Stage

The Maestro of the Opera

With Phantom about to stop haunting the Venetian, director Hal Prince looks back on his made-for-Vegas creation and the marriage of Broadway and the Strip
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Hal Prince with the model of the custom theater he envisioned for Phantom–The Las Vegas Spectacular.

Nothing about bringing that half-masked man with the operatic chip on his shoulder to town—not the scale, the cost, the status or the gamble—could be entrusted to someone who thought like a pauper. So they assigned it to a Prince.

Harold Prince, specifically. Call him Hal. All the best theater people do.

Without fear of overstatement, you can call the 84-year-old director/producer—a Kennedy Center honoree and winner of 21 Tony Awards, the most of any individual—a giant among creative giants. Résumé? When only a fraction includes Cabaret, Evita, Sweeney Todd and the original Phantom of the Opera, we’ll just refer you to Prince of Broadway, a retrospective of his life and career, set to debut on Broadway next year.

Accepting the challenge of both streamlining (time-wise) and expanding (spectacle-wise) Phantom, Prince and composer Andrew Lloyd Webber turned it into Phantom–The Las Vegas Spectacular at the Venetian. While finances weren’t kind—as a whopping $80 million project, it was the only Phantom production to lose money—it did last more than six years, an impressive run for a Broadway show in Vegas.

Having debuted in June 2006, the vengeful romantic is about to depart the Strip, his massive chandelier crashing for the final time Sept. 2.

In an exclusive interview, Prince discusses Phantom, Broadway, Vegas and the notion of “Broadway West”:

Economic pressures reportedly hastened Phantom’s end here after union concessions expired. Had that not happened, could this version have continued for a long time?

You bet. We all knew it could have been more, no question. But there are circumstances that prohibited that from going on, contractual with the original London management, and I regret that some.

Your experience directing Broadway shows for Las Vegas goes back decades. Did you consider those successful?

The Riviera was where I did most of them. I did one at the Dunes, which is gone. I did The Pajama Game way back in 1955, then Damn Yankees, then Tenderloin, then, finally at Caesars Palace, I did Fiddler on the Roof, which was certainly a weird thing to do at Caesars Palace. But it was a huge success. I brought it in a little bit unacceptably—I took an hour and 45 minutes when they wanted to cut me to an hour and 35—but the story got told well, I had a wonderful cast, Theodore Bikel played Tevye. It was really good.

How did those experiences inform how you approached Phantom?

I thought, if I knew how to do it when I was 26 years old, a little less than 60 years later, I could still do it. But I did pay more attention this time to how Las Vegas has evolved. I put effects in and surprises so this production, [which] I love a lot, has a lot that the other productions have never had. When I did earlier shows, I did abridged versions of the same exact show.

The [Venetian’s custom-made theater] made a lot of difference. It was my idea to re-create the Paris Opera House and the boxes and the people in the boxes. I wanted to signal right from the beginning that we had taken Las Vegas into account in adapting the show. I spent a lot of time in Vegas.

Phantom figured prominently into an influx of musicals over the past few years that came to be known as “Broadway West.” Did you feel pressure to succeed to justify that label?

“Broadway West” is a dicey situation. It didn’t seem to work for most shows, did it? But I think we broke the record by the time [the show closes]. Phantom—and I hate this word—it’s spectacle. That bridges some of the expectations of an audience. But I don’t think “Broadway West” it actually is. If there was a viable Broadway connection with Vegas, it was much more potent in the ’50s and the ’60s than I think it is now. When you can tour a show all over the country and do incredible business, you wouldn’t want to sacrifice that potential for a questionable Vegas run.

Although some shows such as Avenue Q and Hairspray failed, don’t other productions such as Mamma Mia!, The Lion King, Chicago and Jersey Boys give the “Broadway West” label credibility?

I love Jersey Boys because it’s so unique, so musical. Those songs are terrific. It’s a hybrid show, isn’t it? It has a book, but the music is central. But you have to cherry-pick what would be appropriate. How long did The Lion King run? [May 2009 to December 2011]. That’s not a big hit. How long did Chicago run? [March 1999 to February 2000]. That’s not a big hit either.

Do you want to keep the Vegas version of Phantom alive by transplanting it to other markets?

I have wanted that so badly I can’t tell you. I was hoping they would take it to Macau, but they didn’t. I was hoping it would be a kind of pocket-size version for venues that don’t show whole Broadway musicals. Perhaps it will happen sometime; it’s another audience.

Were you worried how hard-core Phantom fans would react to a shortened version, no intermission and heightened special effects?

We got spectacular feedback. Phantom has its ardent audience and has for years now. It’s almost hard for me to believe that a goodly portion of the audience every night hasn’t seen the show before and aren’t interested in seeing what we’ve done with it.

Does the enduring passion of the fans for either version still surprise you?

You know, they asked me out to a Phantom fan thing some years ago. All these people came in costume. I did a seminar and in the front row there were two people dressed like me—with glasses on their bald heads, and beards. When I went backstage, I was just stunned—they were husband and wife made up to look like me. Eerie, but flattering. And kinda weird.

Do you have advice for other directors adapting Broadway shows for Vegas?

I don’t give advice. Nobody wants advice!

Are you satisfied with how the Phantom-in-Vegas experiment turned out?

It’s totally satisfying. It really was swell.

Phantom Facts

Attending a Phantom finale party? If you are—or even if you’re not—here’s some trivia worthy of a Phantom-phile:

• At nearly $80 million—including $40 million for the Venetian’s custom-built theater—Phantom reportedly cost almost eight times that of a Broadway musical.

• Love Never Dies, Webber’s Phantom sequel, debuted on London’s West End in 2010 and an Australian production was filmed, screened in some U.S. theaters and released on DVD. To date, it has yet to make it to Broadway.

• One of composer Andrew Lloyd Webber’s most romantic Phantom melodies, “Music of the Night,” originally had the pedestrian title, “Married Man.”

• Shifting the moment of the chandelier crash from mid-story to near the climax was originally done for the 2004 film adaptation of Phantom.

• During the show’s Vegas run, Anthony Crivello, who plays the Phantom, had two children who are now 2 and 5 years old.

• When it closes, Phantom: The Las Spectacular will record a run of just over six years, beating the closest competitor, Mamma Mia!, which debuted at Mandalay Bay in February 2003 and shuttered in January 2009, just shy of its sixth anniversary.

• The 2,000-pound chandelier cost $5 million.

• Andrew Lloyd Webber’s other show mounted in Las Vegas was Starlight Express, running from 1993 to 1997 at the Las Vegas Hilton.

• A Phantom-themed resort was
once proposed for the Strip but later abandoned. It was to be called
The Phantasy.

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