A Short History of “The Phantom of the Opera”

The Cover of the Gaston Leroux’s 1920 novel.

We all know “The Phantom of the Opera” as a great show on Broadway and other well-known stages, but the story began long before it became a long-running musical. From newspaper to novel to film to two different stage versions and finally to film again, let’s look at the various ways this timeless tale has been told.

Gaston Leroux was born in Paris in 1868 and graduated with a law degree when he was 21. He then inherited millions of francs and went on a reckless spending streak. Approaching bankruptcy, Leroux needed a job, began work as a journalist, and eventually started writing fiction.

In September 1909, The French newspaper “Le Gaulois” published the first chapter of a new story by Leroux. Over the next four months, the complete “Le Fantôme de l’Opéra” appeared in print, and then it was published as a novel. The book did not sell well, and has even been out of print several times.

Lon Cheney as the Phantom

Lon Cheney as the Phantom

The first successful adaptation of Leroux’s “Phantom” was in 1925 when Universal Studios produced a silent film with Lon Chaney. These were the last years of silent films, and four years later the studio dubbed, added music, and re-shot portions of the movie. Its success led Universal to create a series of classic horror films, including “Frankenstein”, “Dracula”, “The Wolf Man”, and “The Mummy”.

A second film of “The Phantom of the Opera”, released in 1962, did not garner much critical acclaim. The title role was played by Herbert Lom. Fans of “The Pink Panther” movies will remember him as the twitchy-eyed Chief Inspector Dreyfuss who Peter Sellers (as Inspector Clouseau) unwittingly taunted.

Enter Andrew Lloyd Webber

A poster from the stage version.

The most important adaptation of Leroux’s story came two decades later. Andrew Lloyd Webber, who already had great successes with “Evita” and “Cats”, thought “The Phantom of the Opera” would make a good musical. The British composer later commented, “I was trying to write a major romantic story, and I had been trying to do that ever since I started my career. Then with the Phantom, it was there!”

“Phantom” opened in London’s West End on October 9, 1986 with Michael Crawford in the title role, Sarah Brightman as Christine, and Steve Barton as Raoul. The London production celebrated its 10,000th performance in 2010, and is only surpassed by “Les Misérables” (which opened in 1985) and Agatha Christie’s “The Mousetrap” (1952). All three are still running.

On this side of the Atlantic, the show opened in Broadway’s Majestic Theater on January 26, 1988 with the same three lead actors. It is the longest-running Broadway musical, and surpassed 10,000th performances in January 2012.

Tony and Olivier Awards

Michael Crawford and Sarah Brightman

Of course it is not surprising that “The Phantom of the Opera” has won numerous awards. The two most important were Broadway’s Tony Award and the London’s Olivier Award (the equivalent of the Tony) for Best Musical. Michael Crawford also won the Tony and the Olivier for Best Performance by an Actor in a Musical.

Lloyd Webber’s wonderful music has been featured in many productions worldwide. Cast recordings have been made in Japanese, Dutch, Korean, Swedish, Hungarian, and several other languages. A final version of “Phantom”, a film adaptation of Lloyd Webber’s musical, was released in 2004. It grossed more than $50 million, and was even more successful overseas.

This article first appeared in Greensboro, North Carolina’s News and Record on October 21, 2012.

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