It is a West End icon: the white half-mask that stares out of posters for Phantom of the Opera. For more than 30 years, it’s been papered across town – a mark of the phenomenal ongoing success of the second longest-running musical in theatre history. The Phantom of the Opera is very much still here.
Based on the eponymous French novel, Andrew Lloyd Webber’s mega-musical opened at Her Majesty’s Theatre in 1986. Flushed with the success of Jesus Christ Superstar and Cats, the high-flying composer had wanted to turn his hand to a high romance and, searching for a story to set to music, he alighted on this one by Gaston Leroux. It seemed perfect and, with Charles Hart’s dark-hearted lyrics, Michael Crawford’s menacing and alluring central performance and a spectacular staging by Broadway legend Hal Prince that still holds up even now, Phantom was born. In its first year, it won two Olivier Awards and it’s since won two more – both by public votes.
Set in Paris’ grand opera house in 1881, The Phantom of the Opera unravels the mystery of a supposedly haunted theatrical house. When the latest production is derailed, its star storming out after one too many mishaps, chorus member Christine Daaé is promoted to the leading role – only to be snaffled away to a secret chamber by the masked phantom, a grotesquely disfigured composer, who claims to have specifically selected her to sing his arias.
This is a story full of twists and turns as the Phantom’s jealousy spirals out of control, setting him against Christine’s managers and suitors in a series of ever-more elaborate plots that swell to a monstrous crescendo.
The score itself is soaring, however – inspired by opera, but infused with modern pop. The title track is a gothic organ number that sends a chill through your spine – Sarah Brightman’s original recording reached number 7 in the UK charts – but there are other musical delights in the mix too. The Phantom’s own number ‘The Music of the Night’ is as eerie as it is tender, while ‘All I Ask of You’ is an absolute melter of a love song.