The Phantom’s trail

My first acquaintance with the Phantom came one cold February morning in 1984 while I was soaking myself in a hot bath. Andrew Lloyd Webber telephoned me for a gossip. He dropped into the conversation the idea of making a musical out of The Phantom of the Opera. Even in my prune-like condition, I recognized Andrew had come up with another good idea.

We screened copies of the original Lon Chaney silent movie and the later Claude Raines version. Though very enjoyable, neither one made us shout Eureka! So we decided to find a copy of the original Leroux novel. To our surprise we found it out of print. Eventually Andrew found a copy on a second-hand stall in New York and I found one in my aunt's garage. We both much preferred the original storyline.

Early in the summer of '84, Ken Hill's highly entertaining stage version was on in the East End of London. We went to see it and resolved to press on and do our version based on the novel.

When Andrew first talked to me about the idea, I assumed that he was going to write the score; in fact, this was far from the case. Our initial press announcement in 1984 stated that "the score for The Phantom of the Opera will include both existing and original music." It was Andrew's first idea to use mainly famous classical works for the score, with him writing any incidental music that might be necessary. After all, the original novel had made much use of Gounod's opera Faust as a background.

We spent most of our weekends that autumn sifting through Andrew's record collection piecing together a score of operatic gems. It was very pleasant work but destined to be fruitless.

Late in November '84, we were invited to Tokyo to see the Japanese production of Cats. There we met Australian director Jim Sharman, who had directed The Rocky Horror Show and the hugely successful London production of Jesus Christ Superstar. He thought the idea of a musical Phantom very interesting and, between endless bouts of generous but exhausting Oriental hospitality, we talked about what the show could be. The outcome was that Jim suggested Andrew should re-read the book and seriously consider writing the score himself.

A few weeks later Andrew and I met up for a Christmas glass. He told me that he had taken Jim's advice and had started work on the construction of the score. I drove home in high spirits.

Every year in July Andrew has a music festival at his home in Sydmonton. Nearly everything he has written is tried out there in some form or other. The plan for Summer '85 was to present a first draft of the first act of Phantom. Richard Stilgoe, Andrew's lyrical collaborator on Starlight Express, agreed to help out and Maria Björnson, our designer managed, by magic, to stage it in a 100-seater church on Andrew's front lawn. She even managed the dropping of the chandelier. Greatly encouraged by Phantom's reception on this occasion, we decided to press on with the project in earnest.

At the beginning of June '85, Andrew bumped into Hal Prince at the Tony Awards in New York. When he told Hal what he was working on, Hal responded by saying that he also had been thinking of staging a musical romance. We had found our director!

A few weeks later, we were in Australia for the opening of Cats. After the first night I banished Andrew to an island off the Barrier Reef to map out the second act of Phantom. Five days later and an extra 10 pounds heavier, he completed most of his task. The hand of the Phantom nearly put paid to the musical when, on returning to the mainland, Andrew's helicopter fell out of the sky on take-off. Luckily, it wasn't serious but it gave Andrew an insight into the feelings of the chandelier!

Over the next few months the writing went slower than expected and the form of the musical changed. What was very much a book musical was moving in a more operatic direction. Sarah Brightman, who was now cast in the role of 'Christine', proved to be a source of musical inspiration to Andrew with her extraordinary vocal range. It became apparent that the project was going to require another collaborator who would be more of a lyrical dramatist, extending Richard and Andrew's original book.

Andrew and I met Alan Jay Lerner, an old friend and master book and lyric writer. He listened to the score and read the material, and was encouraging but perceptively critical. He agreed to work on the project. We had several meetings, and some major constructive decisions were taken, but we noticed during our time together that Alan was not well. His condition worsened and the day he was due to start working on the actual lyrics he rang to say that he must bow out as he needed treatment for his illness. Sadly, he never recovered and the world is a duller place for his loss.

Our professional problem was now to find a replacement for an irreplaceable talent. Our discussions led us back to a talented young lyricist we had spotted at the Vivian Ellis Musical Writers Competition the previous spring. His name - Charles Hart. Though he had not won the competition for the best musical, all the judges had commended him highly as a lyricist. We sent him a melody to set and the result convinced Andrew that, if he wasn't able to work with one of the world's greatest, he'd like to work with one of the youngest and most promising.

The original production went into rehearsal in London on 18th August 1986. Hal Prince and Gillian Lynne assembled a wonderful cast and after several weeks of exhilarating mayhem Phantom opened at Her Majesty's Theatre on October 9th and proceeded to become one of London's greatest musical successes. Our trio of original stars enjoyed a similar triumph on Broadway 18 months later where it is still running at the Majestic Theater and since then Phantom has gone on to captivate audiences in major cities around the world. And now, the overture starts and the 1,000 lb. chandelier comes alive, the legend of The Phantom of the Opera is once again reborn in what we all hope will be enjoyed as a good old fashioned theatrical musical romance.

The phantom in South Africa

The third longest-running show in Broadway history, seen by over 100 million people in 111 cities worldwide, Andrew Lloyd Webber's Phantom of the Opera opens at the Artscape Opera House in Cape Town in April and the State Theatre in Pretoria in July.

Based on the classic novel Le Fantome de l'Opera by Gaston Leroux, Phantom of the Opera tells the story of a masked figure who lurks beneath the catacombs of the Paris Opera House, exercising a reign of terror over all who inhabit it. He falls madly in love with young soprano Christine, and devotes himself to creating a new star by nurturing her extraordinary talents, by employing all of the devious methods at his command.

Phantom opened in London on 9 October 1986 with Michael Crawford and Sarah Brightman in the leading roles. Since then, 16 productions of the Phantom have played in 111 cities in 13 countries worldwide.

The part of Christine will be played by Lana English, with Amy Hudson playing the part on Sundays, while Andre Schwartz will play The Phantom, with Rory Rootenberg taking the role on Sundays. The young male romantic lead will be played by Brennan Holder.

The Phantom of the Opera is currently on in New York, Madrid, Stuttgart, Japan and Denmark. The West End production is now in its sixteenth year, having just played its 7 000th performance, while the New York production has been seen by over 9.5 million people. Worldwide, Phantom has been seen by over 100 million people.

The Phantom of the Opera's box office revenues are over $3.2 billion, higher than any film or stage play in history – including blockbusters like Titanic, ET and Star Wars.

The story

Anyone familiar with a large opera house would testify that it is an extraordinary labyrinth of people and passageways, but the Paris Opera House of the last quarter of the nineteenth century, in which Gaston Leroux set The Phantom of the Opera, was remarkable by any standards. The huge building was constructed to designs by Charles Garnier from 1861-1875. It was a hotbed of politics and factions. From prima donna to stage-hand, the Opera House was governed by intrigue and rumor; everyone jostling for position, defending their own territory and scrabbling for new. At the time in which the novel is set, the Opera House boasted over fifteen hundred employees and had its own stables of white horses for the opera troupe underneath the forecourt. Even today, it employs over a thousand people and contains two permanent ballet schools within the building.

The Paris Opera House rose to pre-eminence in the eighteenth century. After the Revolution it was restored to its leading position in Paris by Napoleon in the reforms of 1807. Unquestionably among the most performed composers at that time was Salieri, whose music remained in the repertoire at the time of Leroux's novel. Salieri had his greatest triumphs in Paris with Les Danaides (1787) and Tarare (1784). It is interesting that Mozart began to work with Da Ponte after the latter's huge success with Salieri in France. Indeed, Mozart was not performed at the Paris Opera until the early 1800s and then only in a severely adapted form. Salieri was hailed as the natural successor to Gluck, the main force at the opera in the third quarter of the eighteenth century, and was greatly influenced by his music.

But perhaps it was Meyerbeer who reigned supreme. His grand operas were a masterful potpourri of components. His music was accessible, his characterization brilliantly aided by his command of orchestration and he relished stage spectacle. This writer was chastened to learn that the 1849 production of Le Prophète was the first to feature roller-skating as a key ingredient and also introduced electric light as an effect. Indeed the Paris Opera always prided itself in its innovation. Aladdin (1822) by Isouard introduced gas lighting to the stage.

King of all this was the Opera's chief designer Ciceri, the John Napier of the day. Spectacle was all. Hugo in his preface to Cromwell (1827) wrote "the stage should make as complete as possible the illusion of reality". The Paris Opera's eruption of Vesuvius was legendary, employing real stones and the titles of operas alone convey everything: Le Siege de Corinth (Rossini), La Muette de Portici (Auber), Robert Le Diable (Meyerbeer) (noted for its Phantom of the Nuns effect) and, of course, Gounod's Faust, the opera which is the backdrop to the Leroux novel.

Key also to Paris formula was the ballet. This was usually at the start of Act III. The gentlemen could dine before arriving at the theater in time to see their various young ladies in the corps de ballet. Wagner's Tannhauser caused uproar with the Jockey Club because its ballet was placed too early in the production for their members' convenience.

The Paris Opera House survives in much the same form described in the novel. It occupies a three-acre site and some idea of the labyrinthian nature of the building can be appreciated if one considers that the auditorium accounts for less than one fifth of the total space. There are over seventeen storeys, seven of which are below the stage level; the stables for the opera horses still exist. There is a monument to La Carlotta. More important, there really is a lake underneath the building; it is an integral part of the design, and the water level acts as a ballast, raised or lowered, depending on the weight of the stage, seven storeys above it.

Everybody knows the Paris Opéra, at least by reputation. It is with regret that I assure you it hasn't changed at all: for the sake of the passer-by who hasn't been warned, let me say that it looks like a railway station. But once you're inside you'll be more likely to mistake it for a Turkish bath. -Debussy

Prologue

It is 1911 and the contents of the Paris Opera House are being auctioned off. Present are the auctioneer, porters and bidders. Raoul, now seventy years old and in a wheelchair, buys a poster and a music box. As the auctioneer displays the Opera House chandelier, he explains that it is connected with the legend of The Phantom of the Opera. With a flash of light, the audience is flung back in time, when the Paris Opera was at its height.

Act 1

We are thrust in the middle of a rehearsal for the opera Hannibal. Monsieur Lefèvre, the retiring manager of the Opera, is showing the new managers, Monsieurs Firmin and André, the great stage. As the prima donna, Carlotta, is singing, a backdrop falls to the floor, nearly killing her. The cry is raised, "It's The Phantom of the Opera!" Upset, Carlotta refuses to sing.

Meg Giry, daughter of the ballet mistress, Madame Giry, suggests her friend, Christine Daaé, take Carlotta's place. Christine has been taking lessons from a mysterious new teacher.

At her triumph in the Opera, is Raoul, a nobleman and patron of the Opera. Raoul recognizes Christine as a childhood friend. He comes backstage after the performance to escort her to dinner, but Christine tells him she cannot go, because her teacher, "The Angel of Music," is very strict.

When Raoul leaves Christine's room, the Phantom appears. Christine is lured into the bowels of the Opera House, where the Phantom will continue her lessons.

He leads her to his underground lair, where she sees a frightening vision of herself in a wedding gown. She faints, only to be awakened several hours later by the Phantom's music on the organ. Creeping up behind him, she rips off his mask. Horrified, he takes her back to the surface.

The Phantom has sent notes to both the managers of the Opera, as well as Raoul, Madame Giry and Carlotta, which give instructions that Christine will have the lead in the new opera, Il Muto. The manager's refuse to give in to the Phantom's demands.

Il Muto proceeds as planned, with Carlotta in the lead, and Christine in a secondary role. As promised, disaster strikes - the stage hand, Joseph Buquet, is killed, and Carlotta's voice is stolen.

In the confusion, Raoul and Christine escape to the roof of the Opera House. There, with all of Paris around them, they pledge their love to one another. They cannot see the Phantom overhearing their vows of love. Enraged at Christine's betrayal, the Phantom causes the final disaster of the night - the mighty chandelier comes crashing to the stage floor.

Act II

The second act opens at a grand Masquerade Ball, held on the steps of the Paris Opera. No one has heard from the Phantom in six months. Christine and Raoul are engaged, but are keeping it a secret; Christine keeps her engagement ring on a chain around her neck.

Suddenly, the Phantom appears, disguised as The Red Death, and delivers to the managers a score from his opera, Don Juan Triumphant.

At first, the managers refuse to perform the strange, disturbing opera. Then, with the help of Raoul, they devise a plan to trap the Phantom, using Christine as bait. Plans for Don Juan Triumphant, and the trap, are made.

Christine visits the grave of her father. There on the grave stands the Phantom, beckoning her to join him. Raoul appears and takes her away.

At last, the opening night of Don Juan Triumphant arrives. The theater is surrounded by guards and police, eager to catch the Phantom. As the opera comes to its end, the Phantom takes the place of Piangi, the lead singer. He confronts Christine on stage during the performance, and escapes with her once more to his labyrinth below the Opera House.

In a last confrontation, the Phantom gives Christine a choice: stay with him forever, or he will kill Raoul. Her decision brings to an end the story of The Phantom of the Opera.

Article by: Cameron Mackintosh