Like its title character, the musical "Phantom" was almost doomed to remain in the shadows. Playwright Arthur Kopit and composer / lyricist Maury Yeston wrote their version of the 1911 Gaston Leroux novel several years before Andrew Lloyd Webber's megamusical debuted in London in 1986. But Kopit and Yeston's efforts were nearly obliterated by what Yeston calls "the British juggernaut."
Lloyd Webber's "The Phantom of the Opera" cast a long shadow. By the time it arrived in New York in 1988, the latest show by the creator of "Cats" had been featured on the covers of national magazines and had raked in record advance sales. A lavish production, from its 1,500-pound chandelier to its nonstop singing, it was an entirely different sort of show from the traditional American musical Kopit and Yeston had crafted.
It took more than six years for the relatively modest Kopit-Yeston musical -- called simply, "Phantom" -- to reach the stage. Once it did, however, the show turned out to be the biggest hit of its creators' careers -- careers that include their 1982 Tony Award-winning musical, "Nine"; Yeston's score for the 1997 Tony winner, "Titanic"; and Kopit's acclaimed off-Broadway plays, "Wings" and "Oh Dad, Poor Dad, Mama's Hung You in the Closet and I'm Feelin' So Sad."
With gross ticket sales of more than $70 million worldwide and 650 separate productions over the last nine years, "Phantom" has carved out a hard-earned identity and a loyal following. On Tuesday, it launches its first major national tour at the Lyric Opera House.
The saga of this American "Phantom" began in late 1983 when director / choreographer Geoffrey Holder, who owned the North American rights to Leroux's novel, approached Kopit and Yeston about turning it into a musical. From the start, Yeston thought it was a bad idea.
"I, in a very polite way, turned it down," says Yeston, whose only association with the story at that point was the 1943 Claude Rains movie. "This was a horror movie with a guy that gets acid thrown in his face. I said, 'What's next? "Frankenstein Meets the Wolfman: The Musical"? Then, "Mothra Meets Godzilla?" ' "
Still, he decided to read the novel and found it a revelation. "I realized there's something here," he says of the tale of a mysterious disfigured man who lives beneath the Paris Opera and risks his life for love. But both he and Kopit felt there were major problems with Leroux's story.
Chief among them was the fact that the novel never explains why the Phantom becomes obsessed with the book's heroine, a soprano named Christine.
Solving such problems took a year, during which the playwright worked out detailed motivations and characterizations. In Kopit's rendition, the Phantom is born in the opera house. Taking a cue from fairy tales and myths, the playwright decided the character's disfigurement was a tragic flaw resulting from a sin committed by his parents. He falls in love with Christine because her singing voice awakens a deep memory from his past.
"He's horrible-looking outside, but as horrible as he is outside, that's how beautiful he is inside, and the beauty is the music," Yeston says.
He's also a Phantom with a sense of humor. "I thought, how could you stay down below and not have irony?" Kopit explains. "I didn't do it intentionally. It just came out when I started to write him."
Yeston, however, continued to have doubts. "I still felt it was a dangerous and terrible idea, but something strange happened. I couldn't stop writing it, and that told me something. I would go home and say, 'This is a ridiculous idea. Why are we doing this?' and a song would occur."
To Paris with love
One reason may have been the show's setting, which allowed him to write what he calls "a musical love letter to Paris," a score that summoned up memories of Edith Piaf recordings he heard as a boy.
Combining this French-flavored score with Kopit's carefully crafted book, the collaborators came up with what the composer proudly describes as "a quintessential, good old-fashioned American musical theater piece ... a real traditional book musical," in the style of Lerner and Loewe or Rodgers and Hammerstein.
Holder, who planned to direct the musical, held backers' auditions. The response was enthusiastic. The money was raised. A set designer was hired.
And then, "There was an announcement in Variety that Andrew Lloyd Webber was going to do a musical of 'Phantom of the Opera,' and I found that astonishing and terrible," Kopit says.
"All the money dried up. It just disappeared. That was it," says Yeston. Despite Kopit and Yeston's solid credentials, no Broadway producer was willing to pit them against the man who taught "Cats" to sing.
The feeling was that if Lloyd Webber's version were a hit in London's West End, a Broadway production was sure to follow. By then, the North American rights would have lapsed, and the material would be in the public domain.
Kopit was crushed, but Yeston was more sanguine. He figured someday he might be able to use the songs in something else; perhaps the playwright would also find a way to recycle the book.
As it happened, the playwright had written a successful mini- series for NBC called "Hands of a Stranger," and the network asked if he had an idea for another. He suggested his approach to "The Phantom of the Opera," using a score of existing opera music.
Shot on location at the Paris Opera and directed by Tony Richardson, the miniseries aired in 1990, starring Charles Dance and Burt Lancaster. Kopit told Yeston: "Wouldn't it be interesting if somebody saw it and said it would make a great musical, and we're all set?"
Someone did -- Frank Young, president of Houston's Theater Under the Stars, offered to mount a full-scale production, with a 26-piece orchestra, the original set designer and a subsequent run in Seattle. Once again, Yeston was opposed.
"I said, 'Absolutely not.' I said, 'I've made my peace with this work,' " he recalls. "I don't need to be perceived as chasing Andrew Lloyd Webber down the street."
But Young persuaded him. The Houston production opened in 1991, and audiences liked what they saw. They have continued to like it in theaters, large and small, throughout the world -- from Chicago, where a three-month run at the Candlelight Dinner Playhouse stretched out to more than a year, to Germany, where "Phantom" toured for eight years. It has, in fact, been seen just about everywhere but New York City. RCA recorded an album in 1993 with the Houston cast.
In retrospect, both Kopit and Yeston feel the lack of a Broadway prototype has been an asset in terms of further productions. "Unlike a Broadway hit that then tours and they try to replicate the Broadway production and can't do it that way, all the people who've done 'Phantom' ... create their own productions," says Kopit. "It can be done very simply or it can be very elaborate."
In contrast, Lloyd Webber and the team behind "The Phantom of Opera" "never created a version of their show that the average stock and amateur company could produce," says Yeston.
A 'Phantom' for all theaters
Kopit and Yeston's versatile "Phantom" has been happily filling that void for almost a decade. The show's creators have each seen about a dozen different productions over the years. They've seen it in-the-round, on thrust stages and on traditional proscenium stages, in high school auditoriums and in professional theaters with thousands of seats. (In Baltimore, it was produced by Towson University's Maryland Arts Festival in 1994.) Both men are coming to the Lyric next week.
Before his miniseries was produced by NBC, Kopit finally saw Lloyd Webber's version, which hews more closely to the Leroux novel. "I wanted to make sure I hadn't inadvertently done something Lloyd Webber had done. I did it for legal protection," he says. "I was relieved that it was so different, that ... they could both stand as valid ways of doing the show."
Yeston has avoided seeing the Lloyd Webber musical, but he admits that, ironically, the show that almost obliterated his own efforts may have helped increase interest.
"Let's not fool ourselves, the success of the Andrew Lloyd Webber 'Phantom' created an atmosphere in which anything with the word 'phantom' had a marketable quality," he says. "We went through the same thing with 'Titanic.' "
In the long run, he's come to believe that not opening on Broadway may not have been such a bad thing. After all, many a Broadway show closes and is never heard from again.
"It could have disappeared completely," Yeston says. "This way, the public found it, and no matter who does it, it works."
Where: Lyric Opera House, 140 W. Mount Royal Ave.
When: 8 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday, 7:30 p.m. Sunday, with matinees at 2 p.m. Saturday and Sunday