The Phantom of the Opera at 30
Broadway's longest-running musical ever passes another milestone with no sign of slowing down.
The Phantom of the Opera marks its 30th year on Broadway today. Millions of Americans (including most millennials) have never known a time when the Andrew Lloyd Webber musical wasn't playing at the Majestic Theatre, where it surpassed 12,481 performances Wednesday night. That was the showing I attended, my first repeat viewing since seeing Phantom on national tour in Cincinnati when I was 12 years old. While the show's flaws are more glaring to me now than they were then, it still sent a chill down my spine to hear those opening notes of the overture as the chandelier slowly ascended to its precarious perch above the stage. Masterfully directed by Broadway's sagest magician, Harold Prince, the production's ability to conjure such visceral reactions in its audience is just as potent as ever.
It's an unlikely fate for this adaptation of the 1910 Gaston Leroux potboiler about a mysterious troublemaker living in the bowels of the Paris opera house. The Phantom (Peter Jöback) is an opera fanatic, with all the unyielding tastes that come with the distinction. He despises prima donna Carlotta (Raquel Suarez Groen) and is grooming chorus girl Christine (Ali Ewoldt) to take her place by giving her secret voice lessons. She thinks he is the angel of music, while the opera's new owners, Monsieurs André (Laird Mackintosh) and Firmin (Craig Bennett), think he's a meddlesome creep. Christine seeks refuge from the Phantom's toxic love in the arms of handsome young nobleman Raoul (Rodney Ingram), who is as dependable as the Rock of Gibraltar and has just as much personality. Trapped between a crazy man and a boring man, what's Christine to do? Why, she goes to the cemetery to sing an aria about how she wishes her dead father was alive to tell her what to do, obviously.
Phantom's sexual politics may be dated, but the gold on black embellishments that the late designer Maria Björnson added to the proscenium prove that if you hold on to something long enough, it always comes back into fashion.
Between the pop-rock earworm melodies, the trite lyrics (by Charles Hart and Richard Stilgoe), and pyrotechnics both vocal and literal, Phantom owes its style more to the Eurovision Song Contest than grand opera. That's not a bad thing. The whole two hours and 30 minutes is utterly entertaining, while Lloyd Webber's radio-ready ballads will haunt you like the obsessive stalker at the center of the story.
Jöback plays that manipulative loner with a balance of malice and pathos that tests our compassion in a way that also feels politically relevant. Yes, it's terrible that the world has scorned him because of his physical deformities, but that doesn't make the Christine robot he keeps in his lair any less creepy. Of course, the actual Christine shows little more agency than an automaton. Her role is to sing pretty and look distressed, two things that Ewoldt does just fine. Neither lead really delivers a star performance, but it is impossible to outshine the real star, which is the show itself.
The production values remain spectacular three decades after opening night. In every inch of fabric and plaster, Björnson exhibits a breathtaking eye for detail. The costumes and drops offer an explosion of color, the autumnal richness of which radiates from the stage thanks to Andrew Bridge's exceptional lighting. Sound designer Mick Potter has engineered the room so that it feels like the Phantom is lurking behind us, and if we turn around fast enough we just might catch him.
Through unbridled showmanship, Prince railroads us into a story that might easily derail into a chasm of plausibility: How did the Phantom excavate that underground lake without anyone noticing? Why doesn't anyone tackle him when he shows up at the gala wearing that ridiculous "Masque of the Red Death" costume? What happened to Raoul that caused him to age so terribly over the 20 years between the prologue and the bulk of the story? None of it matters because before we can ruminate, there's something new and magnificent to behold. It also lets us see our ticket money onstage, which isn't always the case these days.
They don't make Broadway shows like this anymore, perhaps for a good reason. Still, Phantom is more reliably entertaining than most of the new musicals that come and go every season, which certainly explains why it has outlasted them all. The Phantom of the Opera will close some day, but the love it has engendered in millions of theater fans will last forever. As they say, love never dies.