(David Smith’s article appeared in the Guardian, 4/15; via Pam Green; Photo: The Phantom of the Opera has been seen by more than 140 million people worldwide. Photograph: Angela Weiss/AFP/Getty Images.)
Andrew Lloyd Webber’s hit musical is set for its final performance in New York, leaving behind an intense fanbase
He is used to having the worst seat in the house. Playing trumpet in the orchestra pit, Lowell Hershey has heard by Broadway audiences for decades but seldom gets to see the show himself. When The Phantom of the Opera opened in 1988, however, the Fomo became too much.
“I had never seen the show – I can’t even see the stage,” he says. “So about six months into the show I bought a ticket, hired a sub and and I sat the audience to watch because I was curious to see what the heck was such a big deal about this.”
As of last Saturday, by Hershey’s count, Phantom had run for 13,973 performances, and he had played trumpet in 10,059 of them. When the production closes on Sunday after 35 years, an all-time Broadway record, he will be in his usual spot at the Majestic Theatre for its swansong.
Phantom superfans are sure to be scrambling for tickets for a last chance to hear songs such as Masquerade, Angel of Music, All I Ask of You and The Music of the Night. Based on the 1910 French novel Le Fantôme de l’Opéra by Gaston Leroux, the story revolves around a mysterious and disfigured phantom who haunts the Paris Opera House and falls in love with the young soprano, Christine Daaé.
The musical by Andrew Lloyd Webber has been seen by more than 140 million people worldwide and grossed more than $6bn in revenue. The British actor Michael Crawford was the original phantom in both the West End and Broadway productions (Gerard Butler played the part in a 2004 film adaption).
But the show has also left critics cold. Some regard it as a gaudy spectacle, the vanguard of a “British invasion” of New York theatre that put style over substance, commercial smarts over high art. In the prosecutor’s case against “the blockbuster musical” and all that implies, it may well be Exhibit A.
Don’t tell that to Hershey, who took up the trumpet when he was nine and has played in many Broadway shows including Nicholas Nickleby, Big River, Rockabye Hamlet, Fiddler on the Roof, A Little Night Music and Follies. When the job on Phantom came up, he instantly warmed to its lush, romantic score.
“I thought the music sounded good,” the 75-year-old says by phone from New York. “The parts that we play were beautifully orchestrated. If you don’t understand the instrument, it’s possible to sit and write down a trumpet part that is impossible to play, even though it might be within the range of what a trumpeter is capable of playing.
“The orchestrator that did Phantom clearly understood all the instruments. There aren’t too many orchestrators that know how to write for harp but he did, so the harp part is just beautiful and not incredibly difficult. He made it playable. My first reaction was: oh, this is going to be pleasant!”
Phantom’s instant success on Broadway did not entirely take Hershey by surprise because it had already been playing to packed audiences in London. “When it was announced that it was going to be opening in New York, there was no doubt in anybody’s mind that this was going to be a pretty big hit, that regardless of what the reviews in New York said, it was going to run for maybe a couple of years at least. There wasn’t anybody that would have thought that it could go 35 years. There has never been anything like that.”
After three and a half decades, Hershey must know every line off by heart? “Certainly there’s nothing that surprises me except when somebody delivers the wrong line or something goes wrong. Every once in a while there is a little snafu and that wakes me out of my reverie.”
At one show, he recalls, the celebrated chandelier drop at the end of the first act could not take place for safety reasons because an absent-minded stagehand had accidentally left some sheet music on it. “I remember walking by the stage door on the way out and hearing a voice inside saying: ‘Tell me again how the music ended up on the chandelier.’”
Phantom runs in the family. His daughter performed in the roadshow version of the musical for two years. So the end of Phantom’s run – widely seen as an aftershock of the coronavirus pandemic that reduced tourism – will inevitably be a moment of reflection, although he has no intention of retiring.
“It’s sad. There’s no doubt about it because I’ve had this family that I hang out with. Musicians are always at the theatre well before the show starts. Some people may come in only 10 minutes before, but it’s not the kind of job where you can just walk in, walk to your desk and do your work.