A Hit That Has Outlasted 10,000 Chandeliers
“The Phantom of the Opera” will make show business history on Saturday with the 10,000th Broadway performance of an $8 million production that became an $845 million hit. But it is also something much more. It is the musical that has come to define modern Broadway by proving the purchasing power of women and tourists, the durability of repeat business and the lure of spectacle: ingredients for success embraced by producers of “The Lion King,” “Wicked,” “Mamma Mia!” and other smashes.
While “Phantom” has prospered from unparalleled word of mouth, a show as much for sightseers as for theatergoers, its unprecedented Broadway run has hardly been a foregone conclusion. When it opened on Jan. 26, 1988, big hits were few, and roughly half of Broadway’s theaters were empty. Yet thanks to persistent marketing, strict quality control and flexibility in ticket pricing (the worst seats can now be had for only $26.50), “Phantom” survived — in fact thrived — when shows with bigger stars and better reviews brought down their curtains.
The show’s 2011 box office performance was its most lucrative, and in December “Phantom” earned more in a single week, $1,579,428, than in any of the 1,256 weeks since the musical reached New York.
It’s a windfall for investors like James B. Freydberg, who recalled recently that he and his business partner decided to put $500,000 into “Phantom” in 1987 because they figured they might do better than in the stock market, which had just crashed on Black Monday. They have gone on to earn about $12 million from “Phantom” through Broadway and national tours, and still receive regular checks of $100,000 from a show that Mr. Freydberg hasn’t seen since opening night 24 years ago.
“No one ever, ever expected this kind of wealth,” he said. “My only other investment that has performed better is my Apple stock.”
From years of detailed audience surveys, the producers and creators of “Phantom” have honed the ways to maximize its appeal, whether emphasizing the show’s love story in advertising or offering sharp discounts so audience members will return. More than 40 percent of “Phantom” patrons have seen it at least once before, and a majority of “Phantom” audiences in 2011 saw no other Broadway show that year. About 68 percent were women, and nearly 60 percent were tourists.
“Based on all our data, we’re able to predict, for virtually each week of the year, what the demand for seats will be, what types of people will be coming and how to price the seats,” said Alan Wasser, the production’s general manager.
Katie Spohr, a 24-year-old from Illinois with an internship in Manhattan, is one of those people. “I wanted to pick a musical that was really well established, that everyone would like, and I’d heard it was something you can’t leave without seeing,” Ms. Spohr said outside the Majestic on Tuesday night. She bought tickets to take her boyfriend, Sam, visiting from Indiana. “He’s not a big theatergoer,” she added. Sam shrugged in assent.
Today’s Broadway formula often involves adapting brand-name movies into stage musicals and star-driven shows, but “Phantom” relies on a slightly different model. It, too, was an adaptation — of a 1909 French novel — and it arrived on Broadway on the tail end of a winning streak by its producer, Cameron Mackintosh, and its composer, Andrew Lloyd Webber. But while its crashing chandelier drew much of the attention in London (where it still runs) and during its early days in New York, it’s the heart-filling, heartbreaking plot and lush music that provide staying power on Broadway, where only 30 percent of shows ever turn a profit.
“Any supersuccessful show depends on audiences’ coming back, and to do that a musical has to find a way to hit people in the solar plexus,” Mr. Mackintosh said in an interview. “There aren’t many epic love stories on Broadway anymore, like ‘South Pacific’ or ‘The King and I,’ where people get swept away.”
Reminded of the weak reviews from 1988, Mr. Mackintosh scoffed at the idea that “Phantom” had become the theatrical equivalent of comfort food. Mr. Lloyd Webber agreed, saying, “ ‘Phantom’ doesn’t exactly have the traditional leading man, or the traditional happy ending.”
The show’s weekly running costs have been tightened over the years to about $600,000, modest for any musical and low for one with such elaborate sets and costumes. As a result, the show turned a profit almost every week in 2011.
But Mr. Mackintosh has not stinted on marketing efforts that have cost millions over the years. While he declined to provide precise figures, he said he long ago learned to ignore theater executives who maintained that advertising could be pared back as positive word of mouth spread.
Instead, the show’s simple visual signature — the Phantom’s white mask — remains on a billboard in Times Square and on signs on New York City buses. That mask has become a cultural reference point, like the two yellow eyes for “Cats” and the cap-wearing waif for “Les Misérables” — the next two longest-running shows on Broadway — and, more recently, the ornate doorbell for the hit Broadway musical “The Book of Mormon.”
The musical also benefited considerably from the multimillion-dollar advertising budget for the 2004 film adaptation, which came when Mr. Mackintosh noticed Broadway sales weakening. The production grossed $31.4 million in 2003, before the movie’s release; in the three subsequent years, the box office receipts rose to $34.6 million, $41.8 million and $43.5 million. Indeed, before entering Tuesday’s performance, two women from Helsinki, as well as another pair from Houston, said they first learned about the musical from seeing ads for the movie.
The women from Houston said they were also drawn by the unusually inexpensive seats in the rear mezzanine, whose prices were reduced in the last couple of years after the show’s general managers calculated that more money could be netted by selling that frequently empty section at cut rates. The $26.50 seats are the flip side of the dynamic pricing strategy that has spread among most Broadway shows, which charge premium prices for the best seats.
“Phantom” did its best business ever last year, grossing $44.8 million, including that record final week of the year; $1.5 million is an enormous weekly amount for any show.
Harold Prince, who won a Tony Award for directing “Phantom,” said he believed its enduring buzz was the result of keeping the performances sharp. The 84-year-old Mr. Prince said he returned four times a year to see and rehearse the show, and that resident directors were on hand to pounce on signs of staleness.
Not every version of “Phantom” has had the success of the one on Broadway. A truncated production that opened in 2006 in Las Vegas at a cost of $75 million is scheduled to close this September. And a sequel, “Love Never Dies,” flopped last year in London, though Mr. Lloyd Webber said he hoped a retooled version from Australia might make it to Broadway someday.
Mr. Mackintosh said he was hoping to do better with a new “Phantom” production he was assembling to tour in Britain and, if successful, perhaps in the United States.
“After 25 years it seems right to try a new approach if you’re going to send ‘Phantom’ out again,” he said, noting that the musical had played in 27 countries and 145 cities. (The show has grossed $5.6 billion worldwide.) “But it’s not like the old ‘Phantom’ is going anywhere. It will be in London and on Broadway, forever we hope.”