(CNN) “Phantom of the Opera” isn’t just a Broadway icon — it’s a cultural behemoth.
There’s Andrew Lloyd Webber’s organ-heavy score, sumptuous sets and elaborate costumes. There’s a melodramatic love triangle between the beautiful soprano, her hunky beau and a misunderstood sewer dweller, composer and voice teacher. Then there’s the chandelier, of course. There are few moments in musical theater more thrilling than the one before the massive light fixture roars back to life.
After 35 years and nearly 14,000 performances, “Phantom of the Opera” takes its final bow Sunday on Broadway. Soon, posters advertising the show with nothing but the iconic Phantom mask and a single rose will be scrubbed from Times Square, and the Majestic Theater will sit empty for the first time since “Phantom” opened in 1988.
News of its closure stunned musical theater fans — the longest-running show on Broadway always seemed like a stable presence on West 44th Street. But it’s an expensive venture — after the show returned from its pandemic-induced closure, its weekly running costs approached $1 million, and it often wouldn’t gross enough to offset those costs. It became impossible for such a lavish production to maintain its place on Broadway without losing money.
No one took the news harder than “Phantom’s” most devoted fans — or “phans,” rather. Many of them have seen the show dozens or even hundreds of times. They’ve followed the show around the country and world, and some have even scored tickets to “Phantom’s” final performance on Sunday night. They’ve taken solace in its fantasy, identified with the antihero at its center and formed lasting bonds with their fellow theatergoers throughout its run.
Many phans have been enamored with the musical, like Christine under the spell of the title character, for so long they can no longer pinpoint just what makes it so bewitching — it’s been a constant in their lives.
“I can say that I love the music, the scenery, and the fact that the Phantom sacrifices his own happiness for Christine’s at the end,” said Katie Yelinek, a librarian in Pennsylvania who first fell in love with “Phantom” in 1993. “They create magic and a sense of awe. But listing those things individually doesn’t explain the ineffable sum of their parts that makes ‘Phantom’ like no other musical.”
Charlie Peterson, a phan since eighth grade, said they used to spend the months after their mother’s death listening to the soundtrack with their childhood best friend. Though they now live across the country from that friend, the two still get together to catch a performance of the musical that buoyed them in their youth.
“It was a place to go when I felt like I needed it,” Peterson told CNN. Losing “Phantom” on Broadway now “feels like another friend is moving away.”
‘Phantom’ phans are prodigiously devoted to the musical
Sierra Boggess, one of the most beloved portrayers of heroine Christine among the “phan”-base, told CNN that the show’s devotees are “incredibly special” even among the most enthusiastic musical theater fans.
Take Dick Moore: The Denver native has seen the show more than 200 times, and his home is decked out in “Phantom” memorabilia from his “35 years chasing the Phantom,” he told CNN.
“Every time I see the show, it’s like seeing it for the first time,” he told the Denver Center for the Performing Arts Center in 2019, in honor of viewing his 198th performance. “I never get tired of it.”
Following “Phantom” is a lifestyle for some phans — many of them made regular journeys to the Majestic throughout their lives to catch new interpretations of Christine and the masked maestro. And when news of the show’s closure struck, fans clamored to buy tickets to the rest of its run — the closing date was even pushed several weeks to meet fan demand. About a week after its ending was announced, its weekly gross rose from $964,000 to $1.2 million. Last week, it grossed $3.6 million — tickets to see the show’s final performances weren’t cheap.
Phans told CNN in the days leading up to “Phantom’s” final production that they were preparing to say their final goodbyes with a heavy heart. Wallace Phillips, a filmmaker and animator in New York, has seen the show 140 times in the last 13 years. While speaking with CNN prior to the show’s closure, he said he hoped to squeeze in a few more performances before Sunday.
Ian Petriello Eisenberg learned of the closing while working in Hawaii. “Phantom” was the show that inspired him to study theater at the University of Texas at Austin, and years later, he won a chance to join the Broadway ensemble for one night and shadowed Broadway veteran James Barbour, who played the Phantom in 2015.
Eager to relive what he called one of the best nights of his life, he quickly booked a flight to New York to catch a performance earlier this month.
“I’m devastated that this icon of Broadway is leaving forever,” Eisenberg said. “And even if it does come back, it will never be the same.”
Several phans share Eisenberg’s sorrows: “Phantom” returned to London’s West End with a halved orchestra in 2021 after the pandemic halted all performances. Many feared that its score would lost its impact with fewer musicians. And many now fear that, if the show does eventually return to Broadway, it will have lost much of the magic of the original staging.
It’s become an icon beyond theater
The pandemic, for some, made them appreciate “Phantom” all the more. Andrew Defrin, a Fordham University student studying theater directing, has been “completely enraptured” with the Phantom since he first saw the show at age 6. He’d sing along with the soundtrack on sets he made out of cardboard, proudly wearing his very own Phantom mask. But he didn’t see the show again until it returned from its Covid-induced closure in 2021.
He said he would attend his 20th performance of “Phantom” on Saturday. He planned to bring tissues.
“It’s the end of an era, truly,” Defrin told CNN. “I’ve never seen any other marquees at the Majestic Theater. To not see that mask there is going to be devastating.”
“Phantom” is the most enduring relic of the ’80s era of musicals built on spectacle: “Les Miserables” had a massive cast and an even bigger barricade. “Miss Saigon” had its jaw-dropping helicopter and “Cats” its junkyard set. (All four mega-musicals, not so coincidentally, share producer Cameron Mackintosh.) But those shows have all closed, been revived and closed again since “Phantom” first hit the scene.
The musical reintroduced the novel of the same name by Gaston Leroux to fans who couldn’t get enough of the Phantom. While adaptations of the source material existed prior to Webber’s musical, adaptations and parodies specifically referencing the show’s interpretation of “Phantom” can be seen throughout pop culture — including films and even children’s television.
Defrin acknowledged that Webber’s musical has its fair share of detractors who aren’t wowed by its melodramatic script and score. But it’s hard to deny the cultural “phenomenon” it’s become, he said — its iconography is so recognizable that its marquee doesn’t even list the musical’s title.
“Of course there’ll be a hole in my heart,” Defrin said of its closure.
Phans say goodbye to ‘Phantom’ on Sunday
Some phans, like Phillips, are taking the show’s ending in stride, even if it pains them, too.
“Part of me sees it as a new beginning,” he said. “I’d love to keep the show’s legacy alive in the best way that I can.”
Phillips said he dreams of adapting the musical as an animated film one day — yet another way “Phantom” can live on after Broadway.
Boggess, meanwhile, has just come to terms with the gravity of “Phantom’s” role in her life. She has played Christine across the pond — not just on Broadway — and in the sequel musical, “Love Never Dies.”
From rehearsing for the Las Vegas production with the original director, the late Hal Prince, to hitting the high E in the musical’s title song, the highest note Christine sings in the show, she told CNN she held her memories of performing in “Phantom” as some of the dearest of her career.
“To sing (Webber’s) music is one of the greatest gifts of my life,” she said.
While Defrin eagerly studied “Phantom” as an aspiring director, he’ll miss sharing the show with friends the most. He’s brought more than 20 people with him to the show, and watching someone else’s jaw drop when the chandelier rises and the iconic organ starts playing has been a unique thrill.
“There’s no reaction like it,” he said of sharing the “gift of ‘Phantom'” with loved ones.
“Phantom” won’t go totally missing from the theatrical landscape — it will likely continue to tour, and the licensing rights are available for amateur theater companies. But when the Majestic’s marquee dims on Sunday night, and the Phantom finally abandons the theater he’s haunted for 35 years, Broadway will feel a bit less fantastical without it.