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What Broadway Learned From ‘The Phantom of the Opera’

There’s an alternate-universe version of Broadway where “The Phantom of the Opera” closed in 2002.

Mega-producer Cameron Mackintosh considered pulling the plug back then. “Not only Broadway but also London,” he said. “The business hadn’t collapsed or anything, but it was starting to look like that graph that goes down. We all had a theory that we should think about a great last hurrah for the last six months and then close.”

It didn’t close, of course — the Andrew Lloyd Webber blockbuster is doing better than ever on Broadway, with grosses in 2017 up 20% compared with 2016 and attendance up 15%. The longest-running show on Broadway by far, “Phantom” just threw a posh gala at the Rainbow Room to celebrate its 30th birthday.

The show got there by being the first to do a lot of the things that are now standard operating procedure for its fellow long-running musicals. Here’s what “Phantom” taught Broadway.

Keep It Fresh 

As both the “Phantom” team and industry colleagues note, Mackintosh, Lloyd Webber and director Harold Prince pay a lot of attention to making sure what’s onstage looks and sounds as good as it did when the show opened in 1988. Casting is still rigorous; producers replaced the theater’s sound system in 2008; and according to general manager Aaron Lustbader, new principal cast members get unusually robust rehearsal support with orchestra calls and full costumes. It’s a precedent-setting standard of maintenance.

Travel Well 

Along with fellow Mackintosh- produced musicals “Cats” (also by Lloyd Webber) and “Les Misérables” “Phantom” was among the first to go big around the world with replica productions that aimed to hit the same quality standards as shows on Broadway and the West End. It’s a hugely complicated process that can encompass freight costs, visas and a degree of production flexibility to be able to play markets that don’t yet have state-of-the-art opera houses. “It is really their template that so many of us have followed,” said Thomas Schumacher, president of Disney Theatrical Group (“Lion King,” “Aladdin” and the upcoming “Frozen”).

Embrace Iconography

After its world premiere in London in 1986, “Phantom” arrived in New York with the bold, simple advertising image of the mask and the shattered-glass typeface. Broadway marketers leaned into it, and the show began to take out print ads with just the mask, or just the broken-glass word “Phantom,” sans full title. The confidence helped the show become a global brand — just as similarly iconic images of a lion’s head and secret-sharing witches did for “Lion King” and “Wicked,” and a silhouetted star is doing for “Hamilton.”

Even a So-So Movie Can Help A Show 

The 2004 movie adaptation of “The Phantom of the Opera” got a critical thumbs-down and had mixed fortunes at the global box office. But reviews referring back to the original show, plus a big-budget Hollywood marketing campaign that echoed the musical’s, propelled audiences to start returning to “Phantom.”

Switch Up Show Times

Most of Broadway is dark on Mondays — but not “Phantom,” which has played that night for its whole run. The show also was among the first to give the Thursday matinee a try, and continues to benefit from offering vacationing theatergoers a different time option.

“It is really their template that so many of us have followed.”
Thomas Schumacher, Disney Theatrical Group

Play Around With Pricing 

These days every show has its own version of dynamic pricing, but Mackintosh shows like “Phantom” were among the first to experiment with it, fueling traffic with lower prices during slow winter weeks. The production has also had luck with a low price point that’s helped get people in the door and fill up the back rows of the mezzanine.

Landmark Yourself

After about 20 years, a long-running title starts to become as much of a must-see New York landmark as the Empire State Building or Rockefeller Center. That makes it a go-to choice for tourists and for new audiences checking out their first Broadway show.

Think Global — and Local 

Domestic and international tourists are the lifeblood of any long-standing musical — but sometimes, so are New Yorkers. Perhaps the most surprising factoid about “Phantom” today: Locals still turn out for it. Depending on the time of year, almost 40% of audiences come from close by.

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