PLAYBILL ON A HISTORIC NIGHT: The Phantom of the Opera; The Power of the Music of the Knight
By Harry Haun
Meet the stars and guests who attended the Jan. 26 gala performance and after-party celebrating the 25th anniversary of Broadway's The Phantom of the Opera.
Sir Cameron Mackintosh, who found gold in the sewers and catacombs under 19th-century Paris, is so in season right now. Not only is his movie-epic edition of Les Misérables up for Best Picture and seven other Oscars, but his theatrical production of Andrew Lloyd Webber's richly romantic musical, The Phantom of the Opera, became, on Jan. 26, the first show to rack up a full quarter-century on Broadway.
Sir Cameron arrived at the Majestic Theatre, Phantom's home-away-from-London where it has been playing a year and a half longer, with a full tank of exuberance.
"I'm actually busier than I ever have been," the kingpin "Mr. Producer" declared. "I have about 30 productions running currently and another 20 I'll put on over the next two years around the world. I've never had my shows in such demand before. I have new versions for the stage going of Les Miz, Miss Saigon, Oliver! — and now a new Phantom that we have done in England will be coming to America in the not-too-distant future. All these are taking on a new life, as if the shows were brand new. The people who liked the original show are coming to see it and are loving the new staging as much as they loved the old. We are bringing in a new generation."
(Maybe it goes with the territory, but all of the above sounded like William Powell at the end of "The Great Ziegfeld": "I need more steps. I've got to get higher. Higher!")
The Great Mack did admit a movie of Miss Saigon was in the works — but "it's down the tracks. I'm certainly not wanting to do another movie for a bit. It's exhausting!"
As for the enduring, apparently timeless appeal of The Masked One, he chalked that up to "the basic idea that Phantom is another spinoff of 'Beauty and the Beast.' It's a mythic subject, and a mythic subject has always served Andrew wonderfully well.
"Also, Andrew brought something to it that nobody else brought. He brought an emotional center to the love triangle, which made it something special. Plus, it is absolutely one of the most beautiful and brilliantly staged productions ever."
Sarah Brightman, the Phantom's first Christine Daae and the second Mrs. Andrew Lloyd Webber, was "the reason we're here tonight," Mackintosh contended. "When Andrew first asked me to do this, he had no intension of writing the score. He changed his mind six months after he started working on it when another version of Phantom of the Opera tried to get Sarah to play Christine. She mentioned it to him, and Andrew — who never lets a good idea pass him by — rang me up and said, 'Cam, shall we do it?' She became his muse, and, as he was working with her voice, he suddenly got the idea of how he could write Phantom. And she, indeed, is the one who suggested Michael Crawford. So who knows if we would be here 25 years later, had all those things not happened?"
He only vaguely recalled Jan. 26, 1988, when Phantom officially bowed on Broadway some 10,400 performances ago. "I think I was drunk — you should ask him," he said, pointing to faithful publicist Marc Thibodeau. "It was a fabulous, alcoholic blur."
But he did remember the opening-night party at the Beacon Theatre, all done up in black-and-white crepe. "That was one of my greatest triumphs, that party. It was phenomenal. We showed the original 'Masque of the Red Death' on the stage."
La Brightman, who was in attendance representing her ailing ex and the original cast, had a starker, darker memory. "I was terrified, to tell you the truth," she confessed, "but in the right way. I was concerned about my ex-husband. It was his show, and I wanted it to work amazingly. I was concerned about my character and getting it right. We'd been through a lot to get it here. You can imagine all the things that were going on. I was quite a young thing then, and I had a lot on my shoulders."
What's she been up to? "I just finished an album, 'Dream Chaser,' and I'm training to go into space — to the International Space Station in 2015 — so I've been doing that." She said her life after Phantom and its composer has been busy. "I feel very lucky with my career. I go all over the world and do promotions and concerts and arena tours. I don't stop for a minute because it's very global. I've gotten to travel everywhere, see different cultures and understand music in different places."
As for Lord Lloyd Webber's conspicuous absence: "He's got back problems. He had to have an operation — he's had a few, actually. I was with him day before yesterday to do a little interview for this. He's going to be fine. He's just in a lot of pain at the moment and having to take a lot of morphine. That's why he couldn't make tonight."
The filmed interview, screened for the Majestic audience at the Saturday night performance, was the couple's first since their marriage, and they played it very Noel Coward, with the composer in a particularly jovial, jokey mood. Cheekily, he thanked her for returning from space to attend the festivities for him, but it was plain he would have given his eyeteeth to be here. He portrayed his back malady as fashionable and contagious, with everybody coming down with it all of a sudden.
Lording majestically over the action on the Majestic stage (as well he should) from his box seat was the man who fine-tuned the fine tunes, director Harold Prince. Seated beside him in the front mezzanine left center black-and-gold box were his daughter, Daisy Prince, and his longtime friends, John McMartin (his memorable Ben Stone and Cap'n Andy) and Irish Rep artistic director Charlotte Moore.
Days away from his Jan. 30 85th birthday, he nevertheless bounded to the stage like a teenager, moved his eye glasses to the top of his bald pate (the stock Hal Prince battle-station pose) and joined Sir Cameron in dispensing thanks and reading telegrams from MIA major players like Crawford and choreographer Gillian Lynne, who was tied up with leading Betty Buckley in a London tech of Dear World.
The late Maria Bjornson, whose lush sets and costumes still sca-ream rococo-rich Victorian elegance, was remembered, and — in a typically generous, Princely gesture — so was the whole army it takes backstage to put the show on; they came forth to take a bow. When all was said and done, the stage resembled the populous of Providence, RI.
Then the ranks receded, leaving the night's Christine, Sierra Boggess, to make some heart-soaring "Music of the Night" with Broadway's tenth and current Phantom, Hugh Panaro — and three international Phantoms: John Owen Jones, Ramin Karimloo and Peter Jöback (the latter will join the Broadway company in April). They wrapped the show in an emotional crescendo.
The evening ended with a bang of exploding canisters that sent confetti showering down on a glammed-up audience in tuxes and gowns. With the legendary chandelier dripping in tinsel streamers, the crimson curtain fell on Phantom's 25th anniversary performance. With that elaborate extra inning, it ran from 6:52 PM to 10:04 PM.
Then, it was off to The New York Public Library, at Fifth and 42nd, for a proper celebration of a memorable night in the theatre. Wine and bubbly welcomed those who trekked the four long blocks in the cold, and a salmon puree with garnish was also available. A fuller feed awaited at opposite ends of the first-floor corridors.
The joint was moodily lit — some would say romantically lit, others would say barely lit. In any event, it made celebrity-spotting pretty much a catch-as-catch-can chore.
The massive marble staircase winding to the library's second story resembles the one where the cast assembles for Phantom's Act Two curtain-raiser, "Masquerade."
Milling around emitting atmosphere were a half-dozen six-foot-tall-and-then-some male models, decked out in costumes actually worn in the show in years gone by. When asked, they claimed to be Paris Opera footmen of the Phantom vintage.
La Chanze, with Norm Lewis, was singing the show's praises at the party: "After 25 years, it's still moving and beautiful." Before Prince of Broadway (Hal's next Broadway show), she will put together a concert of her own — "a celebration of the music of Diana Ross," she said.
Prince was ensconced with his guests — plus Phyllis Newman and Das Barbecü wordsmith Jim Luigs — at a drafty table near the entranceway. The post-show activity was so smoothly staged that people wondered if he had had a hand in it.
"I was just an actor — they pushed me around," he said. So is it back to "Frank Lippencott"? Prince laughed and stuck his thumb up. (In 1953, after assistant stage-managing Tickets, Please! and Call Me Madam, he was made stage manager of Wonderful Town — but it meant understudying Cris Alexander's "Frank Lippencott.")
He turned producer the following year with his next endeavor, The Pajama Game, and 60 years of Broadway euphoria followed. Next year, he expects to be on Broadway, "revuing" the fragments of his famous past via Prince of Broadway. He said he and his co-director, choreographer Susan Stroman, start rehearsals this fall with Linda Lavin, Richard Kind, Sierra Boggess, La Chanze and Shuler Hensley.
And he still hopes to find "a big stage" for his other Stroman collaboration, Paradise Found, which tested the theatrical waters in 2010 in London's tiny Menier Chocolate Factory. Adapted by Richard Nelson from Joseph Roth's novel, "The Tale of the 1002nd Night," it starred McMartin as the Shah of Persia, Hensley as a baron and Mandy Patinkin as a eunuch; the female leads were Kate Baldwin and Judy Kaye.
Howard McGillin and Rebecca Luker, who just finished a successful two-week gig at Café Carlyle and who, in different years, did time in Phantom (McGillin, according to Guinness, longer than any other Phantom: 2,544 performances), dropped by. "We thought we would put in an appearance," said he, making a game stab at modesty.
All 12 of the Broadway Phantoms were represented in the anniversary-issue Playbill (available at PlaybillStore.com) with their half-masked mug-shots: Crawford (the Tony-winning original), Timothy Nolen, Cris Groenendaal, the late Steve Barton (who was the first Raoul), Kevin Gray (who attended with the wife he found among Phantom's ballerinas, Dodie Pettit), Mark Jacoby, Marcus Lovett, Davis Gaines (another Raoul starter), Thomas James O'Leary, Panaro, McGillin and John Cudia — plus the four limited engagement replacements: Jeff Keller, Ted Keegan, Brad Little and Gary Mauer.
Gaines made the Raoul-to-Phantom switch when he replaced Crawford in Los Angeles, and he pretty much settled out there, save for the two and a half years he spent playing Phantom on Broadway. In L.A., he has played everything from Hannibal Lecter in Silence! The Musical to Don Quixote in Man of La Mancha, winning a Best Actor in a Musical Ovation Award for the latter. Now, he's a week into his L.A. directing debut (the onetime collegiate Ali Hakim is staging an Oklahoma!).
Karimloo, the Iranian-born Canadian in the finale Phantom mix, played the Phantom for London's 25th anniversary and again in Phantom's low-flying sequel, Love Never Dies — and that's pretty much period and paragraph for him as far as Phantom goes: "No, I'm definitely not doing it in New York. My life with the Phantom is over."
Tiny Samantha Hill identified herself at the party as "the Christine alternate," meaning she goes in for Boggess on Monday evenings and Wednesday matinees, "but I'll be taking over in March," she vowed. Presumably, it will be a bloodless coup.
Madame Giry, the ballet mistress ruling the Opera House backstage with a big stick and a severe presence, turned out — in this production — to be a blonde. "I left the black hair at the theatre," explained Ellen Harvey. "Tonight was one for the bucket list! To be a part of something this big, to make history in the theatre is quite remarkable so I feel quite blessed to be a part of this company."
And, for a blonde, she remembered her roots — Leila Martin, who originated the role ("I've heard just incredible things about her. I've seen the original photographs and heard the original recording so she's one of those people I have in mind to meet.") and Gale Sondergaard ("Hal Prince asked me how many Gale Sondergaard movies I had to watch to get to Madame Giry. She wasn't a big star, but she was one of those great character actresses, and I'm thrilled when I'm compared to her.").
Kenneth Kantor, who played the Paris Opera manager being scared into a new line of work by the Phantom, allowed that it had been "a very, very long day, but, by the time we got to performing the show, it was just a lot of fun. It was really nice, looking out in the audience and seeing all these well-dressed people. You don't get that very often anymore." And it was even better that some of those faces belonged to Phantom alums. "It was sorta like a high school reunion, seeing all these people."
Instead of a matinee, the cast spent all day rehearsing the after-piece, which Lynne's choreographic assistant, Denny Berry, put in. "We spent a lot of time working on that, and we had to learn the music for it. There was a lot involved," Kantor said.
Actors' Equity prexy Nick Wyman, who specializes in musicals of this vintage (Les Misérables, A Tale of Two Cities), was, of course, in Phantom's original cast, playing the grumpy Monsieur Firmin to Groenendaal's Monsieur Andre — and he was, clearly, happy to be "home" again. "It's a joy to see my old pals from 25 years ago," he said. "People have a connection to shows when they do them. This is certainly one that runs deep. I did it for two years, and I feel very connected to all the people I did it with." He figured there were 100-plus ex-Phantomites at the performance.
George Lee Andrews, who put in 9,382 performances in Phantom and holds the Guinness World Record for the longest time an actor has spent in the same show, went directly into Lloyd Webber's Evita last September when he surrendered Monsieur Andre to his real-life son-in-law, Aaron Galligan-Stierle, and now he's hours into unemployment (Evita closed Saturday), but he's okay with that: "I've got a couple of one-shot things lined up but nothing permanent. I'm just going to relax a little bit and look around."
Gorgeous Boggess, fairing superbly for a The Little Mermaid out-of-water, professed to being in post-show heaven and probably was. "I had the most incredible evening," she trilled. "I loved coming out at the end and doing the finale, and the show itself was extraordinary. I'm in it for six weeks — well, five now. I'm here 'til March 2."
And next? "I'm really looking forward to Prince of Broadway because — don't you agree? — we need to keep honoring Hal as long as we can. After tonight, I was, like, 'This is the perfect time for that show to come.' I can't wait for that to happen."
Panaro dittoed that: "I feel so proud to be a part of theatrical history — and to be on the same stage with Harold Prince, for goodness sake. I mean, he's The Man. He gave me my first break as Raoul so the fact that I'm here 25 years later is because of him!"
In honor of this thrilling and historic occasion, Panaro pointedly altered the very last sung line of the show. Pointing directly to Prince who was standing beside him, he sang with great heart and gusto, "You alone have made our song take flight."
The maestro was caught off-guard and turned the loveliest shade of beet red.
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