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Music lessons of the night

How Lloyd Webber's tuner became B'way's longest-running show

B’WAY’S TOP 10
Phantom 7,486 perfs *
Cats 7,485 (closed 9/10/00)
Les Miz 6,680 (5/18/03)
Oh! Calcutta! 5,959 (8/6/89)
Beauty and the Beast 4,815 *
Miss Saigon 4,097 (1/28/01)
Rent 4,033 *
Chicago 3,810 *
42nd Street 3,486 (1/8/89)
The Lion King 3,403 *
*as of 1/9/06, show still running

It was early summer 1984, as producer Cameron Mackintosh remembers it, when the composer Andrew Lloyd Webber first called to suggest doing “The Phantom of the Opera” as a musical. “I thought that was quite a good idea,” says Mackintosh, all but smiling down a phone line at the memory. And the rest, as they say, is history: an international musical blockbuster that has also become a cultural behemoth, leveling most of the competish — from whatever discipline — in its multibillion-dollar path.

Were there no glitches along the way, or was it smooth sailing throughout? The answer, as ever, is a mixture of both: a show, budgeted at the time at £2 million (about $2.6 million), that director Hal Prince speaks of as trouble-free from beginning to end, even as the show fended off naysayers, questions about the material’s viability and debate as to who the appropriate director should be.

That last discussion was triggered when the musical’s first act was performed in 1985 at Sydmonton, the country estate where Lloyd Webber holds his annual summer fest. Recalls Lloyd Webber: “Cameron felt rather strongly at the time, and unsurprisingly, that Trevor (Nunn) should direct it (in its eventual West End run), and I always felt very strongly Hal (Prince) should.” The reasons for the split in opinion: Nunn had hit pay dirt for Mackintosh (and, in the first instance, Lloyd Webber) helming “Cats” and “Les Miserables,” but Lloyd Webber thought his “Evita” helmer, Prince, was the man for the job.

“You can’t explain it, can you?” says Lloyd Webber. “It’s so difficult after the event. I just had a feeling Hal would be great with this.”

Mackintosh elaborates: “Between those two great directors, Andrew’s instinct was right: Hal’s genius is pictorial. He took what (designer) Maria Bjornson” — who was onboard before the show had firmed up a helmer — “had already invented and took it to another stage.”

According to Prince, “Phantom” had an angst-free journey to its October 1986 West End preem. “We were all on the same page; that’s what makes ‘Phantom’ perhaps unique. Most of the work was done before rehearsals, and an awful lot of very intensive work.” So smooth were preparations over 4½ weeks that Prince saw no need to return to the rehearsal room after lunch. “That’s how well-prepared we were,” he recalls.

Not that the venture was entirely risk-free. For one thing, says Mackintosh, the show boasted a star in Michael Crawford who wasn’t inevitable casting in the eyes of some. “Michael was the biggest star in the West End at the moment, but they didn’t want to see their beloved Michael Crawford in this kind of show. They didn’t think he could do it.”

What’s more, adds Mackintosh, “Phantom” moved into Her Majesty’s Theater, occasioning what the producer calls “the tech from hell.”

“I do remember Hal screeching, ‘Where are the rats? Where are the rats?’ ” says Mackintosh. It’s an effect that was ultimately dropped from the finished show. (“They can do the rats in Vegas,” Mackintosh says with a laugh, referring to the tuner’s upcoming bow there.)

The dress rehearsal, too, says Mackintosh, was “an underwhelming affair. I remember several friends saying, ‘Well, that one’s gone.’ It was like winding up a clock: You saw all the joins.” Then came the first preview and, adds the producer, “From that first public performance, the show never faltered. There were no hysterical rewrites — just shaping and refining.”

The tuner opened to an advance of less than $1.3 million, jumping quickly within a month of its preem to $3 million.

In a bizarre footnote, Mackintosh recalls that the show the industry was clamoring for at the time, prior to “Phantom,” was his production of “Cafe Puccini,” which was offered the Wyndham’s Theater on the West End and the Booth on Broadway. In the end “Cafe Puccini” lasted six weeks at Wyndham’s and never made it to Broadway, while “Phantom” continues to run in both London and New York. “That’s what makes the theater the theater,” says Mackintosh. And it is what makes “Phantom of the Opera” the singular phenomenon it remains today.

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