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Record Ticket Sales Precede 'Phantom' Opening Tonight : Latest Import From Lloyd Webber

January 26, 1988|JAY SHARBUTT | Times Staff Writer

NEW YORK — That Andrew Lloyd Webber's "The Phantom of the Opera" opens tonight on Broadway has been amply noted. Let history also record there was a small problem in its fourth preview earlier this month.

A bed got stuck en route to the wings. Stagehands heaved and grunted in semi-darkness as the lovely heroine, played by Sarah Brightman, Lloyd Webber's wife, sweetly sang. The bed finally exited. No more problems.

A huge chandelier safely rose over the orchestra seats and later returned to the stage. Candles ascended from a fog-shrouded floor without flaw. And when the players took their final bows, Michael Crawford, as the horribly disfigured phantom in the half-mask, got a standing ovation. But that and 15 other previews were merely tuneups, working out the kinks before the premiere of this portrayal of a madman in love with young soprano at the Paris Opera.

Reviewers will have their say beginning with the 11 p.m. local news broadcasts here tonight. But with a record advance ticket sale of $17 million, not even the harshest critical boo may faze this "Phantom," the latest Lloyd Webber bundle from Britain.

"It's close to being as fool-proof--or critic-proof--as anything can be," says one veteran, Alexander H. Cohen, who began producing on Broadway in 1941, seven years before the British composer was born.

This lush, lavish, romantically gloomy production joins Lloyd Webber's two other hits here, "Cats" and "Starlight Express." It makes him the only composer around with three musicals running simultaneously here and in London. It also makes him a welcome one-man industry for actors and musicians here who, like Broadway itself, have known lean times in recent years. His three large-cast shows employ a total of 113 players and 79 musicians.

Even before its opening, "Phantom" has become The Event of the Broadway season. Crowds swarm at the box office on 44th Street. Mendicants offer $200 to a patron holding a coveted $50 orchestra-seat ticket. Good luck, pal. Those kinds of tickets we're told are sold out for the next nine months.

And press coverage rivals that of the Super Bowl, with NBC, ABC and CBS all scheduling "Phantom" stories on their evening newscasts and a major "20/20" piece on Friday that ABC promoted with the hyperbolic claim that "Phantom" fever was sweeping the country. Whether, in fact, it had is debatable, but it certainly had gripped Time and New York magazines, which ran cover stories on composer Lloyd Webber and the show, respectively.

Fifteen-time Tony award winner Harold Prince, who has directed this and been involved in 28 other musicals, including Lloyd Webber's 1979 hit, "Evita," hasn't seen anything like it.

"For the Shuberts," he says, referring to the Shubert Theater chain in whose Majestic Theatre "Phantom" lurks, "it's 'Fiddler on the Roof,' 'My Fair Lady' and 'A Chorus Line' all rolled into one."

But the musical hasn't come cheap, far from it, and that worries the veteran director, who staged the "Phantom" that originally premiered in London in October, 1986, and still is doing heavy business there. It cost $8 million to bring the show here, equaling the record budget for importing "Starlight Express" from London last March.

The Shuberts spent another $1.5 million to renovate the Majestic stage--the 1973 home of Stephen Sondheim's Prince-directed "A Little Night Music"--for the scenery and special effects involved in "Phantom." Because of the large cast and orchestra, the costumes and scenery, "Phantom" may need 18 months to recoup its Broadway costs, according to one of the show's executives, even if it plays to sold-out or near-capacity houses as many think it will.

While he's "really happy this is such a success," Prince is concerned that the future for made-in-America musicals is "very grim" unless costs can be brought down and that fact is realized by "the Broadway community--namely producers and theater owners and the country at large."

Prince, who staged the original "Cabaret" and its recent Broadway revival, fears that Broadway's high costs are making producers less willing to gamble on shows that have not first succeeded elsewhere.

"They want sure things," says the director, whose views may in part be due to three Broadway misfires earlier this decade, including Sondheim's "Merrily We Roll Along." (Despite his worries, Prince remains something of an optimist. He's working on a musical stage version of the film "Kiss of the Spider Woman" as well as two future operatic projects here, "Faust" and "Don Giovanni.")

Cameron Mackintosh holds a dissenting view. He's the producer of "Phantom," "Cats" and a non-Lloyd Webber hit musical, "Les Miserables," which came here from London last March with similar heavy press coverage and an $11-million advance sale.

"I don't agree with him," says the short, energetic British producer, whose "Les Miz," as the locals call it, is scheduled to open in June at the Los Angeles Shubert in Century City.

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