Just the other day I noticed a news squib saying that “Phantom of the Opera”, the musical, is finally shuffling off into the shadows of theatre history after thirty five years on the job, as it were. Thirty five years on the stage with many Phantoms, many Christines over the years. I don’t know why I thought it was immortal but somehow it felt like it was – and the idea of a world where there isn’t a lavish production playing on some stage somewhere – Broadway and the West End barren of the iconic mask – feels, well, just weird.
Phantom of the Opera was the exotic night flower full flowering of the age of the grand musical. I remember seeing it almost accidentally in London when I was there by myself one time, and saw that the box office at the theatre was open, and you could get cheap tickets that were returns or otherwise available at short notice so I went and asked if they had one single seat somewhere and they did and so I saw Phantom on the West End stage. There was what looked like a pile of detritus on the stage and it was odd – it looked like someone had forgotten to clean up after dress rehearsal or something. But then the show, almost imperceptibly, began, with the pile on the stage – “a chandelier in pieces” -becoming a part of an ongoing “auction” – the “auctioneer” informing us all archly that this was in fact the very chandelier that featured in the “famous disaster”. And then he uttered these lines which I remember as clearly as if I were sitting in my red plush theatre seat right now: “…it has now been fitted out for electric light. Perhaps the ghosts of so many years ago can be chased away with a little ILLUMINATION, gentlemen!” At this point the famous sweeping chords of the Phantom intro blossomed in their full majesty… and the chandelier picked itself up, pulled itself together, blazed into glory, and SWUNG OUT INTO THE THEATER OVER THE AUDIENCE.
I will never forget this moment. It was pure showmanship. And the show had me, and the music had me, and Phantom became part of me.
I saw the live show at least once more, that I can recall. I saw many more stage musicals on stage, since. I saw Chess. I saw Cats. I saw Les Miz SEVEN TIMES. Musical theatre on stage was something that was simply a part of my cultural worldview. There are of course moments in all of those musicals which I recall vividly many years after I have seen them happen – but few of them match the sheer verve and drama of that chandelier.
It already feels like all of it – all of these grand musicals – is part of a vanishing era, and some day some future generation will see them as archaic, the same way some see opera now. It’s all going going gone… but oh my word what a ride it was while it lasted.
If you will excuse me I think I will go play my Phantom CDs tonight. The lights on the stage may be going dark… but for me it will never quite be over, the music of the night.