The Phantom of the Ticket Line

One woman fainted when she finally got her ticket. Another fellow lined up outside the theater 2 1/2 days before a performance. One woman (a mother of five) has seen the show 145 times.

Is this for a Bruce Springsteen tour? Michael Jackson hysteria? Has the Pope popped in for a visit?

Try Andrew Lloyd Webber's long-running musical extravaganza "The Phantom of the Opera" at Her Majesty's Theatre on Haymarket Street.

Unruffled and unflappable Londoners have withstood onslaughts upon their sensibilities as diverse as the Beatles and the Blitz with barely a quiver of their legendary stiff upper lips. So standing in line for a ticket to a musical should be nothing, right?

For them, maybe. Not for me. I innocently decided to join a queue (line) at Her Majesty's Theatre for a matinee performance of "Phantom" one recent Thursday morning; the first 10 of us in line were hoping for returned tickets. Piece of cake, I figured. I'll be humming along before noon!

However, the matinee had been Wednesday.

So, here it is, 10:30 a.m. on a relatively clear day in London. I'm on vacation; I have no other pressing plans. With a big, decisive sigh, I lower my camera bag to the sidewalk grill and prepare to wait . . . wait until 7 p.m., when canceled seats may become available for the 7:45 curtain.

Now at most theaters in London you can line up a few hours ahead and, most of the time, get a cancellation at regular prices. (The top ticket for "Phantom" is 20. These tickets, depending on the seller, may go for as much as 200. I was quoted 70 for a restricted-view seat in the second balcony that normally goes for 6.)

Anyway, having waited more than nine hours for the 1983 release of the third "Star Wars" film, "Return of the Jedi," I figured, heck, what's another nine-hour wait? At least it wasn't raining.

The minute I laid my camera bag on the sidewalk and took a look around, I was pounced on by an 18-year-old named David who'd already seen the show 12 times--and was listening to the original-cast album on a Walkman even as we spoke. He knew who'd replaced who in the cast. He said that for Michael Crawford's last performance (he'd played the Phantom for a year and has headed to New York to rehearse for this month's opening there), orchestra seats were going for up to 2,000! But, of course, David's attendance record was nothing to Geraldine, a mother of five who, as of that afternoon, had seen "Phantom of the Opera" 145 times. Which made her expenditure over $3,000!

Once another couple joined the line behind me, David immediately began to regale them with his "Tales from the 'Phantom' Queue." He assured us that we would get seats in Row G in the stalls (the front part of the orchestra), as these were the house seats and were likely to be released first.

A British couple from the Midlands decided we should order pizza from the Pizza Hut across the street. And since the shop doesn't do sidewalk deliveries, the couple went on a much-needed walk to pick it up.

I wondered aloud if, after all this waiting, the play would be anticlimactic? David hastily assured me, "Oh, no, it will add spice to it!" At least it will warm my feet, I thought.

After many hours, a youngster raced by on the sidewalk and shouted out, grinning: "Anyone want a ticket?" We all laugh, nervously. Is it possible that after all this waiting we won't get tickets?

While we're having our pizza party, the "ticket touts," as they're known in London (scalpers, we'd call them), come out like hungry sharks, circling the arriving patrons as they get out of their cabs. The touts look furtive and underhanded. Two of our group hiss at them. A ticket sold on the street instead of returned to the box office lessens our chance of getting a seat.

Finally, the theater manager comes out and counts off 10 and takes us to the ticket window. We really can't believe it: We are going to see "Phantom"!

Well, some of us are. Some of us had to borrow the opera glasses of a 6-year-old sitting next to us to see the Phantom's gruesome face.

My long-awaited ticket? Sigh . It was for a 16.50 seat in the cramped second balcony in the fourth row. Of course, everyone in front of me in line did indeed get either Dress Circle seats (first balcony) or the legendary Row G in the stalls. I heard all about it at the interval (intermission).

And the musical itself? Lavish, terribly Victorian and endearing. Christine Daae (played by Claire Moore) and the Phantom (Dave Willetts) are wonderful.

But when you're sitting in the second balcony, the ceiling commands more of your view than the stage and the actors look like puppets. Thank heaven for good acoustics.

Ah well, this is all water under the London Bridge now.

As nine-hour waits for 2 1/2-hour musicals in small, Victorian theaters in London go, I'd rate this one a 9. It certainly rates higher than 0--being stuck in bad weather at a shut-down airport, or waiting for any length of time in the dentist's office. And it was certainly more fun than waiting in the rain for a bus that's an hour behind schedule. I'm feeling quite smug in my achievement. "Phantom" was worth the effort.

Besides, I'm ahead of the game. The rest of you have at least a year to wait before it arrives in Los Angeles.

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