This coming Sunday, The Phantom of the Opera celebrates the 25th birthday of its official opening in the West End at Her Majesty’s on October 9, 1986, but over the weekend it jumped the gun by a week with a special, three-performance only new staging at the Royal Albert Hall.
Last night’s performance was also broadcast to cinemas around the UK and the world - a friend even texted from the Ziegfeld Theatre in New York to say that he could see me, seated in the 8th row of the main arena floor in front of the stage.
If the Vegas version of the show calls itself Phantom - the Las Vegas Spectacular — and whose original star Sierra Boggess was coincidentally reprising her performance as Christine from that show here, having subsequently originated the same role in the London production of Love Never Dies — I was expecting this production to have out-Vegased Vegas.
And it certainly looked the case on entering the Albert Hall, with a vast chandelier shrouded but visible from below hanging over the arena, and the box seats, including box 5 that the Opera Ghost himself specifies be left empty for his exclusive use but the new managers fatally disregard, cleverly being extended out of the tiers of the Royal Albert Hall itself.
The venue has therefore been smartly conscripted as part of the lavish design brief here, and an elaborate and spectacular proscenium constructed at what is usually the stage orchestra end that pays explicit tribute to the late Maria Bjornson’s miraculous original designs that Andrew Lloyd Webber himself paid specific tribute to in an onstage speech at the end, saying that the success of the show would never have happened without her.
But other key parts of the design were merely conjured by projections, and I really missed, for instance, the magical journey that the Phantom and Christine make through a candle-lit lake to his lair. The real place to see this is in a theatre, not on projections; I longed for 3D glasses to make them seem more real! Sadly, too, that shrouded, very real chandelier doesn’t fall - even on film! (The closest it comes to falling is on the cover image to the show’s lavish souvenir brochure).
On the other hand, as an opportunity to hear a full-blooded, very 3D rendition of one of Lloyd Webber’s lushest, most operatic scores, this was hard to beat, with an ace cast of full-voiced principals. Ramin Karimloo - who created the role of the Phantom in Love Never Dies after a long stint in the role in the London production of the original Phantom, and a prior stint as Raoul as well - was a sensational Phantom, at once yearning and passionate.
And reunited with Sierra Boggess from Love Never Dies, they had a ready-made chemistry that can’t be faked. Boggess brings her shimmering soprano and simmering personality to Christine that makes her as mysterious as she is beautiful, rather than merely simpering. It was great, too, to see Hadley Fraser — currently playing Javert in Les Miserables — bringing a glorious voice and romantically tousled charm to Raoul, a role he’s not played before.
A final curtain call walk down saw a reunion of the surviving original London cast of The Phantom of the Opera, including Michael Crawford (who sadly didn’t sing) and Sarah Brightman. Lloyd Webber introduced Brightman as “my angel of music”; the show had, after all, been written for her when they were married to one another, and as the story of a composer in thrall to a vivacious soprano, it has always been hard not to draw parallels between life and art.
There was also a line-up of other Phantoms, including legends Colm Wilkinson and Anthony Warlow (who created the roles in Canada and Australia), and our own John Owen-Jones, who is currently back in the role and should be a legend. I suppose they could not invite all the Phantoms who’ve made their mark in the role over the years, but it would have been nice to see Peter Karrie and Howard McGillin, who have each played over 2,500 performances in the role from London, Canada and the Far East in the case of Karrie, and on Broadway in the case of McGillan.
It would also have been a good touch to have seen the world’s longest-serving Phantom cast member George Lee Andrews, who spent some 23 years in the Broadway incarnation, playing a total of some 9,382 performances in various roles, until his contract was not renewed last month, as I reported at the time.
There are, of course, plenty of ways to try to explain the phenomenon of The Phantom of the Opera and its amazing longevity: in last Saturday’s Daily Telegraph, Max Davidson suggested that “it is a textbook example of herd behaviour. If A, B and C are doing something, D, E and F have to do it, too” and went on to call it “The Mousetrap with tunes, a habit, a cultural ritual, a tourist attraction, Something You Have to Do While You Are in London.”
But it’s a lot more than an exercise in cultural hypnosis. It’s that rare thing, a show that crosses social and international barriers to speak to audiences genuinely and not just because everyone else is going anyway. I’m glad I went last night. But I want to see the show in the theatre again now. And after last night’s finale, John Owen-Jones is the man I want to see!