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Play it again, and again ...

Yes, it gets boring, but it's been a steady gig for three cast members of 'Phantom' who've been there from the start.

January 06, 2006|David Segal | Washington Post

NEW YORK — Sometimes he forgets his lines.

It doesn't happen often, but now and again George Lee Andrews will be singing or gamboling onstage at the Majestic Theatre, in front of a crowd of 1,600, and he will simply go blank. He'll hunt, but it's like the words are dressed in camouflage and hiding in the jungle.

"Oh, I've had some legendary moments," chuckles Andrews, sitting in his dressing room one recent evening.

It's the kind of flop-sweat terror every Broadway actor knows. But Andrews is not just any Broadway actor. He's a cast member of "The Phantom of the Opera," a musical that is less than a week away from setting a record as the longest-running production in Broadway history. After a special gala performance on Monday, "Phantom" will have been performed 7,486 times, one more than "Cats," which closed five years ago. ("The Fantasticks," which was staged more than 17,000 times, doesn't count in this derby because it was an off-Broadway show, which means it ran in a theater with fewer than 500 seats.)

Here's the staggering part: Andrews has been in the show, continuously, since opening night. When "Cats" closed there wasn't a single actor who'd been in the production from the start. "Phantom" has three: Andrews, Richard Warren Pugh and Mary Leigh Stahl. Excluding vacation and sick leave, this trio has been rehashing the same story about the same half-masked freak in the same hokey extravaganza, eight times a week, for 18 consecutive years.

Imagine it. Eighteen years of Andrew Lloyd Webber's NutraSweet score, a hybrid that suggests Puccini as rendered by A Flock of Seagulls. Plus numbingly sentimental lyrics, courtesy of Charles Hart and Richard Stilgoe. It's the sort of punishment that the Geneva Conventions were supposed to ban, isn't it? But the math doesn't lie. Tally up the actual stage time, excluding rehearsals, and each of these three actors has spent 750 24-hour days, more than two years of their respective lives, performing "Phantom."

"People ask me if I get bored," says Andrews, who seems the opposite of aggrieved and rarely stops smiling. "That's not really an issue for me."

Everybody knew "The Phantom of the Opera," an adaptation of the novel by Gaston Leroux, would be a hit when it opened here in 1988. The original, in London, was a phenomenon, and the show opened in Manhattan with a record $18 million in advance ticket sales.

Reviews were generally positive, and the production eventually won seven Tony Awards, including best musical.

But there are hits and there are Hits. With worldwide box office receipts of more than $3.2 billion, "Phantom" is now the highest-grossing entertainment venture in history -- dwarfing the $1.8 billion earned by "Titanic." According to the show's public relations office, more than 80 million people around the world have seen "Phantom," either in one of the six permanent productions scattered from Budapest to Tokyo or in the U.S. road version, which has for years been crisscrossing the country. Another version is set to open at the Venetian Hotel in Las Vegas.

The show's director, Harold Prince, thinks the atmosphere of fantasy is key to its success.

"It's far removed from the lives that people live outside the theater," he said by phone last week. "It's like a kid coming to a magic show. Everyone leaves their troubles behind, and you enter this world that is mysterious and glamorous and exotic."

The movie version, released in 2004, certainly helped. It was a flop, but the advertising campaign used the same imagery and music. Like everything else on Broadway, the show took a beating after 9/11 crushed the tourism business. But "we just checked the grosses and 2005 will be our best year ever," says Alan Wasser, who manages the production.

The producers have built their latest ad campaign, billed as "Remember Your First Time," on the assumption that everyone on Earth has sat through it already, and probably more than once. Hard-core Phans -- as they call themselves, naturally -- have been to the show dozens and sometimes hundreds of times and swamp chat rooms with minutiae and memories.

The Majestic's dressing room area feels surprisingly like a cabin on a submarine. Everything is packed in close, every inch of space is used, and before a show, everyone is scurrying to do a job they seem to know by heart. You hear the tra-la-las of performers warming up. A voice on a loudspeaker booms a countdown to curtain time and occasionally the name of an actor.

"If you don't sign in, they start calling your name on the PA," Andrews says in his dressing room. "Then they'll call your cellphone. That happens to me when I'm at Starbucks."

Andrews moved to New York City more than 30 years ago from Milwaukee, starting his Broadway career in 1973 with "Jacques Brel Is Alive and Well and Living in Paris." For the last past five years, he's played Monsieur Andre, his third part over these past 18 years.

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