By Mark Kennedy
The final curtain came down Sunday on New York's production of “The Phantom of the Opera,” ending Broadway’s longest-running show with thunderous standing ovations, champagne toasts and gold and silver confetti bursting from its famous chandelier.
It was show No. 13,981 at the Majestic Theatre and it ended with a reprise of “The Music of the Night” performed by the current cast, previous actors in the show — including original star Sarah Brightman — and crew members in street clothes.
Andrew Lloyd Webber took to the stage last in a black suit and black tie and dedicated the final show to his son, Nick, who died last month after a protracted battle with gastric cancer and pneumonia. He was 43.
“When he was a little boy, he heard some of this music,” Lloyd Webber said. Brightman, holding his hand, agreed: “When Andrew was writing it, he was right there. So his son is with us. Nick, we love you very much.”
Producer Cameron Mackintosh gave some in the crowd hope they would see the Phantom again, and perhaps sooner than they think.
“The one question I keep getting asked again and again — will the Phantom return? Having been a producer for over 55 years, I've seen all the great musicals return, and ‘Phantom’ is one of the greatest,” he said. “So it's only a matter of time.”
The musical — a fixture on Broadway since opening on Jan. 26, 1988 — has weathered recessions, war, terrorism and cultural shifts. But the prolonged pandemic may have been the last straw: It's a costly musical to sustain, with elaborate sets and costumes as well as a large cast and orchestra. The curtain call Sunday showed how out of step “Phantom” is with the rest of Broadway but also how glorious a big, splashy musical can be.
“If there ever was a bang, we’re going out with a bang. It’s going to be a great night,” said John Riddle just before dashing inside to play Raoul for the final time.
Based on a novel by Gaston Leroux, “Phantom” tells the story of a deformed composer who haunts the Paris Opera House and falls madly in love with an innocent young soprano, Christine. Webber’s lavish songs include “Masquerade,” ″Angel of Music” and ″All I Ask of You."
In addition to Riddle, the New York production said goodbye with Emilie Kouatchou as Christine and Laird Mackintosh stepping in for Ben Crawford as the Phantom. Crawford was unable to sing because of a bacterial infection but was cheered at the curtain call, stepping to the side of the stage. The Phantom waved him over to stand beside him, Riddle and Kouatchou.
There was a video presentation of many of the actors who had played key roles in the show over the years, and the orchestra seats were crowded with Christines, Raouls and Phantoms. The late director Hal Prince, choreographer Gillian Lynne and set and costume designer Maria Björnson were also honored.
Lin-Manuel Miranda attended, as did Glenn Close, who performed in two separate Broadway productions of Lloyd Webber's “Sunset Boulevard.” Free champagne was offered at intermission and flutes of it were handed out onstage at the curtain call.
Riddle first saw “The Phantom of the Opera” in Toronto as a 4-year-old child. “It was the first musical I ever saw. I didn't know what a musical was,” he said. “Now, 30-some odd years later, I'm closing the show on Broadway. So it's incredible.”
Kouatchou, who became the first Black woman in the role in New York, didn't think the show would ever stop. “I was like, ‘OK, I’m going to do my run, ‘Phantom' is going to continue on and they'll be more Christines of color,' ” she said. “But this is it.”
The first production opened in London in 1986 and since then the show has been seen by more than 145 million people in 183 cities and performed in 17 languages over 70,000 performances. On Broadway alone, it has grossed more than $1.3 billion.
When “Phantom" opened in New York, “Die Hard” was in movie theaters, Adele was born, and floppy discs were at the cutting edge of technology. A postage stamp cost 25 cents, and the year's most popular songs were “Roll With It” by Steve Winwood, “Faith” by George Michael and Rick Astley's “Never Gonna Give You Up.”
Critics were positive, with the New York Post calling it “a piece of impeccably crafted musical theater,” the Daily News describing it as “spectacular entertainment,” and The New York Times saying it “wants nothing more than to shower the audience with fantasy and fun.”
Lloyd Webber's other musicals include “Cats,” “Jesus Christ Superstar,” “Evita,” “Sunset Boulevard” and “School of Rock.” The closing of “Phantom” means the composer is left with one show on Broadway, the critically mauled “Bad Cinderella.”
The closing of “Phantom,” originally scheduled for February, was pushed to mid-April after a flood of revived interest and ticket sales that pushed weekly grosses past $3 million. The closing means the longest-running show crown now goes to “Chicago,” which started in 1996. “The Lion King” is next, having begun performances in 1997.
Broadway took a pounding during the pandemic, with all theaters closed for more than 18 months. Some of the most popular shows — “Hamilton,” “The Lion King” and “Wicked” — rebounded well, but other shows have struggled.
Breaking even usually requires a steady stream of tourists, especially for “Phantom,” and visitors to the city haven't returned to pre-pandemic levels. The pandemic also pushed up expenses for all shows, including routine COVID-19 testing and safety officers on staff. The Phantom became a poster boy for Broadway's return — after all, he is partially masked.
Fans can always catch the Phantom elsewhere. The flagship London production celebrated its 36th anniversary in October, and there are productions in Japan, Greece, Australia, Sweden, Italy, South Korea and the Czech Republic. One is about to open in Bucharest, and another will open in Vienna in 2024.
Kouatchou, who walked the red carpet before the final show in a hot pink clinging gown with a sweetheart neckline and a cut out, said the bitterness was undercut by the big send-off. Most Broadway shows that close slink into the darkness uncelebrated.
“It kind of sweetens it, right?” she said. “We get to celebrate at the end of this. We get to all come together and drink and laugh and talk about the show and all the highs and lows. It's ending on a big note.”