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  • Outside the Majestic Theatre, there were hundreds of media capturing the arrival of celebrities emerging from their limos onto the red carpet as audience members in elegant evening wear and sparkling jewels paused to observe and gawk.

    There was jubilant celebration in the balmy January air, but with a bit of a twist.

    It could not have been more gala or filled with more heart-pounding excitement if it was an opening night. But this was The Phantom of the Opera.

    Big things, well, at least, in theatrical history, were afoot.

    If not an opening night, then it was a sort of reopening night - after 18 years; and the beginning of a new era.

    Inside, against the backdrop of Maria Bjˆrnson's decadent faux proscenium of golden Gothic erotica, all those cascading curtains and swags and, under the brilliance of that gigantic chandelier, amid the flamboyance and color of Bjˆrnson's gorgeous costumes, Vitoria, the white cat, materialized from the Heavenside Layer [and the tutus of the ballet corps] to pass the torch to Andrew Lloyd Webber's The Phantom of the Opera.

    The cast for the 7,486th record-breaker: Howard McGillin,
    Sandra Joseph and Tim Martin Gleason are Front Center,
    starting behind the T in Phantom>
    Having played it's record-shattering 7, 486th performance, it left Cats one notch behind to become the longest-running show in Broadway history.

    This specially-staged post-curtain call skit, with Howard McGillin, the longest-running Phantom in Broadway history, front and center, marked the record-breaking performance that had the electric buzz of the January 26, 1988 opening night. In fact, Lloyd Webber said he was more nervous than on opening night.

    There was a special record-breaker Playbill, a brand new record-breaker souvenir book with stunning oversized color photographs and a tickly feathered mask for every member of the black-tie audience.

    ....................... Howard McGillin and Sandra Joseph ride the gondola into the history books>

    The show is still remarkably tight [in a production that has few slags]. The production design by the late Bjˆrnson, famed for her work in the world of opera, has been beautifully maintained.

    What a far, far cry from the Gypsy Run Through, the last dress rehearsal, way, way, way back on that cold, wintry night when a very nervous [director] Hal Prince paced backstage, praying that everything in that early era of computer-driven shows would work.

    It didn't. Not long into the first act, the ghost of the Phantom struck. One of the huge swags [curtain drops] fell right onto the middle of the stage. Amazingly, no one was hurt and eventually the show went on. But not without incident.

    As the Phantom snatched his student from the dressing room of the Paris Opera and the segue began that takes them to the bowels of the catacombs below, amide the mist from dry ice and the candelabra, the gondola went berserk. It followed a trajectory of its own, crushing candles in its wake with sparks of electricity flooding the stage.

    There was fear from backstage that a fire might erupt. It didn't and, in the truest sense of tradition, the show went on.

    There was some fear and trepidation in the audience when it came time for the Phantom to crash that chandelier, which had been wobbling quite a bit throughout the first act. But not to worry. For weeks, the rigging had been tested and retested and tested again.

    It was applause, applause and more applause. Very much as it was last night when the performers delivered the goods as if it was opening night.

    Not that they really had to.

    "When the house lights dimed, the audience automatically started to applaud," Prince said later, "before the show even started! And from there it just kept going. Very electric!"
    Thunderous applause welcomed the illumination and rise from the ashes of that gigantic chandelier. Heck, thunderous applause welcomed every entrance - even the ballet corps and featured players. It erupted for exits, blackouts, segues and the climax of each song. Electric!
    ........................................................................................Last night: An excited and nervous ALW;
    ....................................................................................... a grateful Michael Crawford> ALW, his heart quite heavily pounding and as nervous as always, said it best:"It was a magical evening!" Surely it was, to celebrate his finest hour and, probably, his most lavish show and, certainly, one of his very best scores.

    During the interval, as he sipped the gratis Phantom of the Opera Champagne in the aisle of Orchestra Right, he rehearsed his post-performance remarks with the brilliant Gillian Lynne [Cats], who did the choreography and musical staging.

    Onstage, after six company calls and the strains of "Memory" had faded, Lloyd Webber, after thanking director Hal Prince and lyricists Charles Hart and Richard Stilgoe, introduced a series of surprises: Tony Award winner Judy Kaye was the grand marshal of a long roster of Carlottas; then came the Raouls.

    In Sarah Brightman's absence, Patti Cohenour, [now in The Light in the Piazza] who was Brightman's alternate and her first replacement, led an array of Christines. McGillin then brought on nine of his Phantom alum.

    Co-producer Cameron Mackintosh told of how he met Andrew and how the ideas for Cats and POTO came up. Then he said something rather strange: "I don't think I've ever thanked Andrew!" and proceeded to effusively do so.

    Twenty-time Tony-winning Prince stated that he'd been reading a lot recently about POTO statistics but said he wasn't that interested in knowing the weight of the chandelier, but "proud of the fact that over these last eighteen years, The Phantom of the Opera has employed over six thousand eight hundred people."

    The historic curtain call:
    Tim Martin Gleason, Howard McGillin,
    Sandra Joseph>
    It was ALW's honor, as he put it, to introduce Michael Crawford, the original West End and Broadway Phantom, who had much praise for Bjˆrnson, who died four years ago, and thanked ALW and director Hal Prince for selecting him "for the role that changed my life."

    He admitted that it was actually his first time to see the show from out front.

    Crawford then graciously embraced McGillin and swept the current Christine, Sandra Joseph, off her tiny feet with a French nibble on the hand.

    Lynne, in addition to her praise for Bjˆrnson's valuable contributions to the show, remembered the late Steve Barton, the original Raoul on the West End and Broadway, and an eventual Phantom.

    The handsome Texan, who found great success on the stages of Europe in numerous musicals, was beloved by the show's cast and crew. He died in 2001, reportedly a suicide after struggling with substance abuse.

    After POTO, his greatest success was as the star of the original Dance of the Vampires, conceived and directed by Roman Polanski, prior to its bowdlerization for Broadway].

    Last night's performance was followed by a masked ball in the Grand Ballroom of the Waldorf-Astoria.

    For last night's grand finale, canons of multicolored steamers and confetti exploded from the boxes over the entire theatre; and black balloons with the white mask of the phantom were dropped from the gods. [Pity the poor, but surely well-paid, cleaning crew.]

    It seems POTO, not Cats, will be Now and Forever. On Thursday, January 26, the show will mark another milestone by becoming the first Broadway production to reach its 18th Anniversary.

    [Production photos: JOAN MARCUS; Photos of ALW, Michael Crawford: AUBREY REUBEN/Playbill; Curtain call: ELLIS NASSOUR]

    Ellis Nassour is an international media journalist, and author of Honky Tonk Angel: The Intimate Story of Patsy Cline, which he has adapted into a musical for the stage. Visit www.patsyclinehta.com.

    He can be reached at [email protected]

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