The Phantom's Trail

– Cameron Mackintosh

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My first acquaintance with the Phantom came one cold February morning in 1984 while I was soaking myself in a hot bath. Andrew Lloyd Webber telephoned me for a gossip. He dropped into the conversation the idea of making a musical out of The Phantom of the Opera. Even in my prune-like condition, I recognised Andrew had come up with another good idea.

We screened copies of the original Lon Chaney silent movie, and the later Claude Rains version. Though very enjoyable, neither one made us shout Eureka! So we decided to find a copy of the original Leroux novel. To our surprise, we found it out of print. Eventually Andrew found a copy on a second-hand stall in New York, and I found one in my aunt’s garage. We both much preferred the original story line.

Early in the summer of ’84, Ken Hill’s highly entertaining stage version was on in the East End of London. We went to see it, and resolved to press on and do our own version based on the novel.

When Andrew first talked to me about the idea, I assumed that he was also going to write the score; in fact, this was far from the case. Our initial press announcement in 1984 stated that “the score for The Phantom of the Opera will include both existing and original music”. It was Andrew’s first idea to use mainly famous classical works for the score, with him writing any incidental music that might be necessary. After all, the original novel had made much use of Gounod’s opera Faust as a background.

We spent most of our weekends that Autumn sifting through Andrew’s record collection, piecing together a score of operatic gems. It was very pleasant work, but destined to be fruitless.

Late in November ’84, we were invited to Tokyo to see the Japanese production of Cats. There we met Australian director Jim Sharman, who had directed The Rocky Horror Show and the hugely successful London production of Jesus Christ Superstar. He thought the idea of a musical Phantom very interesting and, between endless bouts of generous, but exhausting, Oriental hospitality we talked about what the show could be. The outcome was that Jim suggested that Andrew re-read the book and seriously consider writing the score himself.

A few weeks later, Andrew and I met up for a Christmas glass. He told me that he had taken Jim’s advice and had started work on the construction of the score. I drove home in high spirits.

Every year in July, Andrew has a music festival at his home in Sydmonton. Nearly everything he has written is tried out there in some form or other. The plan for Summer ’85 was to present a first draft of the first Act of Phantom. Richard Stilgoe, Andrew’s lyrical collaborator on Starlight Express, agreed to help out, and Maria Björnson, our designer, managed, by magic, to stage it on a 100 seater church on Andrew’s front lawn. She even managed the dropping of the chandelier. Greatly encouraged by Phantom’s reception on this occasion, we decided to press on with the project in earnest.

At the beginning of June ’85, Andrew bumped into Hal Prince at the Tony Awards in New York. When he told Hal what he was working on, Hal responded by saying that he also had been thinking of staging a musical romance.

We had found our director!

A few weeks later, we were in Australia for the opening of Cats. After the first night, I banished Andrew to an island off the Barrier Reef to map out the second act of Phantom. Five days and an extra ten pounds heavier, he completed most of his task. The hand of the Phantom nearly put paid to the musical when, on returning to the mainland, Andrew’s helicopter fell out of the sky on take-off. Luckily, it wasn’t serious, but it gave Andrew an insight into the feelings of the chandelier!

Over the next few months, the writing went slower than expected and the form of the musical changed. What was very much a book musical was moving in a more operatic direction. Andrew’s wife, Sarah, who by now had been cast in the role of “Christine”, proved to be a source of musical inspiration to Andrew with her extraordinary vocal range. It became apparent that the project was going to require another collaborator who would be more of a lyrical dramatist, extending Richard and Andrew’s original book. Andrew and I met with Alan Jay Lerner, an old friend and master book and lyric writer. He listened to the score and read the material, and was encouraging but perceptively critical. He agreed to work on the project. We had several meetings and some major constructional decisions were taken, but we noticed during our time together that Alan was not well. His condition worsened, and the day he was due to start working on the actual lyrics, he rang to say that he must bow out as he needed treatment for his illness. Sadly, he never recovered, and the world is a duller place for his loss.

Our professional problem was now to find a replacement for an irreplaceable talent. Our discussions led us back to a talented young lyricist we had spotted at the Vivian Ellis Musical Writers Competition the previous spring. His name – Charles Hart. Though he had not won the competition for the best musical, all the judges had commended him highly as a lyricist. We sent him a melody to set, and the result convinced Andrew that, if he wasn’t able to work with one of the world’s greatest lyricists, he’d like to work with one of the youngest and most promising.

The original production went into rehearsal in London on 18th August 1986. Hal Prince and Gillian Lynne assembled a wonderful cast and after several weeks of exhilarating mayhem Phantom opened at Her Majesty’s Theatre on 9th October and proceeded to become one of London’s greatest musical successes. Our trio of original stars enjoyed a similar triumph on Broadway eighteen months later where it is still running at the Majestic Theatre and since then Phantom has gone on to captivate audiences in major cities around the world.

As the overture starts and the chandelier weighing half a tonne comes alive, the legend of The Phantom of the Opera is once again reborn in what will always be a good old-fashioned, highly theatrical, musical romance.

Cameron Mackintosh
December 1990