The History of The Phantom of the Opera

"Some of you may recall the strange affair of the Phantom of the Opera - a mystery never fully explained..."  

These early lines from Andrew Lloyd Webber's hit musical set the dark, mysterious atmosphere of the production.  Seen by well over 58 million people worldwide, this version of the classic story is perhaps the most popular in today's culture.  Its sweeping compositions and lyrics, combined with lavish costumes, provide for a memorable experience of live theatre.  While Lloyd Webber's production may be one of the most recognizable versions of the story, it is not the first.  What is known as the Phantom of the Opera has evolved over nearly a century of literature, motion picture, and theatrical productions.
The story of the Phantom of the Opera is often represented as a gothic romance with a classic love triangle, though it originally started out as a series of detective stories. The premise revolves around a disfigured musical genius and his obsession with the young soprano, Christine Daaé, who is involved with the handsome Vicomte Raoul de Chagny.  The Phantom, known as Erik in many versions including the original, is born hideously disfigured with a face resembling a skull.  After suffering time and again at the hands of others because of his deformity, he hides away from the world.  Erik comes to live under and controls the Opéra Populaire through menacing threats and clever tricks.  He falls hopelessly in love with young Daaé, and manipulates her by masquerading has her "Angel of Music," sent by her late father.  From his underground lair, he plots to win her love and if necessary, destroy de Chagny. 

  • Poor, unhappy Erik!  Should we pity him?  Should we curse him?  He asked only to be someone like everyone else.  But he was too ugly.  He had either to hide his genius or play tricks with it, when, with an ordinary face, he would have been one of the noblest members of the human race.  He had a heart great enough to hold the empire of the world, and in the end had to be content with a cellar.  Clearly, then, we must pity the Opera Ghost.  (Leroux 273)

The Original Novel

The pop culture phenomenon that is The Phantom of the Opera began with a Parisian journalist, novelist, and playwright by the name of Gaston Leroux.  His 1910 novel, The Phantom of the Opera, initially received little attention.  Leroux, normally noted as an author of detective novels, visited the Paris opera house, and was inspired by its architecture and history.  The opera house, more commonly known as the Opéra Garnier, is well suited to a character of the Phantom's nature.  Standing a total of 17 stories high, seven below street level, and covering approximately 118, 500 square feet, the Opéra was a labyrinth.  Its fifth and lowest cellar houses the man-made lake, which was created due to an underground stream running beneath the build site.  The water was encased by concrete and then used for the hydraulic manipulation of stage machinery.  Other cellars were used to house full stage sets, equipment, and in the case of the third basement, the Opéra's horses.  Commissioned in 1860, work on the Opéra began in 1861 under contractor Charles Garnier.  Construction would not be completed until 1875 due to shortfalls with government funding and the Franco-Prussian War of 1870.  The Opéra served as a warehouse, arsenal, and more gruesomely as a prison with its vast, dark expanses.  It was the history of the great building that helped inspire the creation of Leroux's Phantom.
Because of its long period of construction, Leroux felt the Opéra was well suited to a haunting character.  Instead of merely making the Phantom a ghost, however, Leroux strove for a sense of realism, and made the character entirely human with a strong background in architecture.  This allowed the Phantom to create for himself a world within the Opéra that he could reign with confidence.  Also, an incident in which one of the counterweights of the magnificent Opéra Garnier chandelier fell on and killed a member of the audience in the 1890s sparked Leroux's morbid imagination, and thus evolved the famous falling chandelier disaster in the story.  While the novel did not go on to make a significant literature contribution in its day, it would later go on to inspire numerous movie, literature, and stage adaptations, including Andrew Lloyd Webber's mega musical hit. 

The Andrew Lloyd Webber Musical

Conceived in 1984 after viewing Ken Hill's stage play, The Phantom of the Opera, Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber contacted producer Cameron Mackintosh.  Discussion ensued regarding producing Hill's production on the West End in London, but that idea later fell through.  Still smitten with the story after reading Leroux's novel, Lloyd Webber and his creative team went about constructing their own musical version.  Lyricist Charles Hart was brought in to prove himself with the liberetto of the new musical.  It is said that Lloyd Webber constructed the show in part due to his love for future wife Sarah Brightman, who originated the role of Christine.  In a way, Lloyd Webber was a Phantom-esque character - the composer behind the scenes working for the love of the leading lady. 

The musical debuted in London on October 9, 1986 at Her Majesty's Theatre to rave reviews.  Michael Crawford starred in the role of the Phantom opposite Sarah Brightman as Christine, and American Steve Barton as the Vicomte Raoul de Chagny.  The show garnered the 1986 London Olivier Award for Best Musical.  Two years later, the original London cast moved to New York City to open the show on Broadway.  On January 26, 1988, Andrew Lloyd Webber's The Phantom of the Opera opened at the Majestic Theatre.  It went on to win seven Tony Awards including:  Best Musical, Leading Actor in a Musical (Michael Crawford), Featured Actress in a Musical (Jane Kaye), Director (Hal Prince), Sets (Maria Bjornson), Costumes (Maria Bjornson), and Lighting (Andrew Bridge).  Nearly 20 years later, Lloyd Webber's The Phantom of the Opera still plays to full houses on Broadway.  On January 9, 2006, Phantom played its 7,486 performance at the Majestic Theatre, thus smashing the record for the longest running Broadway musical in history.  The previous record was held by another Lloyd Webber legend, CATS. 

Phantom finally closed on Broadway on 16 April 2023, after 35 years on Broadway. A slightly altered version still plays to full houses on the West End in London. Other productions are running around the world, including Korea, Japan, China, an International Tour, and even limited runs in Spain and Italy as of 2023. Thanks to the direction of the late, great Harold (Hal) Prince, the show has maintained the same standards and quality since it opened.  The popularity of the Lloyd Webber musical is undisputed.

Other Notable Versions

Due to the successes of numerous adaptations of the story, the Phantom of the Opera has become a familiar part of today's society with a life spanning over 100 years thus far.  What started with a mediocre novel by a French journalist launched into history with the legendary performance of Lon Chaney in 1925.  From there, numerous other film versions were created, repeatedly bringing the story back to the surface for people to take interest in.  Books such as Susan Kay's Phantom shed new light on the human character of Erik, while stage versions such as Yeston/Kopit, Ken Hill, and the legendary Lloyd Webber version bring a personal, exciting live element to the story and continue to be performed thanks to the popularity of the story.  No matter what the appeal, people find themselves drawn to this classic tale.  In the words of lyricist Charles Hart, "The Phantom of the Opera is there…" Erik is there, inside of every person.  Perhaps that is the greatest underlying factor of the story's appeal.

 It is a story about the love, loss, acceptance, and rejection that everyone faces at one time or another in life.

1. Hart, Charles, and Richard Stilgoe.  Lyrics from The Phantom of the Opera.  By Andrew Lloyd Webber.  Dir. Harold Prince.  1986.
2.  Leroux, Gaston.  The Phantom of the Opera.  Trans. Lowell Bair.  New York, New York:  Bantam Books.  1990.  273.
4.  The Phantom of the Opera.  Dir. Tony Richardson.  Perf. Charles Dance.  Image Entertainment.  1990.
5.  The Really Useful Group.  "The Show:  Facts and Figures."  The Really Useful Group, Ltd.  2004.  8 Dec. 2005.  <>.
6.  Rice, Jane.  The Phantom of the Opera Souvenir Brochure.  New York:  Dewynters In The USA.  1998.  19.