Benet Catty Productions

The Phantom of the Opera - 30th Birthday (WE 2016)

Oct 9, 2016

Her Majesty's

Three of the monolithic musicals of the 1980s have reached major anniversaries in recent times. Two years ago, Miss Saigon reached its 25th birthday, which it celebrated with a special performance of its revival that has now been broadcast in cinemas and is available on DVD. Last year (and reviewed here) Les Miserables celebrated its 30th anniversary with a gala at the Queens Theatre that it has occupied for almost half of that huge unbroken run.

Now, The Phantom of the Opera - arguably the most famous musical of all - reaches the same mighty milestone. It had its own gala last month at Her Majesty's, the theatre it has occupied since it opened in 1986.

It was a show that opened a year and a day after Les Miz at a time when The Communards were number 1, Mrs Thatcher was midway through her premiership, and Andrew and Fergie had just got married.

Andrew Lloyd Webber was then an unparalleled colossus of the British theatre. Jesus Christ Superstar was, in 1986, the longest running musical in British history with what seemed like an unbeatable 8-year run. Evita had just closed after 7 years. Cats was 5 years into what would become a 21 year run. Starlight Express was 2 years in to its 18. For years, it was impossible to get tickets for Phantom. Famously, there were times when you had to book 18 months ahead.

What he'd give to have that success now. Stephen Ward, his last offering, was a low point artistically and commercially. School of Rock, soon to open at the London Palladium following its triumph on Broadway, should do better.

Attending Phantom's gala in October, the thing one most immediately registers is that it refuses to date; how could it, when it was ravishingly old-fashioned in the first place. Maria Bjornson's legendary design largely involves curtains, candles and dingy diagonal shafts of light. It feels, and looks, authentically Victorian. Even the lake scenes in which candleabras rise out of the floor are using period mechanics which already existed under the stage. In the modern theatre, projection is the key to all designs. Not so with Phantom. Some of the technology is contemporary but all of the achievement is period.

One of the reasons Phantom still works is that the story is simple and primal. It's Beauty and the Beast set in the Paris Opera House. An innocent young opera singer, Christine Daee, is being tutored by a mysterious music teacher who lives in the basement of the theatre and whose face is covered by a mask. His interest in his muse is not just musical, his hold over the opera house (on which he inflicts all manner of murders and mysteries) is not just proprietorial. Where the original Gaston Leroux novel (by no means a masterpiece) is primarily a horror story, Lloyd Webber adapted it into a high romance focusing on the love triangle between The Phantom, Christine and the eligible Raoul.

Lloyd Webber's score still delivers the goods. From the famous five-note descending scale which is its signature refrain, to the famous Music of the Night (a song about sex, not music) and his Richard Rodgers-inflected All I Ask of You (originally covered by Cliff Richard, also in attendance at the gala), Phantom allows him to indulge two of his greatest gifts, the swell of a big romantic melody and his gift for pastiche.

The production by legendary American director Harold Prince is still a wonderful fluid sequence of moving tableaux and beautiful gothic images. It provides class where so many musicals bring just camp. It has grace, when many others offer vulgarity. And it still boasts the largest orchestra of any West End musical, when many rely on keyboard simulations. If the voices of the current leads are weaker than many I've seen in the show over the years, this does little to detract from the brilliance of the material they're singing.

For the 30th birthday, Lloyd Webber and producer Cameron Mackintosh (also the producer of Les Miserables, Miss Saigon and Cats) took to the stage to give speeches; Michael Ball (the second ever Raoul) performed the big love song with the two current stars, and Sierra Boggess - perhaps the best recent interpreter of the role of Christine sang Wishing You Were Somehow Here Again in French and the original company took a bow, lead by the original Phantom Michael Crawford.

One of the magical things about the show and the character is how little The Phantom actually appears on stage: maybe half an hour in a two and a half hour evening. Much of the character lies in the mystery. The endurance of Phantom as a show, though, is no mystery at all. It won't be vanishing into the shadows for a long time yet.

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