It truly is astounding, this production. This streamed Phantom is “past the point of no return”, in the best of possible ways. It was created to celebrate the 25th Anniversary of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Phantom of the Opera, and the determined Cameron Mackintosh found the exact, most perfect way, to produce this new and unique, spectacular staging of the musical on a scale worthy of the celebration. It is grand and opulent, matching the sumptuous Victorian splendor of London’s legendary Royal Albert Hall where it was held on October 2nd, 2011. Inspired by the original staging by Hal Prince and Gillian Lynne, this lavish, fully-staged production was first meant to be a concert celebration, much like the one done for Les Miserables, but Mackintosh had other ideas. And for that, we can be truly thankful, especially on this weekend of continued self-isolation, staying safe against a virus creating havoc around the world. Entertainment is one of the things we need the most, and featuring a cast and orchestra of over 200, this streaming sumptuous gift from Andrew Lloyd Webber on his ‘The Shows Must Go On” YouTube channel is the perfect antidote.
It was the fall of 1986 when I first made my way to London, and at some point during my six months there working at the Limelight Nightclub, I went to see a performance of Phantom of the Opera at Her Majesty’s Theatre in the West End. I, of course, did not have a lot of money for theatre at the time, nor did I know very much about the show, but I knew somehow that it was a ‘must-see’ before I left London for my summer jaunt around Europe. I arrived early in the morning and waited most patiently in the cancellation line. It was going to be a long day, but it was the only way that it would happen. Luckily, I was third in line, and over the next few hours, the line grew and grew. I felt optimistic, but as the clock ticked towards the moment they might start giving out tickets, I grew more and more nervous. It was a charity performance, they said, on the day I chose to go, so the pickings, we were told, might be pretty slim, but I waited and held my breath. I believe, as I write this out, that I wasn’t going to have many other opportunities before I left London for Europe, so I’m guessing I was feeling the pressure, and the dread.
I waited and waited. And then it happened. They ended up giving out exactly three tickets that night, and I, thankfully, was the third. I felt bad for the couple behind me who had waited just as long as I had, but maybe they would have another opportunity. I got in, though, and funny enough, I was seated in the front row of the Royal Circle, the exact place I normally love to sit, so basically, my frontmezzjunkie status was solidified that day. I remember being overwhelmed and amazed. It’s a ridiculous and over-the-top melodrama, I admit, but with Michael Crawford starring in the title role and the impressive Sarah Brightman as Christine and Steve Barton as Raoul, I ate it up like everyone else in that excited audience. It was delicious, and by no means was it an “infection that poisons” my love for theatre or Andrew Lloyd Webber. His face, his mask, was just the right kind of drama for that young 22-year-old theatre junkie, and I devoured it.
I never really wanted to return, I must admit. It was a glorious moment, that one time because even then, it felt a bit too flamboyant and far-fetched for my tastes. Based on the French novel of the same name by Gaston Leroux, and with the creative team of Andrew Lloyd Webber (book and music), Charles Hart (lyrics) and Richard Stilgoe (book), Phantom of the Opera flourished at Her Majesty’s Theatrein London’s West End, and by 2011, the dramatic tale has been seen by over 130 million people in 145 cities across 27 countries. So it seems fitting to want to celebrate the 25th anniversary of this show with a staging that is as huge of an extravaganza as the show itself, and the Royal Albert Hall seems to be the perfect matched venue for this opulently directed staging by Laurence Connor. With musical staging and choreography by Gillian Lynne, set design by Matt Kinley, costume design by Maria Björnson, lighting design by Patrick Woodroffe, and sound design by Mick Potter, the production feels like the perfect grand fit, pulling off a sumptuous spectacle at every turn for our senses to take in. The fantastic CGI projections illuminate the setting for the performers creating a spectacle that is absolutely astounding, filling the arena-size space with ease and with power. The cast of 135 (Wow, is all that can be said), including corps de ballet of 20 with a magnificent athletic turn by ballet star Sergei Polunin, not to mention an impressive-sounding orchestra of 45 that just adds to the grandeur. The team finds the perfect balance of story-telling and spectacle that this show deserves, without negating the original. It couldn’t have been easy, fitting this solidly structured show into this expansive space, but the Phantom of the Opera is epic in size, so the formula flourishes in the Royal Albert.
It all begins as I remember. Paris, 1905 with an auction taking place center stage at the Opéra Populaire. There are some special pieces of memorabilia that are to be sold, and the public is there, attending the auction, including the wheel-chair bound Raoul, Vicomte de Chagny, perfectly embodied by the handsome Hadley Fraser (Palace Theatre/Queen’s Theatre’s Les Misérables), who is determined to buy certain items, such as a paper-mâché music box that reminds him of a time long past. It finally is time for Lot 666, a broken chandelier from a time long ago, a magnificent piece of glass and light, hanging over the crowd, that is connected, as we are told by the auctioneer, to “the strange affair of the Phantom of the Opera”. The music swells, and we are pulled dramatically in, just like I was so many years ago, transported back to 1881 where a rehearsal is taking place. Shivers of excitement is about all I can add. Surprisingly.
I can remember almost every word spoken and sung. Watching the excellent cast deliver this musical forward in celebration reminds me of its power. I had dismissed the musical many times as being “dusty” (an old BF’s favorite term) and “old fashioned“, and maybe it is, but in its core, when performed with such energy and grace, there is a beating heart that can’t be denied. Wendy Ferguson’s Carlotta, the Opéra’s resident soprano prima donna demands our attention, and her talent deserves it. She frames the character solidly well even on that huge wide stage. The opera house’s new owners, Barry James’s Monsieur Richard Firmin, and Gareth Snook’s Monsieur Gilles André are playful and perfect, taking in and dismissing the cast’s mumblings about the dreaded ‘Phantom’ with a grin. But the show’s blood lies in the beautifully voiced chorus girl, Christine Daaé, played most excellently by the glorious Sierra Boggess (Broadway’s School of Rock). She doesn’t miss an emotive note, and delivers a performance worthy of our adoration. Her counterpart, the “Angel of Music” portrayed with power and glory by the fantastic Ramin Karimloo (Broadway Center Stage’s Chess) matches her at every turn. His “Music of the Night” is “crazy good“, as my fellow streaming buddy stated with delight that night we watched in unison, even though separated by many miles. The night that Christine takes to the stage and makes a triumphant début as the star soprano we applaud as excitedly as the opera house’s audience would, joining in with Fraser’s wonderfully gallant Raoul, who can’t help himself but fall once again madly in love with his childhood friend, Christine. His perfectly tuned performance is about as perfect as any Raoul could be, and I feel for him as easily as I was falling in love with this streamed version gifted to us this weekend in isolation.
The chemistry between the three leads is completely electric, and the voices ring magnificently true and perfect. I can’t remember better renditions of all the classic songs that this show brings forth and watching this show online only elevates the piece to greater heights. This Phantom of the Opera is determinedly staged with cameras in mind and delivers the visual spectacle with a clear vision, finding the timelessness of the tale while maintaining the essence of the piece. It’s melodramatic, that is for sure and may feel a bit stoggy and emotionally incomprehensible, but it’s a history lesson in musical theatre that one can’t deny. Phantom, along with Les Mis, changed musical theatre forever, and my youthful connection to that time in London when I saw both these epic shows remains intrinsically part of my theatrical DNA. Thank you again, Andrew Lloyd Webber, for taking me back, and entertaining me in the present.
The show is streaming via Universal’s free YouTube channel, ‘The Shows Must Go On’, the 25th Anniversary version of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA, filmed at the Royal Albert Hall in 2011.
Theatre fans will be able to access the show from 7.00pm BT Friday April 17th, free of charge, however, in the UK the show will only be available via the channel for 24hrs whereas, in Canada and the States, it is available for 48hrs. But remember that’s 48hours from 7pm BT, which is 2pm ET, so don’t expect to watch it Sunday late afternoon. You’ll be too late.
VIEW HERE for free – The Shows Must Go On!
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