“Think of Me Fondly”: The Phantom of the Opera Closes After 35 Years
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The Phantom of the Opera is one of the most iconic, well-known shows to ever run on Broadway. It epitomizes the spirit of musical theater: in just two and a half hours, the audience is transported to a lush, immersive world of romance and melodrama. The Gothic love story follows the beautiful soprano Christine Daaé and the titular antihero who is enamored with her, the Phantom. The last performance of Phantom on April 16, 2023, marks the end of a 35-year era.
The Phantom of the Opera came to Broadway on January 26, 1988, after first appearing in London’s West End two years prior. Since then, the show has amassed a long list of awards, including seven Tonys, and broken several records for its success. After the 7,486th performance of Phantom in January 2006, it became the longest-running show in Broadway history, surpassing Cats. By the final performance, Phantom had grossed $1.36 billion and had been performed in front of 20 million people (roughly equivalent to every person in Los Angeles watching it five times). This fame extends beyond New York City and London; Phantom has been played in 45 countries and 17 languages across the globe. Through this ludicrous level of economic success and worldwide superstar status, The Phantom of the Opera set the bar for other musicals in renown and prosperity.
Why, then, did The Phantom of the Opera close? Simply put, it wasn’t making enough money to sustain itself. Box office sales were low, as is expected for long-running productions. Local New Yorkers are unlikely to be drawn to a musical that is the mantlepiece of Broadway, meaning that the majority of its audience were tourists. COVID-19 dealt a severe blow to Phantom when tourism dropped. The entirety of the commercial theater industry faced the consequences of quarantine. Nonetheless, some shows, like Wicked and Hamilton, have managed to recover from the pandemic more effectively than Phantom, retaining booming success to this day.
Inflation also contributed to the show’s already high production costs, which are extravagant due to the expensive props and costumes, as well as the large array of cast and crew members. Cameron Mackintosh, the joint producer of Phantom, estimated that the weekly cost of putting on the show has risen by $100,000 since pre-pandemic times. This can be attributed to the increasing costs of materials for sets, costumes, and other production elements due to inflation, as well as the rising cost of labor. These factors force productions to raise ticket costs, making it less accessible for potential viewers. Generally, the shows that are currently most likely to prosper are brand new ones with smaller orchestras and casts, unlike The Phantom of the Opera.
The final performance was an exclusive, invitation-only event for Phantom alumni, notable actors (including Glenn Close and Lin-Manuel Miranda), and fans who had won the ticket lottery. Many attended the performance dressed in Phantom of the Opera-inspired costumes. Outside the Majestic Theatre, Phantom of the Opera fans—or “Phans,” as they call themselves—gathered to celebrate their love for the musical. This enduring enthusiasm is reflective of Phantom’s relevancy, even at the end of its run. At the final curtain call, the stagehands who made the production possible were invited onto the stage and met with the audience’s emphatic applause. Even the iconic chandelier, which crashed from the ceiling for the very last time that night, gave a bow.
The Phantom of the Opera existed as somewhat of an oxymoron: theater is known for being an industry that is unstable and ever-changing, but the beloved show remained a constant for decades while the city around it and the world of musical theater evolved. It was a time capsule of ‘80s Broadway, complete with rock-pop and over-the-top histrionics, but it remained timeless enough to excite fans for years. Despite its ultimate—and inevitable—decline, Phantom has aged well and will likely continue to do so, especially now that it has been laid to rest. However, the fact that it was taken off Broadway holds significance for the music industry as a whole, representing the increasing dangers within a field that is already recognized as economically risky. It is rare for long-lasting hits of the Phantom’s kind, like The Lion King and Chicago, to survive. In the uncertain post-pandemic world, which defeated even The Phantom of the Opera, will these phenomena become even rarer?
Many speculate that The Phantom of Opera will return to Broadway one day in a magnificent revival; Mackintosh himself stated that he believes it will do so at some point. This possibility does not appear to be out of reach, as the celebration of the show in its final days suggests. For now, though, the chandelier will collect dust until it is brought back to life once more.