Last fall, two twenty-something New Yorkers waiting by a stage door for a glimpse of Bernadette Peters struck up a conversation about the current crop of shows on Broadway. “Phantom’s definitely going to be closed within five years, no question,” one remarked to the other, who nodded emphatically in return, “oh for sure – it’s been around forever!” If you listened closely, you could almost hear a certain Opera Ghost laughing from the shadows, “ignorant fools…!”
For today at 2pm, the curtain – and a certain chandelier – will rise in the Majestic theatre for the 10,000th performance of Lord Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Phantom of the Opera. And while some may regard the historic achievement as something of a surprise, Kris Koop knows better. Having been with the Broadway cast of Phantom since 2000, this upbeat actress (and unofficial Phantom Historian) has seen first-hand how passion and precision have made the show a record-breaker on the Great White Way.
“They’re not afraid to invest money in making the show look gorgeous,” Koop begins, as stagehands painstakingly Windex crystals on the ornate chandelier, hoping to ensure optimal sparkle for the evening’s performance. “A lot of the crew guys have been with the production from the very beginning,” she notes. “There’s actually two families with two generations working here now and I’m sure that before the show is done, the next generation will be on-contract as well.”
Other upkeep rituals include repainting the glossy stage every three months and, when necessary, investing forty-five thousand dollars into replacing a costume…some of which, Koop admits, look rather strange up-close. “This,” she says, tugging at Christine’s “All I Ask Of You” ensemble, “is a dress that, to me, looks like Florida threw up on it.” It’s a fair assessment, given the garment is a gaudy combination of shiny pink and purple patches surrounded by lace. “It’s hideous, but when you see it on-stage, it glows silver and is absolutely gorgeous.”
In her nine years with the production (a two-year break was required to recover from a neck injury), Koop has worn several gowns, first as an understudy in the lead role of Christine, then as the mysterious Mme Giry and diva Carlotta Giudicelli. “I’m the first person in the show’s history to cover those three tracks, and I’ve performed them all within the same two-week period. They were having some fun with me,” she says with a laugh, adding that it’s rare for any actor to be able to age into various roles in the same Broadway show.
She’s not alone in that distinction, however. Hugh Panaro, who currently stars as the Phantom, began as Christine’s young suitor Raoul in 1992 before being invited back to portray the lead in 1999. A series of photo murals beneath the stage pays homage to the various cast-members who, like Panaro, departed the show at some point in the past twenty-four years. “We say it’s the Hotel California here: you can’t ever really get away,” Koop jokes as she begins her transformation into Mme Firmin with a few dabs of foundation. Among the faces adorning the walls are those of the original Phantom and Christine, Michael Crawford and Sarah Brightman, along with Patti Cohenour, who understudied for Brightman and starred in the Canadian Touring Company. Wally Carroll, who minds the stage door entrance to the Majestic, remembers them all well. Apparently, Crawford and Brightman kept more to themselves, while Cohenour was quite personable. Most fondly remembered is George Lee Andrews, who spent twenty-three years with the show alternating between the roles of Opera Managers Monsieur André and Monsieur Firmin…until producers opted not to renew his contract last fall, to the surprise of many. A Guinness World Record holder for his 9,382 performances in Phantom, Andrews made the impressive murals as a parting gift to the Company.
It seems a safe bet he, along with other Phantom alumni, will turn up at some point during today’s performance and post-show reception at Sardi’s (a 500 dollar ticket with proceeds going to The Actors Fund). Though an appearance from Webber or Crawford might not be in the cards, legendary director Hal Prince could unexpectedly stop by, as he is wont to do. “He comes through the front of house more often than not under the pretext that he’s going to just use the restroom,” Koop smiles, flashing back to a particularly memorable visit. “I’m not sure if [this is] fit for publication,” she cautions, “but I was on in the role of Carlotta and I had all of her make-up on and the wig and everything, but I was just wearing the lingerie, and I heard a knock on my dressing room door. I went and opened it and it was Hal Prince himself, and he just stood there for a minute and he clasped his hands and then took my face in his hands and gave me a little kiss and he stepped back and went ‘Thank you!’”
Koop, for her part, is grateful the director has allowed the production to evolve over time. “He’s very much about what is real and coming from you, and that’s why I think the show is also a living and breathing organism. It’s not Hugh Panaro shoved into someone else’s shoes and trying to recreate his performance. He’s doing his own Phantom and everyone on the show really gets the chance to invest their own spirit into it.”
It’s worth noting that Phantom, like any other Broadway production, has experienced its share of challenges over the years. Especially troubling were the days immediately following September 11th 2001, when fear reigned in the Big Apple. “It’s wasn’t just us, but we were performing for audiences of 300 instead of 1,600,” Koop remembers. “It was a dark time for everyone, and we’re so grateful that the Mayor at the time realized that what happened was a terrible, terrible event but you can’t just lay down and die because of it.” A massive advertising campaign was launched to boost tourism, tickets were heavily discounted and gradually audiences returned. Then, in 2004, the Joel Schumacher-directed feature film adaptation of Phantom hit screens, prompting many to wonder if the movie might eclipse the popularity the theatrical production. Instead, Gerard Butler’s hoarse performance as the Angel of Music seemed to have the opposite effect, renewing interest in the professionally trained vocalists singing the Music of the Night eight times a week. Even “phan” uproar surrounding Webber’s recent sequel musical, Love Never Dies (which reunites the Phantom and Christine in Coney Island) hasn’t seemed to tarnish the original’s appeal.
And so, the legend of the Opera Ghost endures. The cast has welcomed Andrews’ son-in-law Aaron Galligan-Stierle into the fold as their new André. Koop is planning a third edition of her popular cast cookbook, The Phantom Cooks, to raise more money for Broadway Cares/Equity Fights Aids. Having learned her lesson from sorting through co-workers hand-written recipes, however, she vows “this time, I’ll have people email them to me.” Outside, the marquee of the Majestic Theatre proudly displays an updated version of the mask logo, welcoming audiences to experience the gothic love story first-hand, which they continue to do without any signs of stopping. “We really do sell in the top five of all Broadway shows,” Koop notes. “Even when there’s new hits, like The Book of Mormon, we’re always right in there.”
Perhaps this is because Phantom can still cast its spell over even the most indifferent of audience members. Audible “ooohs” and “ahhhhs” continue to be heard as the dazzling Masquerade is glimpsed following Intermission, to say nothing of the awed hush that falls over the crowd when Christine descends into the misty, candlelit lair. Webber’s sweeping score, however entrenched it may now be in our collective consciousness, still conjures up goose bumps and teary eyes in equal measure. Yet what holds it all together, unquestionably, is the sense of family uniting those who have worked behind-the-scenes to keep Phantom at the top of its game all these years. In so doing, they’ve provided a certain lonely, scarred composer with a place to finally fit in, and more than earned their right to celebrate.
For more information on The Phantom of the Opera at the Majestic Theatre, visit http://www.thephantomoftheopera.com/new-york .