NEW YORK -- 'Phantom of the Opera,' Broadway's all-time musical hit before it even opened, lived up to the acclaim that preceded it from its original London production in its debut at the Majestic Theater.
Based on a 77-year-old French novel that inspired three Hollywood movies, Andrew Lloyd Webber's quasi-opera was hailed Tuesday by its opening night audience with a standing, shouting ovation headed by Mayor Ed Koch and hundredsof formally clad notables.
In the first night audience were many show business greats, including Gwen Verdon, Adolph Green, and Betty Comden, real estate tycoon Donald Trump, fashion designers Pauline Trigere and Donald Brooks, and opera impresario Beverly Sills.
'Phantom' sold more than $17 million worth of tickets before the curtain went up at the formal opening after nearly four weeks of previews, setting a Broadway and world theatrical record for advance sales. The price of tickets, the first Broadway production to command $50 tops for all performances, has recently risen sharply on the black market from $100 to $250.
'I'm nervous, numb, frightened and happy,' Lloyd Webber told United Press International during the show's intermission, referring not only to his apprehensions about how the show would appeal to American critics but also to the casting controversy over his wife, Sarah Brightman, who stars as Christine opposite Michael Crawford as the Phantom whose face is partially hidden in a white half-mask.
It was not just a test of Lloyd Webber's continuing record of success on Broadway after such hits as 'Evita,' 'Cats,' and 'Starlight Express,' but also of the leading lady quality of Brightman, who originated the role of Christine in London in 1986.
Actors Equity, the American theatrical union, had tried to keep Brightman from coming to Broadway on the grounds that she did not have the same star status as some American actresses who could do the role.
This was resolved by a compromise, but no one needed to have worried about Brightman's star quality. She is a beautiful young woman with affecting acting ability and a crystalline voice that has a sharply etched edge and ample volume. She will continue in the show here for six months, according to an agreement between producer Cameron Mackintosh and Equity.
This is one of the most beautiful stage productions of all time, created by British opera designer Maria Bjornson, and one of the most skillfully directed, thanks to the legendary talents of Broadway's Harold Prince, who also directed the London production. The movement of stage elements and the cast is seamlessly integrated.
The Majestic Theater has been transformed at a cost of several millions into the stage of the Paris Opera, its roof, its grand staircase, its subterranean lake and the Phantom's lair. Explosions of gilded sculptural groups frame the proscenium, the central one forming a chariot for the Phantom, and the crystal chandelier is cleverly wired to 'crash' over the audience at the end of Act 1.
There are many memorable scenes musically supported by Lloyd Webber's brilliantly orchestrated score including such songs as 'Angel of Music,' 'The Music of the Night,' 'All I Ask of You,' 'Masquerade,' and 'The Point of No Return' that demonstrate his own way with melody while drawing unabashedly from musical styles of the past, notably Gilbert and Sullivan and Puccini.
Memorable are the a grandiose Victorian production of a fictional opera, 'Hannibal,' complete with an animated elephant, the glamorous masquerade ball with costumes from myth and history, the satirical put-on of a 'The Marriage of Figaro' and the stage premiere of the Phantom's own operatic composition, 'Don Juan Triumphant.' The gondola scene on the misty lake beneath the opera house is enchanting.
There are flaws but none that endanger the show's general high level. There could have been some editing, perhaps even of the entire graveyard scene, which is muddled, and the lyrics of Charles Hart could have had more polish.
In addition to Crawford and Brightman, Steve Barton, a handsome, fulsom-voiced American actor making his Broadway debut in the role of Christine's lover, Raoul, and Judy Kaye as the mannered, stentorian prima donna, Carlotta, are outstanding in an altogether excellent cast. Leila Martin makes much of the minor but pivotal role of the ballet mistress, Mme. Giry.
The book by Richard Stilgoe, who also provided additional lyrics, captures the essence of the Gaston Leroux novel but it remains for Crawford to humanize the title role, a Grand Guignol character stained with blood.
With surpassing grace, Crawford is able to endow the Phantom with nobility in the exile imposed on him by physical monstrosity and with tenderness in his love for Christine.
Crawford, in his white half-mask, is the Phantom for our generation, just as Lon Chaney was for our grandparents, and Claude Rains was for our parents.