Cameron Mackintosh once said, when he announced the closing of the original Broadway production of Les Miserables, “I have also realized that I can’t have a crack at the Tony for Best Revival until I close the first.” This after pointing out that he wanted to take the musical out on a high note, “with audiences once again fighting for tickets,” as he had with Cats and Miss Saigon. The only one of his big four that he doesn’t seem to have felt this way about is The Phantom of the Opera, which celebrated 30 years on Broadway this past January, and looks all set to way beyond. Phantom being my favorite musical, I have a smug pride that it is unlikely that any other Broadway production will dethrone it for the title of “longest running in history.” At the same time, though, I have to wonder what that “crack at the Tony for Best Revival” would look like.
I have seen the original production of Phantom twice, once on tour, once on Broadway, and I plan to see it at least once more. And I am proud of it, even having had nothing to do with it. It is historical, it is important, it is beautiful. But I have also seen some stunning revivals. When I think about how a Phantom revival might look, I think about the 2005 revival of Sweeney Todd, which took what had been a grandly designed, overbearing original production, and whittled it down to the bare, creepy bones, with actors playing instruments on a set of little more than chairs for each of them and a few other props. The original production of Phantom, with its staircase and chandelier and elephant, is similarly physically huge. Could it work on a smaller scale? What would its score sound like played on fewer than twenty instruments?
Another direction to go in, as both Les Miserables and one time legendary flop Carrie recently have, is immersive. Perhaps a production in Studio 54, originally built as an opera house and, though its more recent history does make it a great place to put on Cabaret, just a few years ago made a cozy home for the revival of The Mystery of Edwin Drood, which is framed as an old-fashioned music hall production. Phantom takes place almost entirely within an opera house. It would probably be just as complicated to fit it into such a revival as to pare it down for a Sweeney Toddlike re-imagining, but that’s why we hire creative people in theatre, to solve such problems.
Or maybe one of those creative people already has an idea and is just waiting for an opportunity to try it on a Phantom revival. Maybe it doesn’t have to vary as extremely as musicians on stage or actors bringing the audience into the action. Perhaps it’s just a matter of different instead of revolutionary. The design elements of Phantom are hallowed in a way that few other shows can say theirs are (how could The Lion King ever be re-done?), but that doesn’t mean they are the only way. I’m sure interesting things are being done in school productions now that those rights have been released. I know my high school wouldn’t have the resources to produce a carbon copy of the Broadway production, but would find interesting ways around the problems that would come up, to preserve the integrity of the material.
And what about a different look for the Phantom himself? A different face. A different mask. A different stamp on the character. Michael Crawford’s voice on the original cast recording of Phantom is the reason I do what I do. All of the productions and videos I’ve seen of different Phantoms are rooted in his performance, and for good reason. But I also saw Bernadette Peters play Mama Rose in Gypsy, and Alan Cumming as the Emcee in Cabaret, and both performers were breaking well-established molds in taking on those roles the way they did.
That’s what theatre is about. The original productions of Gypsy and Cabaret could have run forever, always trying to stay true to the original performances by Ethel Merman and Joel Grey, but then we’d never have had the opportunity to see what people like Peters and Cumming might do, not to mention the work of the directors, designers, and other performers, all working together to make something new out of something loved.
I will happily keep revisiting Phantom as it stands, just as I will probably visit musicals like Wicked and The Lion King when opportunities arise. Broadway is sometimes derogatorily referred to as a theme park mostly filled with old, reliable rides, which is not true by any means. A lot of great, new, interesting stuff opens on Broadway every year, and will continue to.
But keeping theatre alive and breathing is not just about a steady flow of the new, it is about looking back, exploring, re-interpreting, and in so doing re-introducing the old, which is something that isn’t so common in most other art forms. Part of the thrill for me of loving Phantom should be the opportunity to see it grow in the hands of new generations of visionaries, like super-fans of other classic musicals get to.