After 25 Years, Phantom Still Astounds; Gala Anniversary Performance Filled With Surprises
By Adam Hetrick
Surprise guests, returning alumni, new videos, eager ovations and starry encores punctuated The Phantom of the Opera's historic Jan. 26 Broadway performance — the 25th anniversary of the blockbuster's New York opening night. Playbill.com was there.
It has been 25 years since The Phantom of the Opera celebrated its Broadway opening night at the Majestic Theatre on Jan, 26 1988, after taking London audiences by storm a year prior. The romantic, Victorian-set melodrama would also capture U.S. audiences, earning seven Tony Awards, including Best Musical. The Jan. 26, 2013, gala anniversary performance left no question as to why this musical, which floats on Andrew Lloyd Webber's lush score, has continued to enthrall audiences a quarter of a century after it was first unmasked.
The landmark evening was particularly memorable for me personally. The Phantom of the Opera was the first show my parents took me to see on Broadway – instilling in me a lifelong love of theatre. I wrote about that experience in a Playbill magazine piece that also appears on Playbill.com.
Not only was I among the lucky crowd in attendance for the 25th anniversary gala of Phantom, but I was also able to sit next to my father for the special night and bring our story full circle.
Prior to the start of the 6:30 PM gala performance, the creative team shared a brief film documenting some of Phantom's history with highlights of news coverage of its Broadway premiere. The mega-musical was already a hot ticket prior to the start of New York performances, with lines stretching down 44th Street when the box office first opened at the Majestic. Such lines may be rare in our current era of online ticket sales, however, Phantom's buzz from London prompted record Broadway box office sales and demand before previews began. A rarely repeated feat.
As the lights dimmed and the stage crew set the stage for the prologue, the audience erupted into cheers. It would be the first of many such ovation moments throughout the night. The first Phantom "character" to receive entrance applause and hollers of excitement was the gilded chandelier, which sputtered and sparked as it ascended high above the heads of the audience during the Overture. Italian diva Carlotta, played by Michele McConnell, was also greeted with warm applause as she entered (severed head in hand) to begin the Hannibal opera sequence.
Our masked leading man for the evening was Broadway veteran Hugh Panaro, who initially joined the Broadway production as Raoul in the early 1990s. He has since returned to the Broadway cast as the Phantom for several runs. His most recent engagement, which began in September 2010, has put Panaro's performance tally at more than 1,900 as the Phantom. The gala evening found him in fine voice as he coaxed Christine to the labyrinth beneath the Paris Opera House in the title number, as well as his standout performance of "Music of the Night," which ended with a pianissimo final note that kept audiences in silent thrall.
While "Music of the Night" may be the best-known song from the musical, the evening's biggest round of applause went to Sierra Boggess' full-voiced performance of "Wishing You Were Somehow Here Again." Numerous shouts of "brava!" echoed toward the stage after Boggess offered what could be the definitive rendition of the poignant song.
The young performer who originated the role of Christine Daaé in the Las Vegas production of Phantom, and followed that experience by playing the French soprano in Lloyd Webber's sequel, Love Never Dies, may be the finest actress to take on the role. It's no wonder Lloyd Webber also had Boggess portray Christine during Phantom's 25th anniversary in London last year. She possesses a thrilling and versatile voice capable of filling out the range of the challenging role from the highest soprano notes to the deeper mezzo tones. In addition, Boggess anchors her vocal skills with strong acting that richly color Christine's conflict between her relationship with the Phantom and Raoul.
In addition, Kyle Barisich, as Christine's paramour Raoul, was an ideal match for Boggess during the Act One duet "All I Ask of You" providing a burnished baritone.
The current Broadway cast is also studded with many new company members who are clearly relishing their stage time and bringing fresh perspective to their memorable roles. Standouts include McConnell as Carlotta (whose vocals on during "Poor Fool He Makes Me Laugh" and "Prima Donna" were sublime), a commanding Ellen Harvey as Madame Giry and Jim Weitzer, who provides tempered comic relief as Monsieur André.
The production itself is in exquisite shape thanks to a dedicated resident staff and members of the original creative team who return regularly to ensure that Phantom continues to glimmer for new audiences and longtime fans. For those who haven't ventured back to Phantom since it premiered, or for the handful of theatregoers who have somehow escaped seeing it, now truly is the time. A new sound system, installed in the Majestic several years ago, gives the score and singers their due. In addition, Phantom's orchestra has become a rarity in the current model of commercial theatre: it boasts 28 musicians, something director Prince is proud of to this day.
Gala attendees enjoyed the rare treat of having musical supervisor David Caddick, who first conducted Phantom's opening night on Broadway, holding the baton for the 25th anniversary milestone performance. Caddick and the orchestra gave Lloyd Webber's score and Caddick's layered orchestrations a finely polished presentation.
The production's lighting (by Tony winner Andrew Bridge), which was re-focused and fine-tuned in preparation for the gala, showcased the portrait-like stage pictures created by Prince in warm, golden hues that recall the Victorian era of gas-lit stages. The detailed work of Phantom's late Tony-winning costume and scenic designer Maria Bjornson also appeared to gleam anew.
The gala performance was a reminder of Prince's place as a master director. His lengthy career may be studded with bolder, more groundbreaking ventures, but Phantom's long run has given theatre lovers and professionals the opportunity to see his work repeatedly. His direction not only stands the test of time, but remains fresh, vibrant and arresting to this day.
Prince's keen eye for creating vivid scenes —through the juxtaposition of movement and tableaux, plus seamless transitions — famously instills Phantom with a cinematic quality. In his work with choreographer Gillian Lynne, Prince also ensures that larger group scenes teem with on-stage life.
Lynne's work also received applause early in Act Two as the company gathered for the final verse of "Masquerade" on the grand staircase of the opera house. Less than an hour later, as the musical reached its conclusion and the Phantom slipped into the night, cheers and applause began as young ballerina Meg Giry approached the throne to hold the iconic half-mask in her hands for Prince's final image.
Following the company bows, director Prince and Phantom producer Cameron Mackintosh took the stage to speak about their love for the musical and the numerous people who brought the tale to life. Prince noted that the production the audience had just witnessed was the same that London audiences saw at the first preview in London 26 years ago. The show didn't change.
Late costume designer Maria Bjornson, who created the world in which the Phantom is set, was fondly remembered by Prince. The director recalled that he worked with Bjornson for more than a year in pre-production on the musical. After many months, Prince realized they hadn't set any costumes, to which Bjornson replied that he shouldn't worry – she designed 50 per day. Prince pointed out that Phantom's costumes, which where displayed on the cast across the Majestic Stage last evening, were designed by Bjornson in roughly two weeks' time.
Lloyd Webber, who was not present due to a recent back surgery, appeared in a post-show video in which he was reunited with his original Christine, and his former wife, Sarah Brightman. Lloyd Webber said in the warm and candid video that this was the first time he and Brightman sat down together for an interview since their marriage. He famously wrote the role of Christine for Brightman.
Following the brief video, Mackintosh welcomed Brightman to the stage. The British soprano, who was greeted with loud cheers, spoke fondly of her experience in Phantom and her love for returning to see new actors inhabit roles and bring their own "sense of wonderment" to the production. (For the record, Brightman's dress was by Lanvin, her shoes by Jimmy Choo and her tiara by Tiffany.)
Seated on each side of the theatre's orchestra section were cast members from the original Broadway company of Phantom as well as many of the principal actors from the past 25 years on Broadway. Prince acknowledged their work, and also welcomed to the stage the numerous unseen back stage individuals whose work is performed without the thanks of applause. He cited the dedicated work of the stage crew, make-up and wardrobe departments, as well as front-of-house staff, box office, ushers and ticket-takers, who have welcomed audiences for over two decades.
Prince also shared an astounding tidbit. Earlier this week he asked the staff and crew how many of them had been with the production since opening night. He anticipated perhaps a handful of hands to be raised. To his delight and surprise, he told the Jan. 26 audience that more than 30 individuals who were there on opening night were still working with Phantom 25 years after it premiered (none of them cast members).
Before audiences were sent out into the cold – and to a glitzy gala party at the New York Public Library – Prince and Mackintosh had one more surprise for the audience. Four Phantoms gathered on stage: Panaro, John Owen Jones, Ramin Karimloo and Peter Jöback (who will join the Broadway company in April) for a special performance of "The Phantom of the Opera" featuring Boggess. The song was followed by the Phantom foursome delivering a soaring "Music of the Night," including vocals by the on-stage company and Phantom alumni in the audience.
The Phantom cast offered one final goodbye wave, just as the chandelier began to twinkle and took its own bow with a brief dip into the auditorium as canons launched glitter and gilded streamers into the auditorium. A sparkly-eyed audience filtered out of the Majestic Theatre, while the chandelier, having caught much of the air-borne streamers, seemed appropriately dressed in a celebratory garland of gold.
(Adam Hetrick is a staff writer for Playbill.com whose work also appears in the pages of Playbill magazine.)
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