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Don’t call it a downer!

Even at 81, Broadway legend and Phantom director Hal Prince has lost none of his enthusiasm for what he does

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A Phantom Demo: Prince uses a scale model to demonstrate his Phantom plans, in 2006.

It was my only concern.

Everything else seemed to be in place three years ago when Phantom of the Opera was being reborn as a shorter, more technologically exciting Vegas production. At the time, the Broadway thing was starting to hit a rocky shoal on the Strip, with Avenue Q, We Will Rock You and The Producers all closing or already gone, Spamalot and Hairspray en route (to eventually crash, alas) and Mamma Mia! behaving as its own trend-defying blockbuster self.

In Phantom: The Las Vegas Spectacular, there was a special combination of familiarity and only-in-Vegas excess thanks to that $40 million theater. I even told CityLife writer David McKee at the time: “If Phantom doesn’t work, then nothing will work. Period. End of story.”

Except there was one itsy-bitsy reason why it might not work, and, call me foolish or fearless, I brought it up to the man who directed and nurtured the opera-house squatter tale into a blockbuster phenomenon. I didn’t get all the way through the question.

“On Broadway, you walk out and it’s kind of a downer ...” I began.

“I don’t think so,” rumbled Hal Prince, he of a record 21 Tony awards, a Pulitzer Prize and a list of Broadway credits that includes directing Pajama Game, Damn Yankees, Fiddler on the Roof, A Little Night Music, Evita, Sweeney Todd and Cabaret. “I think you couldn’t be wronger. If you heard the audience go nuts screaming. You couldn’t be wronger. They’re up from their seats screaming, and they have been now for 18 years in New York.”

Make that 21 now. Plus three in Vegas. And, Prince predicted, many more to come: “It doesn’t sell out every night, but it’s doing just fine, and there’s no question it will just keep running and running and running indefinitely.”

I write of this now because thousands of Phanatics are descending on the Venetian for the first of what inevitably will become a regular Phantom Fan Week. Prince is back in town to keynote the event—his first return since opening the Vegas edition—and he’s taking a victory lap around, uh, me.

Phantom's Third Anniversary

He remembered our first interview. He’s 81, and in the intervening years he’s spoken to countless journalists, had a stroke and opened and closed another musical in New York, and he is planning to open a new one, Paradise Found, starring Mandy Patinkin, next year. But through all of that, the suggestion that Phantom was “a bit of a downer” stuck in his craw, and he not only recalled that I had said that, but also opened the conversation by recalling with precision when we had last spoken.

“What a weird analysis,” he said last week, picking up the argument exactly where we had left it off.

When he knocked me down the first time, in 2006, I was intimidated by his stature and the forcefulness of his umbrage. Also, there was something funny about being called “wronger.”

This time, I was prepared. Thousands of people had heard that first interview on my podcast, and many had backed me up. The Phantom, already broken down and ostracized, ends up broken-hearted. The Beast doesn’t get Beauty; he gets the promise of more loneliness and a rap sheet while the pretty people get each other.

“Well, it’s a horror story, and it’s a tragedy,” I countered.

“No, no,” he said sadly, as if chastising a petulant child. “It’s a romance, and it’s very glamorous.”

“I love the show, but it’s very sad,” I insisted.

“Put it this way: You’re wrong.”

I don’t know about that, but what I was wrong about was whether it would matter. My view was that showgoers in Vegas are looking for uplift, but, in fact, it turns out they’re really looking for comfort food. And even Prince somewhat conceded that notion when he recalled bringing Fiddler on the Roof to Caesars Palace decades ago for an extended run. That show, he acknowledged, wouldn’t work in Vegas now.

He even conceded that one—oppressed Jews forced from their homeland in Tsarist Russia—is a downer. Certainly, it’s no fun.

What is fun? Talking to Prince. He’s the kind of fellow who tells you what he thinks until he thinks it would be impolitic, and then he clams up in a way that speaks volumes. A good example is the conversation about Sierra Boggess, one of Vegas’ original Christines in Phantom.

Prince went on about her and how thrilled he is about her success as she’s moved on to open The Little Mermaid. But try to get him to give an opinion of that show, seen as one of the worst examples of the cheap route Broadway has gone in recycling ideas, and he “would rather not comment on that” except to say that “most of those shows have closed.”

The Details

Phantom
Mondays and Saturdays, 7 p.m.and 9:30 p..
Wednesdays-Fridays, 7 p.m.
$75.90 - $250
The Venetian, 414-1000

(Mermaid ended its run last month after 19 months.)

The topic of Boggess provided me a bridge to Love Never Dies, the bizarre Phantom sequel set in Coney Island that Andrew Lloyd Webber insists on foisting upon the world next year. Boggess is opening that, too, so this provided a segue. Yet Prince was noticeably mum on what he thought of Webber’s decision to revisit Phantom, saying only that he didn’t want to be involved because he believed in “leaving the original as it was.”

I’m as appalled as he (probably) is by this sequel, but at least I may yet get my justice in our debate. If Webber decides the Phantom spent the next several decades in mourning, how will Prince be able to claim the original wasn’t tragic?

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