SANDY — It was a race to Broadway, and Andrew Lloyd Webber’s “Phantom of the Opera” won.
For 31 years, Broadway’s longest-running show has had an uncontested run in the Majestic Theatre, winning seven Tony Awards, playing to 18.5 million people and grossing more than $1.1 billion. The musical is a Broadway juggernaut.
Which is why the other story about the Phantom, the one that digs deeper into the mysterious character’s past, didn’t stand a chance — at least on Broadway.
But that story had a head start. By the mid-1980s, Tony Award-winning composer Maury Yeston had written the music for “Phantom.” He and his writing partner, Arthur Kopit, had secured Broadway investors. And then an article in Variety brought them to a screeching halt: Andrew Lloyd Webber was going to do his own adaptation of Gaston Leroux’s novel, “Phantom of the Opera.”
Yeston knew better than to compete with the guy who had given the world “Cats.”
“(We thought), ‘If Andrew’s going to do that show … we’ll just move on,’” Yeston recently told the Deseret News from his New York home.
As Webber’s “Phantom of the Opera” began to thrive on Broadway, Yeston’s “Phantom” collected dust on a shelf. Yeston started working on other projects — a piece for renowned tenor Placido Domingo, and the musical “Titanic,” among others. But when Kopit saw “Phantom of the Opera” on Broadway — to this day, Yeston hasn’t seen Webber’s production — he knew their take on the Phantom was fundamentally different. It could still work.
So “Phantom” started coming to life. It got a two-part miniseries on NBC in 1990, followed by a theatrical debut in 1991. It’s had more than 1,000 productions around the world — including a current run at the Hale Centre Theatre in Sandy, Utah. That’s a far cry from “Phantom of the Opera’s” 13,000 performances on Broadway, but Yeston is proud of the life it’s had.
“It was the greatest hit never to be produced on Broadway,” he told The New York Times in 2003.
Yeston, who turned 74 on Wednesday, still believes that.
In fact, Yeston believes “Phantom” has the potential to be more popular than ever as it capitalizes on a storyline that has seen a recent surge in the entertainment industry: Seeing our villains in a different light.
Understanding the Phantom
From “Joker” to the “Maleficent” franchise, the backstories of our classic villains are a predominant theme in Hollywood right now. In North America, “Joker” brought in $96 million during opening weekend, making it the highest-grossing opening in October history, CNN reported. Although “Maleficent: Mistress of Evil” didn’t fare well at the box office, it did knock “Joker” out of the No. 1 box office spot during its opening weekend.
And then on Broadway, there’s “Wicked” — the popular musical that shows us that Elphaba, aka the Wicked Witch of the West, really isn’t so wicked after all. The Tony Award-winning musical has been on Broadway since 2003 and surpassed $1 billion in Broadway revenue in 2016. In 2017, “Wicked” jumped ahead of “The Phantom of the Opera” as Broadway’s second-highest grossing musical, trailing only behind “The Lion King.”
Villains are popular. But recent trends in the entertainment industry are suggesting that the misunderstood villain is even more popular.
Which is why Yeston believes his take on “The Phantom of the Opera” continues to be a story worth telling.
“The Phantom is a classic bad guy,” Yeston said. “But we cry for him.”
Unlike Webber’s “Phantom of the Opera,” Yeston’s Phantom that lurks in the catacombs beneath the Paris Opera House isn’t so mysterious. We get to know him. We quickly learn the Phantom’s name — Erik. We learn who his parents are and how he had a loving mother who didn’t recoil at the sight of his deformed face. We catch a glimpse of his childhood. We learn that he loves William Blake’s poetry and that he even has a sense of humor, at one point insulting diva Carlotta’s voice by saying it’s “worse than my face.”
“As misshapen or as unattractive as he is on the outside, he’s been raised with nothing but the most beautiful music in the world — gorgeous soprano voices wafting down through the bottom of the stage all the way down to the crypt. He’s been surrounded by musical beauty from the moment he was born. And that’s how beautiful he is on the inside,” Yeston said. “And that’s the Elephant Man or that’s Quasimodo. There’s a universal thought there: ‘Despite my outward imperfections, inside I mean well.’ And I kind of liked that guy.”
Living quietly beneath the Paris Opera House, the Phantom doesn’t want to cause harm, Yeston said. He lets music — the only beautiful thing in his life — wash over him. Beneath the opera house, he’s safe. But if his secret life were to be uncovered, he’d be put on display and publicly ridiculed and, worst of all, music would be taken from him. The Phantom would stop at nothing to maintain that beauty in his life.
“Wherever music plays, I know I’m home,” he sings.
Because of these circumstances, Yeston said the Phantom isn’t as much a villain as he is “a tragic figure.”
“He was dealt a very bad hand by life, and he was put into a situation which, unfortunately, led him to have to do things that he never would’ve wanted to do,” Yeston said, adding that it’s when someone accidentally stumbles upon the Phantom’s lair that the character’s rampage begins. “He does that because he feels he has no choice.”
Webber’s version briefly touches on the Phantom’s past, but Yeston’s version brings that past to life — especially in the second half — and allows it to drive the story.
“‘Phantom’ is a rare game that challenges our definition of evil,” John J. Sweeney, director of Hale Centre Theatre’s “Phantom,” said in a news release. “The difference in this story of the Phantom is that it allows us to consider the life of this misunderstood opera ghost and the circumstances which led him to become an outcast in the world. This show will … encourage you to see familiar characters in a different light.”
Why are stories about villains continuously popular? From a murderous uncle in William Shakespeare’s “Hamlet” — which heavily influenced Scar’s character in “The Lion King” — to Batman’s archenemy Joker and countless villains in between.
“Look how much of the best of human imagination over the centuries has been dedicated to creating … an evil figure,” Yeston said. “We’re entertained by it.”
The power of these stories, Yeston added, is that they let us explore evil through the filter of fiction. Psychiatrist Carl Jung called for an exploration of humanity’s dark side, arguing that confronting the worst of humanity was essential for growth: “One does not become enlightened by imagining figures of light, but by making the darkness conscious,” he wrote. So stories that explore humanity’s worst can in turn help us to better identify and resist evil, Yeston said.
“They help us deal with our actual nightmares by putting ourselves in a safe situation where we can be entertained by our worst fears,” he said. “Frightened by it, but at the same time, come away from it unscathed.”
So in their take on “Phantom of the Opera,” Yeston and Kopit chose to paint the Phantom in a more realistic light; as a multidimensional human being rather than a distant mysterious entity. Through humor and music, they chose to make the Phantom more relatable — someone that the audience could understand. And while “Phantom” branches significantly from Leroux’s 20th-century novel — Yeston joked that he and Kopit “made 90% of it up” — Yeston said the story remains “true to the heart of the book.”
“If I didn’t invent my own Phantom and my own story about him and put in something that isn’t in that book, then you know what? Just raise the curtain and read the book to the audience,” Yeston said. “If I’m going to do an adaptation of a book, I’m borrowing everything that’s in that book, but I have to pay back with interest. I have to bring something to it. I have to invent.”
Because “Phantom’s” plans for Broadway were derailed, Yeston had more time to think about the iconic character’s story, and how he could bring greater understanding to that tale. And “Phantom” has since come to life all over the world — including a 1990s tour in Germany that featured Kristin Chenoweth in the lead role of Christine Daae, and the current production at Sandy’s Hale Centre Theatre.
“Sometimes the last thing you expect is that something that you think is a setback is actually something that turns into a wonderful step forward,” Yeston said. “It’s a great lesson, isn’t it?”
If you go ...
What: Maury Yeston and Arthur Kopit’s “Phantom”
When: through Nov. 9, dates and times vary
Where: Hale Centre Theatre, 9900 S. Monroe St., Sandy
How much: $48-$52 for adults; $22-$26 for ages 5-17