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How ‘The Phantom of the Opera’ became the classic of musical theater

Thirty-five years, three months and two days ago, a gavel smacked, electricity crackled and a chandelier rose over the audience of the Majestic Theatre for the first of what would become 13,981 performances.

The final curtain call of "The Phantom of the Opera" on Broadway; April 16, 2023 (Photo credit: Ruthie Fierberg)

Thirty-five years, three months and two days ago, a gavel smacked, electricity crackled and a chandelier rose over the audience of the Majestic Theatre for the first of what would become 13,981 performances. On January 9, 1988 — the first preview of “The Phantom of the Opera” — Broadway was forever changed.

Director Harold Prince’s vision — combined with Richard Stilgoe’s book, Charles Hart’s lyrics and Andrew Lloyd Webber’s music, spiritualized through Lloyd Webber and David Cullen’s orchestrations and Gillian Lynne’s choreography and enlivened via Maria Björnson’s costume and scenic design, Andrew Bridge’s lighting design and Martin Levan’s sound design — brought the epic story of an ostracized genius, his muse and her lover to the stage.

Since then, more than 20 million people have seen “The Phantom of the Opera” in its Broadway home. It was spectacular and quiet, fantastical and grounded. In its balance of grandeur and simplicity, it became not only a classic of the musical theater canon but a symbol for Broadway itself.

“When these shows are really wonderful successes, I think all the stars have to align, everything has to work,” said Laird Mackintosh, who played the Phantom at the final performance on April 16. “This show is pitch perfect and comes together seamlessly. I think that’s why it’s been so special.”

“This is the grandfather of Broadway — in a good way,” said John Riddle, who played Raoul. “It’s the standard for what the scale of a show can be. It’s the end of an era.”

Perhaps the greatest magic of “Phantom” is that it lasted 35 years — surviving cultural shifts, evolutions of values and changing audience perspectives. It is a classic in the purest sense. But how did this musical achieve that?

“It touches on all human emotions all the way through,” said Sarah Brightman, who originated the role of Christine Daaé. “I think that people all over the world — we’re all human beings — are able to identify with so many things within it.”

“Because it’s about love,” added Nehal Joshi, who played Monsieur André at the grand finale. “We all want to love. And it’s different kinds of love: unrequited love, requited love, people who love theater — like I do as André, who loves opera — to the point that that’s their living. In its way, their spouse is opera.

He continued, “It’s also about: All of us have a little part of us that feels like the Phantom, that maybe feels they can never be loved by anyone, and we come to this place to get in touch with our inner child, our inner feelings — and also to see the spectacle and enjoy the whole pageantry of us.”

Contrast comes up over and over again — almost as if it were the musical’s guiding philosophy. And when you speak to the people who brought “Phantom” to life, it becomes clear that the all-encompassing feeling of witnessing the musical emanated from a seamless vacillation between pomp and stillness.

As the title character, Mackintosh noted that the moment he most savored in the entire show is the magnificent lullaby “The Music of the Night.” “Not because it’s easy to sing,” he urged. “I love the moment because Andrew Lloyd Webber cooks up and composes up a storm before the stillness of that song, and he makes the song twice as potent because of what’s come before it. And I love the moment of absolute silence and stillness right before that piece begins.”

Within its lavish score and in Prince’s direction, the suspension of moments throughout “Phantom” forced you to lean in. As Brightman said, “In its silence and its beauty of staying still, you give out so much.”

As the company bowed and the final notes of that 28-piece orchestra hung in the air, producer Cameron Mackintosh and composer Andrew Lloyd Webber thanked the thousands of artists who worked on the show for more than three decades and the audiences who came to see it. There is no doubt “Phantom” will return some day — producer Mackintosh has been clear that all the classics come back. But when it does, it will never be this exact production with its brimming orchestra pit and remote-controlled boat.

Whether in five years or 50, when “Phantom” returns, no doubt it will be grand but, for now, the mask has been worn for the final time and we, its public, must revel in the stillness and suspense before what comes next.