Ramin Karimloo in ‘The Phantom of the Opera’ at Royal Albert Hall. (Photo provided by Think Jam.)
By Matthew Wexler
The auto-reverse Walkman was a gamechanger for a 1980s musical theater geek staying up way past his bedtime on a school night. It meant that I could listen to the entire first act of The Phantom of the Opera double cassette, original cast recording without a flip.
I felt the same kind of surge watching the recent streaming of the epically produced 25th-anniversary production staged in 2011 at London Royal Albert Hall, which appeared for a limited, 48-hour period on the YouTube channel, The Shows Must Go On!
Launched by Universal Pictures Home Entertainment Content Group (UPHE), the channel is sharing free content for viewers in light of the COVID-19 pandemic, including a selection of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musicals. (Jesus Christ Superstar and Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat have previously aired.)
The screenings are also raising money for The Actors Fund. The Phantom of the Opera raised $400,000. Since March 18, The Actors Fund has distributed nearly $5,000,000 to over 3,750 people who work in performing arts and entertainment to help provide emergency financial assistance for those in need.
Though I listened to those cassettes until the tape wore out, astonishingly, I never saw The Phantom of the Opera until I was well into my 40s and my teenage nephew came to New York City for a visit. Phantom was on the top of his list, and it was easy enough to secure premium seats at an affordable price, sandwiched between the packed house of international tourists clamoring to see the longest-running musical in Broadway history.
It held up. Of course, the only thing I had to compare it to was the adolescent version in my head. Besides the clunky chandelier, Maria Björnson’s lush scenic design and costumes were as captivating as I had imagined. Webber has often acknowledged how important the designer’s work was to the musical’s vision, in addition to direction by Harold Prince and choreography by Gillian Lynne.
Years later, I returned to the Majestic Theatre to witness the show’s 30th anniversary on Broadway. Phantom had grown up a bit, catching up to the times with an international and multicultural cast featuring Platinum-selling Swedish recording artist Peter Jöback as the Phantom, Ali Ewoldt as the first Asian-American to play Christine and Rodney Ingram, a dual citizen of Mexico and the United States, as Raoul. The evening ended with wild-maned Sarah Brightman (the original Christine) and the kids of School of Rock belting out the title song.
The fully staged, Royal Albert Hall production reimagined Björnson’s original vision for the 5,200-seat concert hall utilizing massive LED screens, though the costumes flourish in all their 19th century-meets-Las Vegas glory. Ramin Karimloo and Sierra Boggess as the Phantom and Christine deliver camera-ready performances, and it’s to the credit of directors Nick Morris and Laurence Connor that the 200-member acting company strikes a delicate balance between theatrics and intimacy.
The filmed version also shines a spotlight on the often-overlooked lyrics of collaborator Charles Hart, tasked with turning Gaston Leroux’s sprawling novel (originally serialized) into a digestible work for commercial audiences. In Act II, Christine, torn between her love for Raoul and her fear of the Phantom, returns to her father’s grave for guidance, singing:
Wishing you were
Somehow here again
Wishing you were
Sometimes it seemed
If I just dreamed
Somehow you would
In our new world of social distancing, the haunting refrain has new meaning. We have yet to know when curtains will rise once again. But the wish has never been stronger.
This weekend’s production on The Shows Must Go On! is Love Never Dies, the sequel to The Phantom of the Opera. The musical takes place 10 years after the Phantom’s disappearance amid the lights and bustle of Coney Island as he, once again, tries to win Christine’s love. The full-length musical production will be made available free of charge beginning Friday, April 24, 2 p.m. EST for 48 hours.