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A Tale of Two Chandeliers

April 16th - 22nd 1992
Written for Best Bets Magazine (Reno Gazette - Journal) by Matt Wolf

London - Call it a tale of two Phantoms. Or let's just say London has a pair of falling chandeliers. In October 1986, Andrew Lloyd Webber's musical "The Phantom of the Opera" opened in London and went on to become one of the biggest international successes in the history of the British musical. In December, Ken Hill's "Phantom of the Opera" joined Lloyd Webber's on the West End, the same story told to different tunes and smaller audiences. The Hill version now plays at Bally's Reno through April 26. So while local audiences who haven't seen Lloyd Webber's "Phantom" can't fully appreciate both sides of the duel, they can see Hill's half of it. The difference in the two productions amounts to a lush extravaganza (Lloyd Webber's) with an original score vs. a relatively low - budget, campy pastiche (Hill's) sung to various 19th - century operatic highlights.

While Lloyd Webber's is full of syrupy earnestness and mooney ballads about "the music of the night", Hill's depends on the sort of bad jokes that greet the arrival of an opera - singing Mephistopheles: "Who the devil are you?" asks the Paris Opera's new manager. Another of Hill's jokes: "His mother would turn in her grave, if she hadn't been lost at sea." There's a distinction paramount to Hill: His show got there first. Oddly, the crashing chandelier which ends Act 1 in both versions seems, in Hill's hands, a parody of Lloyd Webber. But Hill insists it was a fixture of the original. "As far as I'm aware, mine was the first musical version," Hill said of his treatment of the tale of the lovesick "Phantom" who lives in a lake beneath the Paris Opera and pines for soprano Christine Daaé.

The 55 - year - old playwright - director adapted his "Phantom" in 1976 for the Duke's Playhouse in Lancaster in northwest England, reviving it in 1984 for the northeastern city of Newcastle. That production transferred to the Theatre Royal, Stratford East, in east London where it was seen by - among others - Andrew Lloyd Webber and Cameron Mackintosh. In a seperate interview, Lloyd Webber remembered his response to the evening: "I said to Cameron, 'Well, this is clearly not for us...The last thing I'm going to do is this jokey thing...'" But the material returned to haunt him. Lloyd Webber found a translation of Gaston Leroux's classic story while browsing at a New York bookshop. "The romance leapt out at me," he recalled, "and I realized it's all in the book, so I thought, 'Hang on; maybe I should do that.'" The result went on to be a worldwide money spinner pleasing millions - except Ken Hill. "Mine was dead and buried at that time, " said Hill. "Who was going to do another 'Phantom' once Andrew announced his?" Hill's version surfaced instead around the United States, first in St. Louis in 1987, then in San Francisco. A 21 - month national tour traveled from August 1989 to May 1991, moving on to Europe for 23 weeks concluding Dec. 1.

The tour resumed Feb. 18 in Reno, prior to stints an Argentina and Paraguay, then two weeks in Singapore from June 23. All of which means that the West End, then, is one of the last homes for Hill's "Phantom" "It would have been crazy not to have given it an opportunity to play the West End," said co-producer Bernard Theobald, who called Hill's version "a terrific show." Budgeted at about $900,000, about one -fourth the cost of its competitor, the Hill "Phantom" opened Dec. 12 at the Shaftsbury Theatre, about a 15 - minute walk from Her Majesty's Theatre housing Lloyd Webber's version. Breaking even at about 45% capacity, the show is booking through July. Are the theatregoers aware of the difference? It's hard to say, but one American tourist at the intermission took news of the two Phantoms in stride.

"My whole family saw it back home," said David Jerome, a 26 -year -old aspiring playwright from Los Angeles, "and I was here in London and thought I'd see it." Only problem: He wasn't seeing the same one. "I don't even know what the differences are," said Jerome, adding that he found Hill's slant "pretty funny". In the future, there may be even more choices. Tony - winning composer Maury Yeston ("Nine") has long been adapting his own version that may one day end up on Broadway. And according to the trade paper Variety, a new "Phantom" - called "Phantom 4" - is being planned for Broadway come fall. Lloyd Webber seemed nonplussed by reports of spectral rivals. "I don't think it's going to cause us any sleepless nights, to be honest, because it's just not similar."