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The Phantom of the Opera and Chicago

The Two Longest-Running Broadway Shows on their Historic Returns

The music of the night and all that jazz will finally be returning this fall. The Phantom of the Opera and the 1996 revival of Chicago — respectively the longest- and second-longest-running productions on Broadway — prepare to greet audiences for the first time since COVID-19 forced the shutdown of theatres in March 2020. Chicago resumed performances September 14 at the Ambassador Theatre, and Phantom will be following suit on October 22 at the Majestic.

Andrew Lloyd Webber, Charles Hart, and Richard Stilgoe’s adaptation of Gaston Leroux’s novel about an opera-house ghost obsessed with a young soprano premiered on Broadway on January 26, 1988, after becoming a smash hit on London’s West End. Phantom has grossed $1.2 billion here, with 19 million attending (including repeat viewers, of course). Director Walter Bobbie’s staging of Chicago, John Kander, Freb Ebb, and Bob Fosse’s prophetic account of murder and publicity in the Jazz Age — based on a 1926 play of the same title — has grossed more than $700 billion, spawning productions in all 50 states as well as Washington, D.C., and 35 countries. Both shows have toured extensively, with Phantom grossing $6 billion and Chicago more than $1.6 billion worldwide.

The secret to their success? Phantom producer Cameron Mackintosh credits “a timeless gothic romance of unrequited love” and “one of the most spectacular and beautiful stagings of a show in modern times.” Barry Weissler, who produces Chicago with wife Fran, notes that where “the timing was wrong” for Fosse’s original production of that musical — which ran for 936 postpreview performances, between June 1975 and August 1977 — the “greed and turmoil” that have festered during the past 25 years, and the hunger for fame at any cost, have made Chicago “a mirror to what’s going on in the world today. It keeps gaining energy because of the world around it.”

Barry Weissler also points to adjustments made in Bobbie’s staging, which features choreography “in the style of Bob Fosse” by one of Fosse’s most celebrated protégées, the late Ann Reinking, who also costarred in Bobbie’s original cast. “We edited the script; we put singular, sexy black costumes on everyone; we put the band smack in the middle, to make them part of the action,” he says.

Gordon Cox, contributing theater editor at Variety and host of its podcast, Stagecraft, notes that Phantom and Chicago have also come to be seen as reliable entities. “People know what they’re going to get,” says Cox. “It costs people a lot of money to see a Broadway show, and to see something that they know they like already, or something that has been around so long that it feels familiar, poses less of a risk than a new musical that has had less time to permeate the public consciousness.”

And while both productions consistently draw tourists from around the country and the globe, New Yorkers may find themselves attracted to such musicals as Broadway reemerges after a long and painful hiatus. “I wonder if there’s going to be nostalgia for long-running shows, and if local audiences will be encouraged to turn out for shows that maybe they’ve already seen, or maybe they haven’t,” says Cox. “People may think, ‘Now that Broadway’s back, I should really take advantage.’ They may realize these shows won’t necessarily be around forever.”

Nostalgia won’t be the only draw, of course. Weissler says that the Chicago team is planning “to refresh the production. We’ll have new costumes, and a brand-new front curtain with Chicago emblazoned in sparkly silver. And the end of the show is going to have a surprise.” Casting for Chicago was announced recently, and the producer points out that the production, which has featured celebrities of various stripes in principal roles over the years, is malleable in that regard: “We’re one of the fortunate shows that can take [performers playing] characters and rehearse them separately, and then they fit in like a cog in a machine. We’re vaudeville.”

Phantom also recently announced casting, and the vast majority of the March 2020 company will be back, along with stage crew and orchestra members. Ben Crawford, who will return to the title role, which he has been playing since April 2018, says: “There’s a lot to be excited about. Being involved in the return is going to be healing in so many ways to so many people, and to be part of the cast of the longest-running Broadway show is such a gift. Phantom has an incredible history — not only on Broadway, but in pop culture — and I speak for the cast and crew when I say we’re ready for the responsibility of maintaining that history.”

Bebe Neuwirth, who costarred with Reinking in Chicagos original 1996 cast, is similarly “thrilled that Chicago and all of theater is coming back. I hope, and know, that everyone will make it happen in a way that’s respectful and safe. Theater, and all of the arts, are necessary to us all.”

 

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