A different ‘Phantom’ comes alive in Westchester

Published: Tuesday, September 25, 2018 12:00 pm By: Jeremy Brown Source: Hudson Valley Fall Guide - Halston Media

It's been called “the greatest hit to never be produced on Broadway,” and this fall, Maury Yeston and Arthur Kopit’s “Phantom,” an adaptation of Gaston Leroux’s 1910 novel, “The Phantom of the Opera” returns to the Westchester Broadway Theatre for its fourth engagement since 1992.
“They really understand this show,” Yeston said. “And, every time they do it, they absolutely redefine it.”

“Phantom” had its origins back in the early 1980s when fresh off the success of the Tony award-winning musical, “Nine,” Yeston and Kopit were approached by theater director Geoffrey Holder about putting together a Broadway adaptation of “The Phantom of the Opera.” Both Yeston and Kopit agreed and began work on the musical. Unfortunately, because the rights to the novel had lapsed into the public domain, other producers were also able to bring the novel to the stage.
“We were actually scheduled for Broadway,” Yeston said. “The set was designed, the score was written, Geoffrey was already planning on casting it. And then there was a newspaper item that said that Andrew Lloyd Weber had gotten the idea of writing a version of ‘The Phantom of the Opera.’” Weber’s version proved to be a smash hit on the London stage and a Broadway version was quickly planned (the show is currently the longest-running production in Broadway history).

As a result, Yeston and Kopit’s version was shelved and the two moved on to other projects. Yeston took a pragmatic view of the situation. “From a business point of view, it was simply not viable to spend a lot of money on an American show when Andrew was going to open his own version in London,” he said. “For one thing, it’s the kind of competition that you don’t want to have and it’s too much of a financial risk. I understood that and Arthur understood that. And sometimes you write and not every show gets produced. And, for me, I always like to think, ‘Well, you know, if nothing else, it kept my pencil sharp!’” In 1990, Kopit was tasked with taking the “Phantom” script and crafting it into a two-hour miniseries. The adaptation aired on NBC with Charles Dance (later of “Game of Thrones” fame) in the title role and drew the attention of Frank Young, a producer in Houston.

Intrigued by the show, Young reached out to Kopit and Yeston with the idea of mounting a production at Houston’s Theatre Under the Stars. “I initially said no,” said Yeston, “because I thought, ‘Andrew Lloyd Weber has his show. I don’t want people to come and then feel disappointed because it’s the same title but a different show.’” However, when Young promised Yeston that all of the advertising and promotional materials would make it clear that this version of “Phantom” was its own thing and not in any way tied to Weber’s production, it put his mind at ease.

Yeston and Kopit’s “Phantom” opened at the Theatre Under the Stars in Houston in 1991 and, by all accounts, it was a success. Yeston recalled many members of the audience being visibly moved by some of the show’s more emotional moments. “Granite-hardened cowboys were weeping into their kerchiefs,” he said with a laugh. From there, the show took on a life of its own, ultimately being performed more than 1,000 times at venues all over the world, including a recent engagement in Seoul, South Korea. It’s due to open in Tokyo for the fifth time. “What’s interesting is, it never had to play Broadway to launch itself,” said Yeston. “It became popular all over the world due to its own entertainment value. Something about the way it’s put together seems to move people.”

After its successful run in Houston, “Phantom” came to the Westchester Broadway stage in 1992, where it proved to be another smash, ultimately becoming the longest-running show in the 33-year history of the Westchester Broadway Theatre. “I believe they booked it for probably a three- or four-week run,” Yeston recalled. “And they extended it to nine months!”

The show returned to the stage in Elmsford again in 1996 and 2007 and now returns after more than a decade and Yeston promises that this newest production will offer many new surprises, even for those who may have seen it before.
“I actually had a long talk with [director] Tom Polum about it,” he said. “I don’t want to give anything away, but he’s got some thrilling ideas in the interpretation of the story and especially in the visual aspect of it. Even if you’ve seen this show, you’ve never seen anything like what he’s going to do.” For a show that almost didn’t see the light of day, “Phantom” has enjoyed unprecedented success and admiration. But Yeston always believed in the show’s ability to reach a wide audience. “Good work seems to exert its own pressure to be heard,” he said.