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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

Last night, Andrew Lloyd Webber's "The Phantom of the Opera" broke a record. It overtook his own production of "Cats" to become the longest-running show in Broadway history. Jeff Lunden has this story.

(Soundbite of music)

JEFF LUNDEN reporting:

The statistics are truly impressive: 11 million people have seen "The Phantom of the Opera" on Broadway where the show has sold more than a half a billion dollars in tickets, and almost 18 years since it opened, it's still playing at near capacity. Lines of ticketholders snake around the block before each performance at the Majestic Theatre. On a recent evening, Chuck Macy(ph) and his date, Sue Malvern(ph), from New Jersey stood in line.

Mr. CHUCK MACY (Theatergoer): Well, it's Sue's first time. It's my fifth time, and I just love it, so I wanted Sue to have the--a bit of the experience as well.

Ms. SUE MALVERN (Theatergoer): And what is it about the show that brings you back?

Mr. MACY: It's just an awesome show. Just the scenery and the acting and the songs. The music is just awesome.

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified Man #1: (Singing) Sing once again with me a strange duet.

LUNDEN: The idea for the show came when composer Andrew Lloyd Webber picked up a copy of the original Gaston Leroux novel about a disfigured man in a mask who haunts the Paris Opera and falls in love with a beautiful young singer. There's a crashing chandelier, there are dead bodies, there's a secret lair on an underground lake. Lloyd Webber says he didn't think much of the novel, but thought it might make a good show.

Mr. ANDREW LLOYD WEBBER (Composer): I was very keen to write something which was a high romance at the time, having done "Evita" and having done "Cats" and those things, which, I mean, didn't let me kind of go in that direction at all, and so I set to work with it.

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified Woman #1: (Singing) ...(Unintelligible) music why not (unintelligible) brought to ...(unintelligible).

LUNDEN: Producer Cameron Mackintosh says Lloyd Webber's then-wife, Sarah Brightman, was the muse who inspired the composer.

Mr. CAMERON MACKINTOSH (Producer): Andrew, who was at the same time working with Sarah Brightman and realizing what an extraordinary voice she had and that suddenly became the catalyst for him to want to write this show, because it gave him an entree into how he would compose the music.

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified Woman #1: (Singing) Recall those days, look back on all those times before ...(unintelligible).

LUNDEN: For "The Phantom," Lloyd Webber and director Hal Prince cast against type when they asked Michael Crawford to appear in the show. Even though he was a big musical comedy star in England, he'd never played anything like the creepy but seductive Phantom. Crawford says Lloyd Webber allowed him to experiment with the music.

Mr. MICHAEL CRAWFORD: He let me play with those notes so that I could create a sound as though it was coming from the depths of the man's soul, so that it was (singing) slowly, gently. It was more. You could hear deep down inside the man.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. CRAWFORD: (Singing) Slowly, gently night unfurls its splendor.

LUNDEN: The show opened in London in 1986 where it was and continues to be a smash. It came to New York two years later with Crawford, Brightman and an unprecedented $18 million box office advance. Drama critic Charles Isherwood of The New York Times says there are some solid reasons why this show is such a success.

Mr. CHARLES ISHERWOOD (The New York Times): It's a matter of the major talents involved all working at the top of their form together. Harold Prince's theatrical staging is absolutely superb. Maria Bjornsen's design plays a very large part in the appeal of the show. And, of course, Lloyd Webber, I think it's probably his most appealing and certainly most accessible score.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. CRAWFORD: (Singing) Then say ...(unintelligible) one love, one lifetime.

LUNDEN: Director Hal Prince has won 20 Tony Awards, a Broadway record. He thinks audiences recognize a piece of themselves in the tortured Phantom's plight.

Mr. HAL PRINCE (Director): "Phantom of the Opera" is not exactly a brain twister, but psychologically there's something going on that touches people and makes them think about their own responses to deformity, what are their reactions. You know, just how romantic are they. How much is love lost better than loved gained, and on and on, all that stuff. So it does go there and people hear it.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. CRAWFORD: (Singing) You will curse the day you did not do more than the phantom asked of you.

LUNDEN: Over the years, 243 actors have appeared in the show on Broadway, but three have been with it since the start.

Mr. RICHARD WARREN PUGH (Actor): It's allowed me to get married, get divorced, buy a house. It's very good for me.

LUNDEN: Richard Warren Pugh has played four different roles in "The Phantom of the Opera" since it opened. He currently plays Buquet, the stagehand who the Phantom garrotes in the first act.

Mr. PUGH: It's like any job. I love what I do, and I'm very bored with some of the stuff that I do. The reason they pay me is to do it eight shows a week and not make it look like I'm bored. For us, the audience is different every day. The performance is usually different, because in a show that runs this long, we have three understudies at least for every character. You never know who you're gonna be on stage with.

LUNDEN: For 1,400 performances, he's been on stage with Howard McGillin, the current Phantom. McGillin says he loves playing the part, but sometimes his mind wanders, sometimes he forgets lyrics, and sometimes the set misbehaves.

Mr. HOWARD McGILLIN (Actor): For instance, the boat that we travel into the lair and sometimes a taxi will be driving by out on 44th Street and the taxi signal, radio signal will interrupt the radio signal to the boat, 'cause the boat is remote controlled by radio signal, and suddenly the boat stops in the middle of the lake, and Phantom's walking on water and he's pulling the boat and Christine along with it, you know. These things happen and, of course, the audience, I think, loves that stuff, because you feel like you're in on a moment that's really spontaneous.

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified Man #2 and Unidentified Woman #2: (Singing) The Phantom of the opera is there inside...

LUNDEN: With last night's milestone, composer Andrew Lloyd Webber has written the two longest-running shows in Broadway history.

Mr. LLOYD WEBBER: I mean, it's overwhelming. That's something one never thought would ever happen, and I never thought it would happen with "Cats," let alone overtake "Cats," and I think it's practically impossible to say--you know, I feel very humbled by it in a way, but it's something that I always say that I'm not gonna do again.

LUNDEN: For NPR News, I'm Jeff Lunden in New York.

(Soundbite of music)

MONTAGNE: And you can hear more "Phantom of the Opera" at npr.org. This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

STEVE INSKEEP (Host): And I'm Steve Inskeep.

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