In the mid-1980s, the hottest ticket in London to get was 'Phantom of the Opera', playing at Her Majesty's Theatre (of the few theatres in the West End that regularly changes its name, depending upon the gender of the reigning monarch), opposite the Haymarket Theatre. One could see long lines around the block before each performance, scalpers outside looking to cash in on their earlier luck of getting tickets, and disappointed tourists who did not realise that they had to book months in advance to get a seat. My secretary in the House of Commons got tickets in the queue, for four months hence, and was worried that by that time Michael Crawford might have decided to move on, and she would get stuck seeing a second-cast Phantom. In the end, she was fortunate. Crawford was still on when she got there. But I will never forget the evil in her eye the morning about two weeks later when she asked what I'd done the night before, and I replied innocently (no, really, innocently!) 'I went to see Phantom of the Opera last night.'
If looks could kill, I would not be writing this now. I actually got to see Phantom twice on the London stage, with Michael Crawford, Sarah Brightman and Steve Barton, and both times were on a fluke. The first time I was walking past the theatre about 10 minutes after the start, and a scalper who had been unsuccessful at selling his tickets was giving it out at cost. This is the time my secretary nearly killed me. The second time was 'inherited' from a friend who was unexpectedly called out of the country on Foreign Office business.
I got the tape of the cast recording as soon as I could after seeing it the first time, and it brought back all of the wonderful scenes. The music of Andrew Lloyd Webber seems to either captivate or irritate, but not a lot in between. And, in fact, I find some of his music which falls into each camp for me. Phantom is one of those for me in which there are no weak songs.
Perhaps the best song of all is 'Music of the Night', a haunting minor key piece with superb lyrics which weave hopefulness and darkness together skillfully. The chord change at the end of the song, from minor to major and back to minor, is one of the most memorable changes in modern musicals. Crawford's strong but expressive and quivering voice exudes emotion as the lyrics work to expand perceptions:
'Night time sharpens, heightens each sensation;
darkness stirs and wakes imagination..
Silently the senses abandon their defenses...'
Strong songs such as the title piece, 'Phantom of the Opera', which mix traditional pipe-organ with modern electronic beats seem to work well in getting the mood established for the power the Phantom has over Christine, played beautifully by Sarah Brightman. Brightman became an international star in this role; she planned it that way--some cynics might say she used Webber to get stardom and then dumped him (of course, I would never say such a thing!). Brightman's voice was not the strongest, either on the recording or on the stage; she has matured much since then; however, as the part of Christine was to be a young-discovery, maturity and strength might have been misplaced in this role.
Raoul, Christine's true love interest, is played by Steve Barton, who does a very good job, with a good vocal interplay with Brightman on songs such as Think of Me and All I Ask of You, in addition to the interplay with Crawford on various songs, particularly nearing the conclusion of the story.
However, my favourite chorus piece has to be 'Notes', in which the proprietors of the opera, as well as the singers and patrons, begin to receive notes from unknown sources, and suspect everyone save the real source, the Phantom, who in the end comes into the scene -- this song is humourous, choral, and dramatic with simultaneous and dissonant elements in wonderful exchange. It then spins down to a wonderful violin strain that shows the fragile state of Christine in a beautiful musical way, hard to express in words.
This is a fun musical, with tunes and a story which stay with one long after hearing, and one that entices repeating over and over. Even though the 'craze' for Phantom has died down from its height more than a decade ago, the strength of the musical shows in the strong sales and widespread recognition that the songs from this musical generate.