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'Phantom' of the Desert

Broadway legend Hal Prince knew that if the musical was going to survive on the Strip, it would have to be trimmed down and gussied up, Vegas style.

September 27, 2009|Richard Abowitz

Hal Prince, unlike many, was absolutely expecting a hit from "Phantom: The Las Vegas Spectacular" at the Venetian. Opening in June 2006, the show, along with "Jersey Boys" and the recently opened "Lion King," are the survivors of what was once a faith that a Broadway-to-Vegas nexus would transform the Strip into Broadway West. To my knowledge, no one is planning any more such shows on the Strip.

But from the beginning, Prince, 81, the Broadway legend known for his record 21 Tony Awards (which interests him so little that he was in Vegas rehearsing "Phantom" when he won his Lifetime Achievement honor), thought that idea was laughable. "I kept hearing 'Broadway West' and thinking, 'Do they know Vegas?' "

Prince's experience in Vegas goes back decades, to a 1955 production of "The Pajama Game." "I did four musicals in Vegas before I did ['Phantom']. At Caesars Palace, I cut 'Fiddler on the Roof' to an hour and 45, and it ran for years with Theodore Bikel."

Still incredibly sprightly and detail-focused, Prince was holding court in his hotel room at the Venetian, where he was the keynote speaker to a convention of "Phantom of the Opera" fans, though his real focus was to see the show and make sure it was as sharp as he likes things to be.

So even before the evidence arrived for the rest of Vegas in the openings and swift closures of "Avenue Q" (Wynn), "Hairspray" (Luxor), "The Producers" (Paris), and "Spamalot" (Wynn), Prince had no doubt that Vegas shows required a rhythm that was very different from a typical Broadway show. And so he had no problem going back to "Phantom of the Opera" and reinventing the production. The name change clearly did not please composer Andrew Lloyd Webber, who at the time said he hoped the name would change back soon

But Prince wanted a show that would work in Vegas; he knew he was going to cut sections, change things and totally blow up the stages, sets and add plenty of pyro to make it all very Vegas, because to him this also worked for the show.

"It was challenging in the best sense. It awakened possibilities. I don't want anyone playing with it but me. But I wasn't intimidated. I knew how to cut material so you can follow the story and not savage the score. That I learned. But also I could deliver the spectacle that was demanded by Vegas. From the first preview in London 23 years ago to the 9,000th performance on Broadway, which was the day before yesterday, nothing was changed. The changes were only when we came to Vegas. But it is the same show."

Hundreds of hard-core fans traveled here from across the world to attend the convention, and many also saw the show night after night. And, of course, this weeklong convention, sponsored by the show's Vegas producer, was a savvy way to capitalize on fan dedication.

Typical was Mandy Grainger, 21, who lives near San Francisco and sells sewing machines at a fabric store. Her review: "I think this is the best production I have seen."

At a masquerade ball, a party at the convention modeled after a scene from the show, fans and cast mingled, all dressed in character. Grainger was dressed as the minor character Meg Giry, which wasn't surprising since she has a fan site dedicated to the character (Little Meg). Standing next to her was another Meg Giry. This one was the actress Brianne Kelly Morgan, who plays Meg in the Las Vegas production of "Phantom."

So many fans arrived in detailed costumes that it was impossible to figure out who was really in the cast as the party unfolded on a bridge over an indoor canal in the Venetian's shopping mall. Mark Bramlette, a local retiree, was dressed as the character Raoul. But his costume, he proudly noted, is more historically accurate. "It is inspired by Raoul. But mine is a bit fancier. It was a real labor of love. You can get all of this on the Net."

Of course, a production this expensive to mount and maintain, no matter how dedicated, can't survive on only the loyalty of superfans like the couple of hundred costumed at the party. "Phantom" is still doing eight performances a week in an 1,800-seat theater because back in 2006 Prince wasn't buying into Broadway West for Vegas.



For more Vegas coverage, go to the Movable Buffet blog.

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