Bright lights, big chan­de­lier: The ‘Phan­tom’ lure of Broad­way

The Washington Post Sunday - - TRAVEL - BY AN­DREA SACHS an­drea.sachs@wash­post.com

The Great White Way was never my way. The idea of Broad­way — the crowds, the cost, the bathos — was an af­front to my com­mu­nity theater sen­si­bil­i­ties. I imag­ined Man­hat­tan’s famed theater district ooz­ing ex­cess and ego from ev­ery pore.

But at some point I knew that I would have to look into the klieg lights. “Hamilton,” for one rea­son. Not that I was ever go­ing to score a ticket to the smash-hit mu­si­cal, but if Broad­way is good enough for a Found­ing Fa­ther, then how could I ob­ject? I also seemed to be the lone hold­out: More than 13 mil­lion peo­ple at­tended a show this sea­son, ac­cord­ing to the Broad­way League.

Step­ping into Times Square, I felt a heavy weight on my cul­tural de­vel­op­ment and my wal­let. Broad­way tick­ets are car-re­pair ex­pen­sive, so I had to choose my play wisely. I headed straight for the Or­a­cle of Broad­way, the TKTS booth, one of four lo­ca­tions of­fer­ing dis­counts of up to 50 per­cent. I ap­proached an em­ployee help­ing be­wil­dered pa­trons and asked him to rec­om­mend a play for a Broad­way neo­phyte.

“If you’re look­ing for classic-y Broad­way,” he said, “then ‘Cats,’ ‘Phan­tom of the Opera,’ ‘Chicago’ or ‘Kinky Boots.’ ”

TKTS was sell­ing tick­ets to all four, which ben­e­fited my bud­get but en­abled my in­de­ci­sive­ness. (The of­fer­ings change daily.) I asked him about his first Broad­way show. “Your first Broad­way play will be dif­fer­ent than mine,” he said, “be­cause I went when I was young.”

Was that a cloud pass­ing over­head or did he just throw some shade my way?

I started chat­ting with an ac­tor star­ring in the off-Broad­way show “Bas­tard Jones.” He agreed to play a sup­port­ing role in my melo­drama.

“‘Phan­tom of the Opera’ is a classic,” said Matt McGloin, who has also per­formed in the District. “Its rep­u­ta­tion is so big, peo­ple from around the world come to see it.”

If I were a re­turn the­ater­goer, he would have pushed harder for “Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812,” a new mu­si­cal based on a frag­ment of Tol­stoy’s tome. But for my inau­gu­ral out­ing . . . “‘Phan­tom of the Opera,’ ” Matt said with con­vic­tion. “‘Phan­tom of the Opera,’ ” I said to the man work­ing at win­dow No. 7.

I paid $79, half off the price of a prime seat in the or­ches­tra sec­tion.

At the Ma­jes­tic Theatre, I joined the short queue and opened my bag wide for the se­cu­rity guard. In­side the venue, I hov­ered near the bar, eye­ing a sou­venir cup dec­o­rated with the Phan­tom’s mys­te­ri­ous white mask. A woman ordered an ap­ple juice in the cup, pay­ing $10. I opted for the wa­ter foun­tain.

I took my seat three rows from the stage, se­cond cush­ion from the aisle. All around me, peo­ple were tak­ing pho­tos of the clas­si­cally au­gust theater, one of Broad­way’s largest with 1,645 seats. I ducked to avoid a Snapchat-in-progress. (Note: The Ma­jes­tic bans pho­tog­ra­phy and video, but no one seems to en­force the rule.)

A few min­utes af­ter 7 p.m., the lights dimmed, the ac­tors ma­te­ri­al­ized on stage and the lit­tle girl be­hind me ripped open a bag of chips. I was so close to the ac­tion that I could see the sparkly red eye shadow on the ac­tress play­ing Car­lotta. I am pretty sure that I gasped, or at least sucked in some air, when the chan­de­lier took flight like a se­quined UFO. I mar­veled at the lav­ish cos­tumes, the ex­trav­a­gant set de­sign and the ceil­ing-shat­ter­ing high notes. The mu­sic sounded a bit like the Eucharist of Synth-Pop, but I felt my­self let­ting go, body­surf­ing on the waves of emo­tion.

Dur­ing in­ter­mis­sion, I pe­rused the mer­chan­dise and was proud of my­self for now un­der­stand­ing the rel­e­vance of the mu­sic box with the cym­bal-clap­ping mon­key. (I didn’t have to sit long for the an­swer.) The se­cond act started with the lit­tle girl break­ing into a new bag of snacks and the vis­ual and au­ral as­sault of the “Mas­quer­ade” scene. I re­mained pinned to the play for most of the singing and danc­ing, though some­time around Scene 7, my mind drifted to the Kore­atown restau­rant near my ho­tel. I snapped out of my food reverie as the show neared its dra­matic fi­nale. The last im­age of my first Broad­way show pricked my heart: the Phan­tom’s mask glow­ing like a white lily in a bright ray of sun.

The au­di­ence rose for a stand­ing ova­tion, and I did, too. The cast, mu­si­cians, set and cos­tume de­sign­ers, light­ing directors, An­drew Lloyd Web­ber and, yes, the chan­de­lier worked re­ally hard to keep us en­ter­tained for more than two hours. They de­served palm-slap­ping ap­plause on thank­fully straight­ened legs.

Most of the the­aters dis­gorge at about the same time, and I joined the teem­ing masses on the side­walks. Out­side the Shu­bert Theatre, two women asked me to snap their photo by the “Hello, Dolly” sign. They raved about the show, but were dis­ap­pointed to learn that Bette Mi­dler was on va­ca­tion. At least the Phan­tom showed up for my per­for­mance.

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