The gas lamps outside Her Majesty’s Theatre in London flickered eerily that dark and rainy afternoon as I joined the huddled queue for “The Phantom of the Opera.”
A man in a black cape lurched from the shadows and asked: “You need tickets?”
I jumped and shooed him away. He was merely a scalper. That word never seemed more ominous.
My husband and I had arrived in London for a long weekend on the way to Glasgow and Edinburgh. “Phantom” was the new play in town.
As we checked into our beloved Connaught Hotel the hall porter handed us an envelope from a colleague who is a theater critic. It held one ticket for the Saturday matinee and a note: “Two tickets impossible on short notice.”
Impossible. Just the word to inspire a top concierge or hall porter, those wizards of accomplishment at the world’s esteemed hotels.
The hall porter began calling his sources, which had pulled out the last two seats for a Christmas Eve performance of “Merchant of Venice” with Laurence Olivier and by the Royal Shakespeare Company, and another December put us in the front row for Ralph Richardson in “Lloyd George Knew My Father.”
There are always same-day, cut-rate theater tickets at the Leicester Square ticket booth, but that would not work for “Phantom” or “Les Miserables,” certainly not in the early flush. Even the theater had posted a “Sold Out” sign.
With only a hint of a scowl, the hall porter put down the phone after his first call. He opened a black book of handwritten numbers and assured me he would keep trying.
When I returned from an afternoon at Foyle’s bookstore and the wool-and-antique caverns of the Burlington Arcade, the hall porter was regretful.
“There was only one seat and it was on the last row of the top balcony and in the corner,” he said. “You would never have been able to see the play. I told them it would not do.”
With only a weekend in London? Of course it would. I asked him to call back and grab it.
Flipped a Coin
With two tickets, my husband and I flipped a coin. For the first act I sat in the critic’s seat, seventh row center. I was the one on whom the phantom took aim as the massive chandelier crashed down in a glaze of lights.
My husband took the hall porter’s find: six dizzy flights up, and in the far corner. I craned, but could not see him from below. At intermission we switched.
I was eager to tell about life in the critics’ circle, about the terror of the worldly patrons with whom I had gasped. Instead, he began introducing me to his balcony mates: a family of five from Sussex who had come to the city to Christmas shop and see a Saturday matinee.
The scene could have been a school cloakroom on a winter’s day: parcels and tote bags were stuffed beneath each seat and in the aisle, coats and mufflers were stacked in space between the last chair and the wall.
Each youngster had a box of candies or cookies and offered to share. They were ecstatic about the stage tricks they had seen from their aerie. They said I should have been there. I tried to explain that I was, but the second act curtain interrupted.
In New York City last February a friend gave us tickets to “Phantom.” The stars were the same as that matinee in London but the voices seemed richer; the show had matured from parachute silk to old satin and velvet.
On Broadway the crowd was markedly elegant. “Odd, since it’s not opening night,” my husband said.
Although impressed by the genteel mood and demeanor, I dismissed it as merely a sophisticated sign of a New York City winter. It turned out to be a black-tie benefit for the Neil Simon Endowment for the Dramatic Arts at Duke University. We were surrounded by Southern-schooled gentlemen and ladies.
I love the theater and find it the ultimate escape and a prime reason to travel. I may forget the width of Fifth Avenue or the height of the Statue of Liberty, but I’ll always remember the voices of the town-size cast of “Porgy and Bess” at Radio City Music Hall.
I may forget the age of Big Ben or the depth of the Thames at high tide, but I well remember the opening scene of “Lettice and Lovage” with Maggie Smith, in which the indomitable actress is a tour guide in a stately home called Fustian Hall.
Price of Truffles
I may forget a USC football score or the price of white truffles in Los Angeles, but I’ll never forget “The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby” at the Ahmanson.
One fine autumn day in London I crowned a matinee of “Der Rosenkavalier” at Covent Garden with an evening performance of “Billy,” a musical based on the play “Billy Liar.”
The actor who played Billy was a lad from Yorkshire named Michael Crawford. I liked his open face and comic touch. I wondered how far he would go.
When I next saw him on stage it was a shock. Crawford emerged on the dark side of life as the compelling phantom in . . . “The Phantom of the Opera.” I feel that I knew him when, although strangely, I did not like him any better.