'Masked balls.' These were the only words uttered by the London Sunday Times drama critic when he review The Phantom of the Opera 25 years ago today. Most composers, let alone producers, would be suicidal to receive a review like that in a major newspaper. But Cameron Mackintosh was chortling into his toast when he phoned me on that Sunday breakfast time just a few days after we had opened. In fact, he temporarily choked on it.
Like Cats a few years before, nothing any reviewer said could remotely alter the fact that Phantom had chimed with its audience and was unstoppable. Just like Cats, Phantom did not get great across the board reviews. They were wildly polarised between those who really did or really wouldn't surrender to the music of the night. But unlike even Cats, whose first previews were thrilling but bumpy, the audience reaction to Phantom's first preview suggested an unstoppable hit was in our hands. Hal Prince, our brilliant showman director, was so sure that he jokingly suggested that we all take a holiday and came back for opening night.
Although it's true that Phantom is the only show I have ever been involved with that was entirely unchanged during previews, I wish I could say I truly had the best time of my life during those heady days.
Two years before, I had married Sarah Brightman, the ex-Hot Gossip girl who had a huge hit with 'Starship Trooper'. Notwithstanding that she had fantastic reviews for the Charlie Strouse opera Nightingale at the Lyric Theatre, Hammersmith, everyone was ready to snipe and say that she only got the role of Christine because she was my wife. When in previews she got ill and missed a performance, the chattering started big time. I shudder to think what would have happened if the Net had been around with its malicious and often fake or professional bloggers.
Big opening nights, even when you feel sure you have the public with you, are when you feel most vulnerable, the night that you want your closest loved ones around you. But when your loved one is a woman who is perceived by even some of your closest friends to have broken a marriage and she is playing the leading role in your new musical (having previously been a kitten in the world's then biggest musical, Cats), goodness knows I felt alone and frightened whilst all around were celebrating. I couldn't even bear to sit through the show. Cameron Mackintosh brought me back to the theatre to see the curtain calls.
So when I read the first review, that of the late Jack Tinker of the Daily Mail, in which he said that he could think of no other actress than Sarah who could have premiered the role, frankly I cried. And I had to wake Sarah up to show her. Jack in those days was the most powerful and respected critic of musicals. His continued support for Sarah and the show is one of the things that I will always cherish.
But all of that is 25 years ago. I am struck, when I look at the phenomenon that Phantom became, how perilously small the fine line is between success and failure in musical theatre. What if Maria Bjornson hadn't designed the show? Would another choreographer have understood the period and style as Gillian did, in her brilliantly understated way?
Hal Prince is the master showman of the last four decades of musical theatre. Phantom truly has a huge element of hokum. Would a director who tried to intellectualise the story rather than simply direct it for real have brought the whole fragile edifice crashing down along with the chandelier? And would any other producer than Cameron Mackintosh have had the chutzpah to pull the whole confection into life?
I remember one potential director said to Cameron and me that the opening 'chandelier moment' could never work. I believe that is the most theatrical moment that I have ever conceived, a moment that can only be achieved in live theatre.
Love, passion and live theatre are what Phantom is all about. I am profoundly grateful that my masked balls struck such a deep chord throughout the world. I still get goosebumps every time that chandelier comes alive like some alien spaceship and infuses the theatre with something that only happens when design, direction and music are completely at one.
'The Phantom of the Opera at the Royal Albert Hall' will be available on DVD, Blu Ray, CD and download. Go to www.phantom25th.com for details.