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Comic arias hit a discordant note

February 5th 1989 | C 7
Written for The Sunday Times (London) by John Peter

John Peter on the scent of a transatlantic wrangle over twin Phantoms of the Opera

The run of The Phantom of the Opera in San Francisco's Theatre in the Square has just been extended for the third time, and it may not be the last. It has now been running since early last September and is one of the most successful shows in a medium-sized house in the city's theatre history.

But it is not The Phantom of the Opera you think. This is a musical by our own Ken Hill, directed by our own Peter Farago and designed by our own Joe Vanek. It started life in Newcastle in 1976 and then opened in a much revised version, in Stratford East in April 1984, directed by Hill himself.

The idea was quite simple. Hill dramatised Gaston Leroux's famous 1911 potboiler and studded it with operatic arias from Donizetti, Weber, Verdi, Gounod, Offenbach and Mozart. Bach also makes a fleeting appearance.

The effect is like that of members of the Goon Show gate-crashing a polite embassy reception. The jokes are broad and hilariously infantile. Farago has exploited the show's huge potential for hammy grand-guignol acting and created a boisterous piece of what Polonius, that great drama critic, would have called tragical-comical-hysterical. The episode of the fall of the chandelier is hilarious. American critics loved it. It's playing to excellent houses.

But the course of showbiz never did run smooth. Shortly before the opening, the producer, Jonathan Reinis, received a letter from lawyers representing the Cameron Mackintosh Organisation and Andrew Lloyd Webber's Really Useful Company, whose own production of The Phantom of the Opera, by our own Andrew Lloyd Webber, was running on Broadway.

The letter demanded that Reinis "cease and desist" from advertising his show as "the original stage musical". The letter was accompanied by a photocopy of an advertisement for the Hill-Reinis show, on which the name Weber was ringed: presumably somebody was worried that the composer of Cats and Phantom was going to be confused with the composer of Euryanthe and Der Freischutz.

Reinis, a young man with the smile of a clubbable shark, seems well equipped to deal with such situations. He responded amiably that Hill's Stratford East show pre-dated Lloyd Webber's musical by two years. He never heard again.

And indeed, as my colleague, George Perry, shows in his book The Phantom of the Opera, the copyright of which rests with the Really Useful Company, Lloyd Webber and Mackintosh went to see Hill's show at Stratford East, liked it, and suggested to him that it could be developed into a West End musical. It was agreed on an informal basis that Hill was to do the developing; there was no suggestion that any new music would be composed.

But soon afterwards, news was abroad that Lloyd Webber was to write his own Phantom of the Opera. Hill, too, never heard again. He is fairly philosophical about the whole thing, pointing out soberly that he never received a formal commission, but adding, in an affable grumble, that he wouldn't have minded receiving "a post-card or something".

Now, cut back to San Francisco, September 1988, with rehearsals of Hill's Phantom in their final stages. Enter several messages from theatrical agents: three members of Farago's cast, including the actor playing the Phantom, received, by some strange coincidence, invitations to audition urgently for roles in the Lloyd Webber/Cameron Mackintosh Phantom of the Opera on Broadway.

One of the three was offered the fare back to Los Angeles and back; another, the leading actor, his fare to New York and back. The auditions would have taken place a week before the San Francisco opening. All three turned the offer down in, I am told, some indignation.

But all is not lost for the New York producers of Lloyd Webber's show. They are earning royalties from the show's famous logo, which Harper & Row has put on the cover of its new edition of Leroux's novel. They are also marketing chandelier earrings. And they have also released a scent called Esprit de Phantom.

I have smelt it and found it cloying and sickly-sweet. Extraordinary, isn't it, how potent cheap perfume is.