'Phantom' casts a long shadow

Special to The Times

Producer Cameron Mackintosh looked slightly abashed, surveying the glittering black-tie masked ball at the Waldorf-Astoria on Monday night, celebrating the fact that his "Phantom of the Opera" had just become the longest-running show in Broadway history.

"Four years ago, Andrew and I thought, 'OK, maybe we have another year, we've had a fabulous run.' Then there was this natural resurgence, and here we are," recalled the producer, gesturing to Andrew Lloyd Webber, composer of both "Phantom" and the previous record holder, "Cats," ensconced at a private table with his guests, who included former Disney head Michael Eisner and his wife, Jane, socialite Lynn Wyatt and jewelry designer Kenneth Jay Lane.

Although the film world was bemoaning a perilous dip in ticket sales and the recording industry was suffering from the doldrums, Broadway took in a record $825 million in 2005, a 10.2% increase over the previous year, with a 5.7% increase in attendance, the highest in two decades. With no sign of slowing down, the $3.2-billion global gross of "Phantom" has already bested by nearly double the film world's record holder at $1.8 billion. Take that, "Titanic."

"I think this tells everybody that this is an alive and vibrant industry," said Roger Berlind, a former Wall Street titan and veteran producer who not so long ago was bearish on Broadway's future. Although the price of tickets has skyrocketed -- the top regular price seat is $110, and up to $360 for "premium seating" -- Berlind says a booming economy has meant that people are willing to dig deep into their wallets if shows warrant it. And so far, people have been showing up. In the last week of 2005, 20 shows were at more than 90% capacity, with "Wicked" bringing in an unprecedented $1.61 million. Recalling that when "Phantom" bowed in 1988, several theaters remained dark for lack of productions, Berlind said, "The problem now is real estate. There are just not enough theaters."

Of course, "Phantom" got a second wind that Mackintosh credits to the enduring appeal of a "great love story" based on the 1911 Gaston Leroux novel and to the recent "Phantom" film that, despite flopping at the box office, drew renewed attention to the Broadway production.

Earlier in the evening, director Harold Prince, Mackintosh and Lloyd Webber had been greeted by a huge ovation at the curtain call for the record-breaking performance at the Majestic Theatre, a fervent response fed, no doubt, by the free champagne at intermission as well as gratitude for the show's avalanche of income -- $600 million in Broadway receipts alone -- which had filled the purses of many in the audience.

Typical was Charles W. Stevens, a Boston-based advertising executive who attended the show and party with his wife, Alexandra. His work on the touring production of "Phantom," he said, had enabled him to put his daughter, Lauren, now an L.A. television producer, through USC. "I'm very happy with this account," he said, reflecting the overall giddy mood of the theatrical establishment.

Yet, despite all the bullishness on Broadway, the roster of long-running shows is hardly a reflection of quality. According to a Playbill ranking of the top 33 shows, not one was attributable to Stephen Sondheim, acknowledged as the reigning avatar of Broadway excellence. Only two shows by Rodgers and Hammerstein made the cut, and then barely: "Oklahoma!" (No. 22) and "South Pacific" (No. 26). These were pushed aside by such dubious entries as "Oh, Calcutta!" (No. 5) and "Grease" (No. 12).

Still, the fear that such mega-musicals as "Phantom," "Cats" and "Les Miserables" would elbow out the more intimate shows has never materialized. Hits such as "Rent," "Avenue Q," "The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee," "The Light in the Piazza" and this season's breakout hit, "Jersey Boys," are relatively modest in scale and budget. And the landscape has been littered with the detritus of many epics hoping to repeat the success of "Phantom," including Lloyd Webber's own "Sunset Boulevard." (Another Gothic wannabe, "Lestat," the new Elton John-Bernie Taupin musical, opened a tryout run this week in San Francisco.)

Robert Lopez, composer of "Avenue Q" and a self-proclaimed Sondheim fan, said it wasn't the spectacle that attracted him to "Phantom" but the "juicy peaches of melody." "I wish I could write a show with melodies half as good," he said at the party, which he attended with his wife, Kristen Anderson-Lopez, also a composer. Pleading the 5th, Lopez refused to state his preference between the music of Lloyd Webber and Sondheim but added, "I think there's room for both. And us too."

Gerald Schoenfeld, chairman of the Shubert Organization, viewed the celebration for "Phantom" as a valedictory of sorts. "I don't think this will ever happen again," said Schoenfeld, whose theaters have housed almost all the mega-musicals, including "Cats," "Phantom," "Les Miserables" and "Miss Saigon." "The costs are too prohibitive, so I think the tendency in the future will be toward simplicity, new innovative concepts in design. That doesn't mean you won't get another 'Wicked,' but the odds are much longer."

Schoenfeld also noted that the current instability of creative collaborations did not necessarily bode well. "You don't have the Lerner and Loewes, Rodgers and Hammersteins, Bock and Harnicks, Kander and Ebbs of the past who created one show after another," he said. "What you have now are hybrids."

But Thomas Schumacher, whose production with Peter Schneider of "The Lion King" for Disney has probably the best chance of beating the record (if "Beauty and the Beast," No. 6, doesn't get there first), rebutted the notion. "Our creative team on 'Lion King' -- Julie Taymor, Garth Fagan, Donald Holder -- had never worked together before," he said, noting that there were any number of shows, like "Wicked" and "The Color Purple," created by talent popular in other areas but inexperienced on Broadway. Among them is Phil Collins, who is about to make his Broadway debut with Disney's "Tarzan" this season.

"There's one myopic thing on Broadway, and that's 'if it didn't happen on Broadway, it didn't happen.' It's not just this eight-block radius we're talking about tonight," he said. "Right now there is great work being done all over this country, from the West Coast to the East Coast, that could lead to the next record-breaking hit. And it won't be the marketing, or the critics, or the producers, who'll make it that. It'll be the audience."

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