‘Phantom’ Fever: How It Pays Off : The curtain at the Ahmanson will soon rise on a monstrous hit

What is it about this show? A fair question from anyone who has not seen Andrew Lloyd Webber’s “Phantom of the Opera” in New York or London and has recently tried to buy tickets for its upcoming residency at the Ahmanson Theater, which begins in previews May 18.

Orchestra seats (at $45 and $50) are sold out through the end of September. Just like it was in New York, “The Phantom of the Opera” is already a hit in Los Angeles before its opening--not just a hit but very possibly an all-time hit. Advance sales have passed $14 million, projecting a run of what producer Cameron Mackintosh hopes will be “two years and maybe longer.”

By comparison, the popular musical “Les Miserables,” nearing its first anniversary at the Shubert, had advance sales of $7 million.

That “Phantom” is a phenomenon is beyond question. Exactly why is not so easily answered. Its spooky (and kitschy) 19th-Century story of a deformed composer in love with a beautiful and unattainable opera diva is familiar from a string of Hollywood movies dating back to 1925. Some of its power derives from what it shares with the durable fairy tale of the beauty and the beast.


What’s new is the pop-operatic score by Webber, the classically trained, rock-influenced British composer of “Cats” and “Evita,” and the show’s phantasmagoric staging by Harold Prince, which may have as much in common with a grand amusement park ride like Disneyland’s “Pirates of the Caribbean” as with even the most modern Broadway musicals.

The notable special effects, which are fully computerized and automated, include a 10-foot-wide, one-ton chandelier that appears to crash into the stage at one point and a simulated boat-crossing on a mist-shrouded underground lake. The show has a cast of 32 and a technical crew of 37.

The strength of its spectacle is reflected by the fact that it won the 1988 Tony Award for “Best Musical,” while the awards for “Best Score” and “Best Book” went to Stephen Sondheim’s and James Lapine’s musical “Into the Woods,” which recently finished a run at the Ahmanson.

Although some critics have praised the score as Webber’s best and most romantic, none of its songs have landed long on the pop charts, as did “Memory” from “Cats” and “I Don’t Know How to Love Him” from “Jesus Christ Superstar,” Webber’s first hit musical back in 1971, or become ingrained in the popular mind as did his “Don’t Cry for Me, Argentina,” from “Evita.”


Michael Crawford, who won a Tony for his performance as the Phantom in New York, will be heading the cast in Los Angeles, but his name so far carries only limited marquee value in Hollywood. The same goes for the little-known Dale Kristien who has been cast in the soprano’s role of Christine. The response to “Phantom” seems to fall outside the perimeters of conventional box-office logic.

“I’ve worked in the theater for 20 years, and I honestly don’t know what it is about this show,” said Kimothy Cruise, who headed the telemarketing campaign for the Ahmanson’s annual season-subscription drive, which included “Phantom” as an offering. Cruise and his crew of 20 operators didn’t have to make many calls. For two months they simply answered the phones eight hours a day, taking subscription orders and questions about “Phantom.” “The renewals were coming in so fast,” he said, “we couldn’t even sell new subscriptions for the first month.”

Bob Fortunate, one of the people answering the phones, reported that many of the callers “didn’t even know what the show was about. They just had heard about it.”

Boosted by “Phantom” fever and a season that also included “Les Liaisons Dangereuses,” “Into the Woods” and the current “Hapgood,” the Ahmanson’s 1988-89 subscription sales hit an all-time high of 73,400, up from the previous year’s figure of 44,000.

Eight benefit performances scheduled during the show’s period of previews, with tickets as high as $1,000 each, have also reported brisk sales.

Alexy Kuncar, who supervised ticket sales for a “Phantom” benefit for the Center Theater Group, said her committee was “a little nervous” when it decided to set top ticket prices at $1,000. They were relieved soon enough when the $1,000 and $500 seats sold out in February. Three-fourths of the ticket buyers, Kuncar estimated, said they had already seen “Phantom” in New York or London. “They’re coming from Colorado, San Francisco, La Jolla, Santa Fe,” she pointed out. “From all over.”

Meanwhile, local ticket agencies are charging $175-$275 for single orchestra and balcony seats available in June. Classified ads for orchestra seats are running even higher--$300 to $600 per ticket. One ad went so far as to ask $5,000 per ticket.

All this and nary an ad on television. Mackintosh, co-producer of the show with Webber’s Really Useful Theater Co. (as well as the producer of “Les Miserables” and “Cats”) has once again announced his presence through sparely designed print ads bearing only the show’s half-mask logo and information about ordering tickets by phone. Prior to opening night May 31, he will have spent a modest $240,000 on local advertising, though it appears the real sales job was done by word of mouth, as was true in New York when the show opened there in January, 1988.


“There’s no point in buying a lot of advertising when the public is doing it for you,” Mackintosh said.


While the music from “Phantom” is not much heard on the radio, record-buyers in Los Angeles apparently are listening to the cast album. Larry King, a buyer at Tower Records on Sunset, says the store has been selling about 70 units of the “Phantom” sound track a week since Christmas.

Like the hugely successful “Cats” and “Les Miserables,” “Phantom” is almost entirely sung. Its reliance on operatic form combined with the elements of spectacle identify it as the latest model of a new brand of British musical theater that has leaped across oceans and language barriers. There are 15 productions of “Les Miserables” (originally in French) now playing in major cities around the globe. Besides London and New York, ‘Phantom’ is currently on stage in Vienna and Tokyo and will open in Toronto and Stockholm later this year.

At a time in the theater when playwrights are under pressure to write plays for no more than two or three characters in order to keep production expenses down, these mammoth Mackintosh-and-Webber extravaganzas seem to be operating in a different theatrical universe altogether.

The New York and Los Angeles productions of “Phantom” have cost about $8 million each to mount. After opening, the show costs the producers roughly $450,000 a week to keep running, but at the Ahmanson, with 2,000 seats, it has a potential weekly gross of about $700,000. “We work on the plan that the shows pay back in a year,” said Bridget Hayward, a director of the Really Useful Theater Co.

Mackintosh, who has had to put up with the criticism that his shows are the theatrical equivalent of McDonald’s hamburger franchises, said, “I don’t believe anyone is clever enough to calculate a hit. All three shows Andrew and I have done together have also appealed to the public--not because we tried to second-guess the public but because we did what we believed in. “Completely unwittingly we have hit on subjects that have no boundaries of nationality, race or creed. But we didn’t know it at the time.”

Other theater professionals offer varying assessments of the musical.


Paul Hough, director of the musical theater writer’s lab at the Los Angeles Theater Center, carries a cassette of “Phantom” music with him in the car even though he finds the libretto unconvincing. “I know it labels me as a soft touch,” he said. “It must be satisfying some need. What do you do in the late 20th Century when nothing is adding up? You escape to a softer, more voluptuous world, a world of big, round passions.”

“It is what it is,” said actor John Lithgow, who saw “Phantom” twice last year while he was in New York starring on Broadway in the Tony Award-winning drama “M. Butterfly.” “It’s enthralling to see that much ingenuity at work. In a way it’s the closest a piece of theater can come to being a movie, technologically. And there’s something kind of overwhelming about that. But I did find it peculiar that there were about two seconds that were genuinely moving in the whole story.

“When you think of the size of the show, which is Gargantuan, and it’s all for that little moment when Michael Crawford bares his face . . . I kept comparing it in my own mind to something like ‘Master Harold and the Boys,’ which is nothing but three actors and a script and was a much more powerful experience in the theater,” Lithgow added.

“You don’t know whether a phenomenon like this drives out other theater or helps it,” observed Los Angeles playwright Donald Freed, the author of politically provocative plays like “Secret Honor” and the upcoming “Veterans Day.” Freed attributes the mass appeal of “Phantom” to what he calls “the rich psychopathology of the Victorian era” and “the neurosis of the libretto which is about the artist as monster, a theme that still titillates the bourgeois audience.”


Such high-minded criticism was lost on the hundreds of people who stood in line at the box office for up to 12 hours on the day last month when individual tickets went on sale. Instead, many in the crowd were openly critical of the way the sale was being handled.

Dan Fidelman, a Los Angeles hotel manager who had seen “Phantom” in London, echoed the sentiments of other long-suffering fans when he complained to Ahmanson management and city officials about the rudeness and aggression of young ticket buyers, working for scalpers, who managed to dominate the line and intimidate even the security guards present. “I know this goes on all the time at rock concerts,” he said, recalling the mob scene. “But this is a little different.”

“It was not a situation that we anticipated or that the ‘Phantom’ company expected,” responded Ahmanson general manager Ellen Fay. Addressing the widespread ticket scalping, she added, “I would say we’re all very concerned. We’re having meetings about what to do about it. It’s sort of like the dam is bursting and you’re trying to hold back the water with your two hands.”