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COVER STORY : The Phantom Phenomenon : L.A. is still clinging to the lovesick ghost who has haunted the Ahmanson for 3 years, scaring off any hint of recession with ticket sales of $110 million. Things look good through 1992.

<i> Barbara Isenberg is a Times staff writer</i>

Julia Roberts isn’t in “The Phantom of the Opera.” Nor are Bruce Willis, Tom Cruise, Sylvester Stallone, Clint Eastwood and Madonna.

Nobody’s giving away Lakers tickets at the Ahmanson Theatre either, but you’d never know it by the crowds. People are shuttering art galleries and theaters, closing auto plants and department stores, but the recession-proof “Phantom” is still filling the house at ticket prices as high as $60.

Marking its third anniversary and 1,294th performance at the Music Center today, the hit musical has attracted more than 2.5 million people since it opened May 31, 1989. Box-office revenues hit $100 million in March and have just topped $110 million.

Besides making British impresario Cameron Mackintosh and his co-producers even richer, the opera ghost’s love story has turned the Ahmanson into a veritable Comstock Lode. After several years of deficits totaling more than $1 million before the “Phantom,” the Ahmanson these days has even been able to set aside $2 million for a proposed renovation.

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Already Los Angeles’ longest-running musical, “Phantom” is expected to run until at least year-end.

“I had no idea (the run) would be this long,” confesses Leigh Munro, the New York-based opera singer who plays “Phantom’s” prima donna Carlotta. “I would have made other choices on my furniture.”

She should have asked Mackintosh. “It is the most successful show Los Angeles has ever seen, and I suppose it’s not really surprising,” the producer says. “Hollywood is the land of dreams and this is the ultimate escapist musical.”

Three years worth of performances isn’t a Los Angeles record--"Tamara” began its ninth year on May 21 and “Bleacher Bums” closed last spring after 11 years--but the Ahmanson has long sold nearly all of its 2,048 seats eight times a week. Only 140 a night can roam the Italian villa housing “Tamara” while “Bleacher Bums” producer Ivan Spiegel figures that more people see “Phantom” in a couple of months than saw his show in its entire run.

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Lured by word-of-mouth, the popular cast album and the promise of spectacle, theatergoers were only momentarily deterred when recent riots struck downtown Los Angeles. Sales are already 85% of what they were before the riots, reports “Phantom” general manager Alan Wasser, and 97% of the people sending in tickets for the six performances canceled during the riots and curfew wanted different dates, not refunds.

Try getting a good seat for the Phantom next weekend. You might find a pair or two somebody just returned, but more likely, you’ll have to call a ticket broker and pay $125 to $185 for that $60 seat. (If you’re willing to wait until the last minute, when demand is less, you can probably get a steal at $95 apiece.)

At this point, many ticket buyers are returning for the second, third or 10th time as the show develops what amounts to a cult following. Phantom “phans” (as they like to be called) join computer bulletin boards, mob the stage door and send gifts to cast members. A Simi Valley manicurist even paints scenes from the show on customers’ nails.

The opera ghost has become “as ubiquitous as the Energizer bunny,” Tom Shales has written in the Washington Post. “Since being unearthed for Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Broadway musical, the Phantom has been harder to avoid than the Trumps.”

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There’s a cologne called Phantom made in Paris. And when Allen-Bradley, a Rockwell International subsidiary that designs automation for the show, was hiring a while ago, its advertisements urged prospective employees to “join the company that made the Phantom fly.”

From the classic 1925 silent film starring Lon Chaney, through assorted TV and film productions, people keep repackaging Gaston Leroux’s 1911 thriller about the disfigured lovesick ghost who haunts the Paris Opera House. Brian de Palma’s “The Phantom of the Paradise” rock update came along in 1974, and a film of the Lloyd Webber version is in development at Warner Bros.

There had been “Phantom” stage musicals in both England and New York both before the composer of “Cats” and “Evita” gave it a try, and people are still mounting new musical productions. At least two other musical versions have played Southern California alone in recent years.

Mackintosh has kept cloning his success as well. “Phantom’s” Los Angeles, New York and U.S. touring production have already grossed more than $330 million, according to general manager Wasser, and a second national company opens in Seattle in December. Another company is now touring Canada, and “Phantom” is also playing in London, Toronto, Melbourne, Stockholm, Hamburg and Vienna. The musical had an estimated worldwide gross of $715 million as of March 31.

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“ ‘Phantom’ has a universal appeal,” offers George Wachtel, research director at the League of American Theatres and Producers in New York, where “Phantom” is still doing excellent business after four years. “It’s somewhat cinematic so it has an appeal to young audiences, the special effects are thrilling and the word-of-mouth is extraordinary.”

A smash hit in London, “Phantom” broke New York box-office records with its $18 million advance, and even lukewarm reviews acknowledged it as a crowd-pleaser. Publicity included both local and national cover stories when it opened in New York, and the show went on to win seven 1988 Tony Awards.

The show arrived in Los Angeles amid staggering expectations. Its record-setting $15-million advance here more than doubled the previous record-setter, “Les Miserables,” and $12 million of those tickets were sold even before the box office opened. Ahmanson subscription sales hit an all-time high, charities sold off benefit tickets as high as $1,000 apiece, and scalpers grew wealthy. Even before previews started, orchestra seats were sold out for the next four months.

“ ‘Phantom’ has probably brought people into the theater who weren’t frequent theatergoers,” says Theatre L.A. executive director Karen Rushfield. “And I have enough faith in theater to think they’d be sufficiently attracted to attend further.”

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Producers at other Los Angeles theaters agree that some of those 16,000 ticket holders flocking to the Ahmanson each week must wind up visiting other theaters around town. They may think many “Phantom” theatergoers are more interested in spectacle than drama, but local producers generally say that what’s good for one theater is good for everybody.

Others are more skeptical. “Competition from movies in a film industry town makes it very difficult, and people who only see a few things a year are going to shows like ‘Phantom,’ ” says an executive at one smaller theater, who asked not to be identified. “I don’t think it affects subscribers but it does affect individual ticket buyers, especially in a recession.”

Everybody has to go to some event first, counters Center Theatre Group managing director Charles Dillingham. At the Music Center alone, he says, “there’s no question that some percentage, maybe small, might now be going to symphony or opera.”

No hard figures support that assumption, although the number of repeats does make the Music Center and downtown generally more familiar and, probably, more attractive. If nothing else, with the Ahmanson’s long dark periods a thing of the past, Music Center restaurants and parking lots are flourishing.

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So is Center Theatre Group, the Music Center organization that has sublet the Ahmanson to Mackintosh and his investors. “ ‘Phantom’ became a very attractive solution,” says CTG president Lawrence Ramer. “It doesn’t solve all the problems but it’s changed us from being on the financial edge at the Ahmanson to having a measure of protection.”

Ramer spearheaded an agreement whereby “Phantom” took over the Ahmanson and CTG shifted its subscription season to UCLA’s Doolittle Theatre in Hollywood. The agreement called for CTG to sublease the Ahmanson to the Christine Co., the limited partnership for this particular “Phantom” production.

CTG receives operating costs plus a sliding percentage of revenues based on box-office grosses, says “Phantom” general manager Wasser, and the higher the gross, the greater the percentage. When the Ahmanson is sold out, for instance, that percentage averages about 5%, or about $38,000 a week, says Wasser.

“Phantom” isn’t selling out now, but Wasser says sales were running at 95% of capacity prior to the riots. Advance ticket sales are heading back to normal, he adds, after dropping 40% immediately after the riots. Today’s advances total just under $5 million, he says.

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But no matter how good the sales, everyone interviewed expects the show to wind down at some point next year. For one thing, says CTG executive Dillingham, the “Phantom” has been “a mixed blessing financially. In the long term, there is a question in our minds as to how much it is damaging our subscription base (which has gone in recent years from more than 50,000 to today’s 45,000). We do have subscribers who say they are not happy returning year after year to the Doolittle. They prefer the Music Center.”

On the other hand, Dillingham is the first to admit the show has been a “windfall” for the Ahmanson and Center Theatre Group. CTG/Ahmanson reserve funds have grown $7.6 million from “Phantom” revenues, Dillingham says, increasing from $1.5 million prior to “Phantom” to today’s $10.4 million, including interest and appreciation. Besides using some of that money to cover the current “emergency shortfall” in CTG funds from the Music Center Unified Fund, Dillingham says, CTG has also committed $2 million toward a long-contemplated $13-million Ahmanson reconfiguration.

Actors and subscribers alike have long complained of the huge Ahmanson’s problems with the spoken word, and CTG earlier commissioned architectural studies to remedy that. Should all go according to plan, the Ahmanson would close after “Phantom” for 15 months or so to reopen as a smaller, more flexible space whose walls could be moved to accommodate 1,250 to 2,000 seats.

“We have schematic drawings and hope to have architects begin detailed drawings within the next few weeks,” says Ramer. “It’s all subject to putting the financing together, and at this time, we feel reasonably confident about being able to do that. It isn’t a done deal yet, but I feel a lot more positive than I did six months ago.”

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The remodeled hall could well be inaugurated with another cash cow: Mackintosh’s “Miss Saigon,” the latest show from “Les Miserables” creators Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schonberg, which is already a hit in New York, London and Tokyo. Discussions are under way concerning “Miss Saigon,” both sides confirm, although nothing is definite and everyone expects a shorter run for it than for “Phantom.”

“We’re here to serve our subscribers and not to put in long-run musicals,” says Dillingham. “Nobody contemplated at the time that ‘Phantom’ would run more than two years or certainly three.”

“Phantom” is not the first big-budget, Broadway-style musical to fare well with audiences here, of course. Los Angeles has long been the country’s top road town for traveling musicals, and several have settled in here for a year or more. “Cats,” the first Andrew Lloyd Webber/Cameron Mackintosh gold mine, was at the Shubert Theatre in Century City for nearly two years, outlasted only by “Hair” and “Evita” at the same theater.

“Phantom” does have the biggest budget of any show ever to hit town: Accommodating its underground lake and other dazzling stage effects pushed opening costs up to $8.5 million. But many contemporary musicals incorporate grand spectacle, particularly musicals with ties to “Phantom’s” composer Lloyd Webber, producer Mackintosh and director Harold Prince. What is it about this show?

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Pick up one of the fan letters to Davis Gaines, currently starring here as the Phantom. Writes a 53-year-old airline pilot, a former combat Marine: “Anyone who has ever had their heart ripped by unanswered or lost love, and that must be everyone, cannot help but feel the anguish that you so passionately portray.”

Or ask the Phantom himself. “I think people want to be moved and touched by emotion, passion and love in their lives,” Gaines says. “And everyone has felt the loss of a loved one or unrequited love.”

Novelist Leroux’s tale is, after all, an old story--"Beauty and the Beast” with some murder and other unpleasantness thrown in. But as the producer of “Les Miserables” would be the first to tell you, there’s nothing wrong with an old story.

The music, staging and other theatrical ingredients are “wonderful,” of course, says Mackintosh, “but there is that extra ingredient which is inherent in the material and the subject matter that tips a successful show over the edge into being a phenomenon: It fulfills dreams. The audience is taken into a beautiful, exotic world where one’s dreams are possible.”

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Ticket buyers arrive from Phoenix and Las Vegas as well as from all over California, and few go home empty-handed. Sandra Kimberling at the Music Center Operating Co., the Ahmanson’s landlord, estimates MCOC’s share of sales from “The Phantom Collection” of T-shirts, programs, CDs and such at over $300,000 for the three years.

But T-shirts that glow in the dark (at $23) are just the start for a true Phantom Phan. Phantom Notes, a 30-page “newsletter of comment” published three times a year in Wauwatosa, Wis., welcomes new cast members to assorted “Phantom” productions and even rates the bathrooms at the theaters where it’s playing. (The Ahmanson was called “the most generous of the theaters,” while women visitors to the London production were urged “not to drink at all the day of the show.”)

One contributor to Phantom Notes reported that she traveled 12,000 miles to see Michael Crawford as the Phantom “and would gladly do it again.” Before Crawford left the cast last year, another fan bid $22,500 at a charity auction for dinner with the actor and a ticket to the show.

While much of the original cast is still with the show, including Dale Kristien, who plays Christine, the Phantom’s love object, ticket sales did slow down each time Crawford left, says Ahmanson general manager Ellen Fay-Lee. But she adds that sales soon stabilized--first for Robert Guillaume, best known as TV’s “Benson,” and now for Davis Gaines. A longtime Broadway performer but not yet a major star, Gaines took over the role on April 30, 1991.

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Some of Gaines’ fans communicate on the Prodigy interactive computer network. Financial manager Lily Lee, for instance, signs on to Prodigy most evenings, she says, to catch up on the latest computerized “Phantom” news, and reports her family will be celebrating a total of 100 visits to the show on June 28. They go two or three times a month, she says, and have become so chummy with star Gaines that one of her children asked if Gaines was going with them to the Caribbean on their family vacation.

About two dozen people have seen the show here at least 50 times and a handful have seen it more than 100 times. Yet unlike “Tamara,” which offers bigger and bigger discounts with each visit, “Phantom” costs the same the 50th as the first time.

While some balcony tickets are available at $15, money is apparently no object. The repeat rate could be upward of 60%, estimates Ahmanson general manager Fay-Lee, who has seen the show herself 14 times locally (and another three times in New York). “When you walk through the house,” she says, “there are rows of people who are silently mouthing the lyrics.”

As many as 50 people a night gather at the stage door after the show, many again and again. And these fans really pay attention, says actress Munro. “One woman said, ‘You really were on tonight, and I love the look you give M. Andre.’ She said she had her binoculars on me that night.”

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Another time, Munro recalls, she and another actor “got the giggles and decided to play our scene more lighthearted. A woman met us at the stage door and said, ‘You must keep that in.’ The same woman came back to the stage door a week later to say she liked it better before--it wasn’t as funny this time.”

Times librarian Maloy Moore contributed to the research in this article.

PHANTOM PHACTS

According to the show’s producers, “The Phantom of the Opera” has a company of 134--36 actors, 60 crew members, 30 musicians, and a staff of eight. Of those, more than 90 have been with the show since opening night. (There are also 20 life-size mannequins used in crowd scenes.)

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* There are 120 wigs and hairpieces used in the show. Makeup artist Tiffany Hicks has painted more than 2,500 pieces of latex for use on the five (including understudies) Phantoms.

* The show has more than 260 costumes; the heaviest weighs 50 pounds and is worn by the opera diva Carlotta Giudicelli, played by Leigh Munro. All told, 150 pairs of shoes are worn.

* There are 165 trap doors in the stage, which is illuminated by 500 lighting instruments and 102 candles. The tallest candelabrum is 88 inches high and the shortest is 11 inches.

* There are 30,000 beads on the chandelier, which weighs 1 ton and is 10 feet high. The Act II “Masquerade” staircase weighs 2 1/2 tons, and 2,000 yards of fabric were used to make all the drapes onstage. It took eight months to carve the proscenium stage and six months to construct the chandelier.

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* Seven hundred pounds of dry ice are used each performance, 5,600 pounds a week.

* Since the show opened, stage managers have called more than 270,000 lighting cues. The sound department has replaced more than 57,000 AAA batteries. Two stagehands have sat behind the chandelier at the beginning of the show for more than 600 hours.


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