethinking, and reinterpreting classic musicals for different actors, different ideas, different times. Last season’s My Fair Lady, with its slightly but totally different ending, proved that point nicely. So did The Color Purple, stripped to its essence a few seasons back. Keeping this 1988 Phantom running, even running well, does a disservice to the piece and its creators. I’m ready for a de-synthesizered Phantom. A John Doyle Phantom. A new Phantom.
Money aside—likely an insurmountable caveat—I’d like to think Sir Andrew is, too.
The Phantom of the Opera opened January 26, 1988, at the Majestic Theatre. Reviewed: September, 2018. Tickets and information: thephantomoftheopera.com