Anthony Crivello paid the usual respects as he took to the stage last month to acknowledge the fifth anniversary of Phantom at the Venetian. The titular actor thanked Andrew Lloyd Webber, Hal Prince and the corporate owners who pay the salaries.
Then he asked Janis Sartin to rise from her front-row seat so he could note that she’d seen the show in Vegas “about 50 times.”
Actually, it’s 55 and counting. Also, she’s seen the tale of the grotesque opera house squatter obsessed with an ingénue either on Broadway or on tour another 24 times and saw the 2004 film version 17 times in theaters. Sartin keeps each ticket stub as evidence, of course.
“It’s so hard to explain,” said the 56-year-old grocery store cashier from Castaic, California, answering the most obvious question. “I just get this feeling. The Phantom is such a tragic character. I’m drawn to him and the tragedy of his situation. All he wants is to be accepted and loved, and he thinks he’s going to get this chance, and then he doesn’t and it ends up that he’s alone again. It just really grabs me.”
Don’t go digging for a pop-psych explanation. The grandmother of two has never been an outcast. She just fell for the music and the story when her husband took her to see the show at LA’s Ahmanson Theatre in 1992 for their 20th wedding anniversary. She’d neither seen the two non-musical movies nor heard the 1986 musical’s score before that night.
She actually waited a couple months to return with her husband, but then her phan-aticism took hold. Sartin saw it 14 times at the Ahmanson before it closed in 1993. Her husband, who bowed out after a few times in LA, nonetheless took her to San Francisco to see the tour there and to see it on Broadway. Then she went thrice more when the tour returned to LA in 1998.
“They thought I was a little obsessed,” Sartin said of friends and family. “But I have a personality, when I like something I really like something.”
Still, there’s nothing quite like Phantom in her life. She had hundreds of photos of the Beatles on her walls as a girl and got into Dark Shadows, also about a yearning societal reject. But none of that is a precursor to her Phantom passion, which has spilled over into writing poems, wearing jewelry and collecting dolls, nutcrackers and other tchotchkes.
In 2006, when the shortened, special effects-enhanced version arrived at Venetian, it added rocket fuel to Sartin’s interest. Sartin went three times on her first Vegas trip, then returned at least twice a year. Sometimes she goes five times in a visit.
The performers, as Crivello’s tribute shows, embrace her. She’s twice sprung for the $250 VIP package, which includes a backstage tour and access to the see the Phantom remove his makeup. Of course, she attended the Phans Week in Vegas in 2009, where she went to a masquerade ball akin to the one in a pivotal scene in the show. (Sartin didn’t don a character costume as many did, opting instead for a ball gown.)
“I try to always conduct myself in a polite manner, not be in their face,” she said of her relationship with the actors. “I present myself as a respectful fan.”
Sartin hasn’t calculated it all out, but I did: She’s spent at least 168 hours—seven days—in seats in movie theaters and showrooms witnessing the same tale. She’s spent nearly $10,000 on show tickets alone; she has a Phantom Phund jar where she socks money away. She’s only once been comped, for writing something for a Phantom online newsletter.
And, no, it just never gets old. Different performers play the Phantom as more monstrous or misunderstood, different Christines are naïve or self-involved. The swell of the overture transports Sartin and tears almost always surface.
In more than a dozen trips to the Strip since Phantom’s 2006 debut, she’s also never seen another show.
“If I’m in Vegas, I don’t want to waste my time seeing anything else,” she said. “If Phantom is playing, I’m there.”