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Bess Rowen Headshot

The Phantom of the Opera Is Here... and Going Strong

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Photo Credit: Joan Marcus

As I sat down in my seat at the Majestic Theatre to see The Phantom of the Opera in this, its 25th year of performances, I could not help but think of my three-year-old self watching another Andrew Lloyd Webber hit. When I was a small child, my mother used to take me into the city to see matinees of Broadway shows. Some of my earliest memories are of these performances, but there is one in particular that stands out.

When I first saw Cats, which incidentally held the record for the longest running musical before Phantom surpassed it some years ago, I was seated in the aisle. At the moment where the cats came out into the audience, my mom tapped my arm and pointed excitedly to me left. Next to me was a cat! Well, okay, a person dressed like a cat. This black and white leotarded actor smiled and waved at me as she crouched next to my chair.
Whenever I wonder why it is that I came to do and study theatre, I go back to this moment of connection with this actor. I could see the makeup, the costume, and the person behind it, and I was suddenly aware and curious about the moments of behind-the-scenes work that had led to that instant.

All of this is to say that Andrew Lloyd Webber has a special place in my theatrical heart. However, believe it or not, I had never made it to Phantom. I love the score, and had seen the movie, but somehow I never managed to make it to Broadway to see the real deal. So, when the opportunity came to go and see the show in celebration of its 25th anniversary, I naturally jumped at the chance.

For those of you who don't know the plot, the musical is based on the novel of the same name by Gaston Leroux, which tells the story of a masked figure (now played by Hugh Panaro) who becomes obsessed with ingénue Christine (Mary Michael Patterson) and so decides to vocally coach her to become a better opera singer. When he's not lurking in dressing rooms, the Phantom "haunts" the Paris Opera House by meddling in its artistic and therefore business affairs. The opera house in Phantom is, of course, trying to produce operas, so there is a wonderful metatheatrical element to the show from the get-go that involves many wonderfully trained voices, ballerinas, and colorful artistic talents.

This aspect of the show is brought to life with the help of some wonderful production design -- including the now-famous pop/set-piece of the enormous chandelier. The costumes and sets help strike a balance between the extravagant, overstated aesthetic of the "opera" scenes, the behind-the-scenes utility of the backstage scenes, and the gothic underbelly of the Phantom's domain.

Any Broadway show worth its salt uses a good part of their impressive budget on a set that not only looks breathtaking, but also serves the story. This is one of the reasons that The Phantom of the Opera still holds up, even after 25 years and over 10,000 performances.

In my opinion, a good musical involves a production that properly supports the artistic arc of a great score. A musical is almost like a music video in the sense that the visual aspect of the work ought to increase your appreciation the aural elements. Phantom excels at this kind of artistic unity and support, as the acting, design, and overall mood of the piece strengthened the affective qualities of the music.

There are a great deal of positive and negative things to be said about Broadway as a whole right now, but when the distinctive eighties organ composition begins in the overture, there is no denying the excitement in the audience. Somehow this piece has not really aged. Production wunderkind Cameron Mackintosh and famed director Harold Prince put all of their know-how into creating this show and their influence is still obvious, though the cast has obviously changed many, many times.

Yes, parts of the music do sound like the time period in which they were written, but that does not take away from the enjoyment of the piece. Perhaps this is because the opera setting allows for a kind of acting style that does not require realism. The plot jumps and accelerates, but in this world, there is nothing odd about Raoul proposing to Christine before he has even kissed her.

In some ways, The Phantom of the Opera is like its namesake character, as we the audience play his Christine. We are charmed by him despite ourselves, and we want to hear his song and his story. So come and see what I consider a testament to a former time of Broadway shows that didn't need to pretend that all movie stars are great at singing and dancing. I will say that this is not a musical for small children, as it is dark and frightening at times. It also uses a great deal of fire and several gunshot effects. But if you are craving a solid Broadway show that can still bring down the house, then remember that The Phantom of the Opera is here, and he's still going strong.