On this day in 1986, Andrew Lloyd Webber’s The Phantom of the Opera premiered in London’s West End, beginning its theatrical journey around the world and into the record books as the longest running show in Broadway history,* but it wasn’t until years later that I first fell under the Phantom’s spell. I heard The Music of the Night while watching Brian Boitano skate his signature routine on a frozen pond in some long-forgotten television special, but I could not forget the song.
From that moment, The Phantom of the Opera began to weave a ghostly thread through my life. I promptly purchased the Original London Cast Recording of the musical and—as Kirsti can attest—learned every word and every note. That year, I dressed as the Phantom for Halloween (when I couldn’t find his trademark half-mask, I made my own) and held out the vain hope of traveling to New York City to see the show on Broadway, but when the touring production finally came to Los Angeles, tickets were so in-demand and expensive that I couldn’t afford one!
I was in school at the time and supplemented my meager income by babysitting. When I was asked to watch the children of a couple who were going to the theater, I was both excited and envious to discover that they were seeing The Phantom of the Opera. I was also secretly resentful: as season ticket holders, they were merely going to see the latest show, whereas I—a TRUE “phan”—was stuck watching the kids. But they brought me back one of the free programs, which I read cover-to-cover and still have to this day.
I eventually saw the show for the first time with my family, and it was both phantastic and anti-climactic, as such long-awaited moments tend to be, but it rekindled my childhood love of musicals and gave me a new appreciation for live theater—another thread that continues to twine its way through my life.
During The Phantom of the Opera’s historic 4½-year run in Los Angeles, the theater began to offer upper balcony (aka “nosebleed”) seats to students for just $15, so I went there every few months to see the show, taking a different friend or co-worker with me each time and delighting in their reactions to the phanfare. Serendipitously, I happened to be there on the night of Davis Gaines’s 100th performance as the Phantom, as well as the time he surpassed Michael Crawford as the longest-running Phantom. In addition to various touring productions and Phantom – The Las Vegas Spectacular, I’ve seen the show almost 20 times, which is a modest number, considering the 100+ times that some phanatics have seen it.
As most people are aware, the stage production is based on the French novel Le Fantôme de l’Opéra by Gaston Leroux, but it was largely the musical that inspired a wave of phanfic in the ensuing years, the first—and, arguably, the best—of which is Phantom by Susan Kay. This year marks both the 110th anniversary of the publication of Leroux’s classic novel† and the 30th anniversary of the release of Susan Kay’s reimagining of the tale, which follows the disfigured genius Erik from his birth all the way through the dramatic events at the Paris Opera.
There are other threads in my life that have spun off from the original—books I’ve read, movies I’ve seen, music I’ve played, friends I’ve made, and places I’ve traveled as a result of my introduction to the Phantom. When I started piano lessons as an adult, the first song I learned to play was The Music of the Night. I’ve studied both voice and French, the latter culminating in a trip to Paris, where I visited the Palais Garnier and stood outside Box 5, a favorite haunt of the O.G.‡
The Phantom of the Opera unspooled more of its own thread to produce both a film version and a sequel to the original stage production called Love Never Dies, which—despite its lush sets and some truly beautiful music—was not well received by either critics or audiences (much the way an unseen monster is more frightening when conjured in the mind’s eye, an unfulfilled love story is more intriguing when left to the imagination).
Some threads become worn with time and need to be stored away to protect them, but every once in a while I like to pull gently at the Phantom thread, revisiting the musical and hearing those haunting melodies again, allowing them to weave their spectral spell once more.
Stuff Worthy Of Our Notice™ in this post:
*The Phantom of the Opera is the longest running show in Broadway history to date, but another blockbuster may come along someday to push the Phantom off its pedestal.
†Le Fantôme de l’Opéra by Gaston Leroux was serialized in the French newspaper Le Gaulois beginning in 1909, but was officially published in volume form in March of 1910.
‡The Phantom signs his letters O.G. for “Opera Ghost.”