In the years since 1988, the United States has seen an insurmountable amount of change. Same–sex marriage has become legal, the Chicago Cubs finally won their first World Series since 1908, and the iPhone was invented. But unlike the six U.S. Presidents, fourteen iterations of the iPhone, and 20 seasons of Keeping up with the Kardashians that have come and gone since 1988, one thing in American culture has stayed constant: Phantom of the Opera being on Broadway. On Feb. 18, 2023, that will no longer be true.
Phantom centers around the titular “Phantom of the Opera” and his tumultuous romance and obsession with the Soprano prodigy Christine Daaé. The show includes hits such as “Think of Me,” “All I Ask of You,” and “The Phantom of the Opera,” and is set in the opera world, complete with elaborate costumes, set designs, and a huge ensemble. For every performance of Phantom, there are 130 cast, crew, and orchestra members involved, which is necessary to manage the show’s 230 costumes, 14 dressers, 120 automated cues, 22 scene changes, 281 candles, 250 kg of dry ice, and ten fog and smoke machines.
Originally an import from London, the musical written by Andrew Lloyd Webber was an instant smash hit. Although critics didn’t think Phantom was the most well–written musical to ever grace the Broadway stage, it was an undeniable sensation from its first performance. After its Broadway debut in 1988, Phantom went on to win seven Tony awards (including beating the Sondheim classic Into the Woods for Best Musical) and only continued to grow its global fanbase.
On Jan. 9, 2006, Phantom surpassed Webber’s previous smash Cats as the longest–running show in Broadway history. Since that day, Phantom has performed over 6,000 more shows on Broadway, and has traveled to 33 countries, having an estimated international gross of $6 billion, more than the films Titanic and Avatar.
Phantom is not only one of the most commercially successful Broadway shows ever, but one of the select Broadway shows that is a true “blockbuster” phenomenon, more comparable to The Avengers or Star Wars than Broadway classics like Carousel or Gypsy. Phantom brought in an international audience not only for the music and the tortured characters, but for the spectacle. It became a brand as much as it was a musical; needless to say, smash hits like Wicked, Rent, and The Lion King would not be the commercial products they are if not for Phantom.
This kind of “spectacle” on Broadway, with operatic music, a commanding overture, and an iconic set piece like the chandelier, are not typical of today’s musicals. Aside from Wicked, The Lion King, and Hamilton, most shows on Broadway today are not trying to recreate the boom of Phantom, going for more human, smaller–scale stories. Shows like Dear Evan Hansen and Come from Away were big Broadway hits, both with relatively small ensembles, no extensive choreography, and more pop–contemporary music.
The reason for this is not so much because audiences don’t want spectacle, but more because the production costs for a show like Phantom are simply too large, and is the primary reason that Phantom is closing. The pandemic was a huge blow for all Broadway shows, but whereas other blockbuster musicals such as Wicked and The Lion King have been able to recover and keep up, Phantom faltered, and its high production costs (which have increased even further due to inflation) paired with its diminished box office returns are responsible for the closure.
Broadway has faced many crossroads since the pandemic began, but Phantom’s closing will be Broadway’s biggest change of the 21st century. No other show has performed in the Majestic Theater since 1988, and many performers and theatergoers have never come to Broadway without Phantom being there. Phantom’s makeup artist, Thelma Pollard, has been with the show since its opening, nearly 35 years ago. This transition period for Broadway will likely be one studied in theater history, as Broadway will have to decide if they want to invent the new Phantom (and see if that’s even possible), or move on from its grandeur.
After 13,925 performances, 19.8 million tickets sold, and over $1.3 billion grossed, Phantom’s mark on Broadway will not fade away quickly. It is a show that has resonated with audiences for decades, and will forever remain a staple in the pantheon of musical theater. Its impact on Broadway is indelible and undeniable, even to the show’s harshest critics. When the chandelier lowers one last time in the Majestic Theater, a part of Broadway history will lower as well, and all of musical theater will have to enter into the new “post–Phantom” normal.