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As "Phantom of the Opera" Comes to Memphis, Andrew Lloyd Webber Recalls Its Premiere

Sixteen years ago, Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber and Charles Hart’s “The Phantom of the Opera” became the longest-running show in Broadway history, surpassing the 7,485 performances of Webber’s “now and forever” “Cats.” On January 26, POTO continues its reign into a fourth decade, seemingly “now and forever.”
POTO, produced by Cameron Mackintosh (“Mary Poppins,” “Les Miserables,” “Miss Saigon,” “Cats”) and Webber’s Really Useful Company, is not only one of the most successful Broadway road shows ever—it’s also one of the largest. This new production, co-produced with NETworks Presentations and as dazzling and dramatic as the original, launched in November 2013. It returns to Memphis’ majestic and historic Orpheum Theatre November 29 through December 10.
The musical first took Memphis by storm in November 1997, with thousands of theatergoers from throughout the region making it a sold-out smash. It returned to the Orpheum by popular demand in 2001and 2014.
The Tony Award-winning Best Musical has additional lyrics by Richard Stilgoe, who co-wrote the book with Webber based on Gaston Leroux’s “Le Fantôme de L’Opéra.” The classic story tells of a masked madman, terribly disfigured from a fire at the Paris Opera, who lurks beneath the catacombs of the building (which actually exist, along with, as depicted in the show, an underground lake) and inflicts terror on all. He falls madly in love with soprano Christine and devotes himself to creating a new star, employing all manner of the devious methods at his command. That includes murder and, when he doesn’t get his way, crashing a massive chandelier onto audiences.
It’s estimated this reimagining of the romantic thriller has been seen by over 2.5 million people across the country. The new product features reinvented staging by director Laurence Connor (Broadway’s “School of Rock” and “Miss Saigon” revival) and scenic design by Paul Brown.
The tour, with choreography by Scott Ambler and lighting by Tony Award winner Paule Constable, has a cast of 30, an eight-member corps de ballet, and a 14-piece orchestra under musical supervisor John Rigby, making it one of the largest productions on the road.
Tenor Derrick Davis stars as the infamous masked Phantom. He appeared on Broadway and on tour as Mufasa in “The Lion King” and regionally as Curtis Taylor Jr. in “Dreamgirls.” His CD, “Life Music,” is available on Amazon. For a preview of his stunning voice, check out: Derrick Davis sings “The Music of the Night” from “The Phantom of the Opera.”
Canada’s Eva Tavares, portraying Christine Daaé, the ingénue at the center of POTO’s love triangle, is a triple-treat talent: singer, actress and choreographer. In March, she was featured in the Toronto world premiere of “Sousatzka,” a musical by three-time Tony Award nominee Craig Lucas (especially known for The Light in the Piazza) and the composing team of Tony Award winner Richard Maltby, Jr. (lyrics) and Academy Award winner David Shire, based on the 1962 novel, “Madame Sousatzka.”
In the role of the debonair, love-smitten Vicomte de Chagny Raoul is Texan Jordan Craig, who received training and has performed many roles with the Houston Grand Opera.
In January, POTO will surpass 12,500 performances before an estimated 18 million at Broadways’ Majestic Theatre, where it opened in 1988 with a then-record advance of $18 million. Two years earlier it premiered on London’s West End, where it’s still thriving.
A world-wide theatrical blockbuster, it’s estimated that 140 million people in 35 countries (15 languages) have surrendered to what many feel is Webber’s best score. The two-disk original cast album spent five years on trade charts, and a single-disc highlights recording spent over six years on Billboard’s Pop Album chart.
Back in 1984, as the show was premiering on London’s West End, advance sales and preview audience reaction suggested an unstoppable hit. Webber, on the other hand, was far from certain, even after blockbuster hits “Jesus Christ Superstar,” “Cats” and “Evita.”
“I wish I could say I had the best time of my life during those heady days,” he states. “‘Phantom’ is the only show I’ve done that was entirely unchanged during previews. Our brilliant director, Hal Prince, was so certain we’d be a hit that he suggested we take a holiday and return for the opening.”
“At openings,” he continues, “even when you feel you have the public with you, you’re at your most vulnerable. I couldn’t bear to sit through the show.”
Cameron Mackintosh, a co-producer with Webber’s Really Useful Company, found him and got him back for the curtain call. Amid the thunderous applause, Webber yearned to have loved ones around him.
But then-wife, Sarah Brightman, playing Christine, was onstage basking in audience adulation with her Phantom, Michael Crawford. “While all were celebrating,” Webber says, “I felt alone and frightened.”
It didn’t help when the first review, by the London Sunday Times critic, came out and simply read “Masked balls.” States Webber, with the memory still vividly ablaze, “Those were the only words. Most composers, let alone producers, would be suicidal to receive a notice such as that. Amazingly, it didn’t faze [co-producer] Cameron [Mackintosh] one bit.”
Ever the optimist, Mackintosh telephoned “while having a jolly good breakfast” and, in a fortuitous prediction, told Webber, “Nothing any reviewer writes can alter the fact that Phantom has chimed with audiences.”
Webber, was used to critical snipes. He points out POTO’s reviews “were wildly polarized between those who really did or really wouldn’t surrender to the music of the night.” What was most upsetting was ruinous gossip that Brightman, an alumna of the West End “Cats” production, who’d been onstage since her teens, got the role because she was his wife.
“The fine line between success and failure is perilously small,” says Webber. “I’m struck 30 years hence with the phenomenon ‘Phantom’ has become. Much credit goes to the [Tony Award-winning] late Maria Björnson for her opulent design and costumes. And would another choreographer have understood the period as well as former prima ballerina Dame Gillian Lynne (“Cats”)? Many said the chandelier moment could never work. It turns out to be the most theatrical moment I ever conceived—a moment that can only be achieved in live theater.”
Harold Prince, the legendary, multi Tony Award-winning director of the West End and Broadway productions, says he was instantly hooked on the idea that Leroux’s classic was musical material. “To my surprise, Andrew’s initial idea for the score was to use famous classical works and write only incidental music. Much to my delight, he later decided on an entirely original score – one of his greatest.”
“However,” Prince adds, “the superlative score wasn’t Andrew’s only contribution to ‘Phantom’s’ success. It was his instinct to take the story one step further and make the emotional center of the show a love triangle. That struck a chord with audiences. It’s the crucial difference between our musical, the novel and other versions of the story.”
The Phantom of the Opera has won more than 70 theater awards, including seven 1988 Tony Awards and three London Olivier Awards. Since 2010, it’s become one of the most accessible musicals of all time, with hundreds of high school and university productions licensed through R&H [Rodgers & Hammerstein] Theatricals.
Tickets for the Memphis engagement of POTO are available at the Orpheum box office or by calling (901) 525-3000, www.orpheum-memphis.com, and via Ticketmaster, where service fees will apply.
Trivia: As anyone who’s toured the Paris Opera has seen, there’s a private box
reserved only for the Phantom at every performance – just as he demands in the musical.

Interested in how Memphis’ Orpheum first got “The Phantom of the Opera” and other big musicals, such as “Les Miserables” and “Miss Saigon”? Check out their video: https://www.facebook.com/theorpheum/videos/10154789869450947/.

Ellis Nassour is an Ole Miss alum and noted arts journalist and author who recently donated an ever-growing exhibition of performing arts history to the University of Mississippi. He is the author of the best-selling Patsy Cline biography, Honky Tonk Angel, as well as the hit musical revue, Always, Patsy Cline.
Production photos by Matthew Murphy and Alastair Muir.

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