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Theatrical Phantoms: Ken Hill's The Phantom of the Opera

Pages 241-242. Los Angeles: 2000
Written for The Phantom of the Opera Magazine: The Millennium Issue Collector's Edition by Carrie Hernandez




There are two versions of Ken Hill’s The Phantom of the Opera:

1976:
“The Phantom of the Opera by Ken Hill, based upon the novel by Gaston Leroux, received its first public performance in a production by the Duke’s Playhouse Lancaster, 26th July 1976. It was directed by John Blackmore, designed by Clare Lyth, with musical direction by Gary Yershon. It differed from later versions in having a modern score [by Ian Armit] in addition to excerpts from Faust by Charles Gounod.” (Hill, iv)

1984:
The Phantom of the Opera by Ken Hill was “also produced in a joint production by the Newcastle Playhouse and the Theatre Royal, Stratford East, on 3rd April, 1984. Alasdair MacNeill arranged all the music and composed all the incidental music for this production. The modern score was discarded, and all airs were taken from opera[s],” by Offenbach, Gounod, Verdi, Boito, Dvorák, Bizet, Weber, Donizetti and Mozart. (Hill, iv)

Background/History:
The Ken Hill Phantom, in its later form, has played in England and has also toured the USA and Australia. In fact, many believe that Andrew Lloyd Webber was first inspired to write his own Phantom after seeing the Ken Hill version. Calvin Ahlgren in his 1988 San Francisco Datebook article writes:

          Webber had seen Hill’s earlier production and had approached him about the possibility of their collaborating on a grand scale ‘Phantom.’ He and Webber had been chums... having worked together earlier on a revival of ‘Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat’ at the Westminster Theater. Webber and his producer Cameron Mackintosh had been highly enthusiastic when they broached Hill about ‘Phantom,’ Hill said. ‘Andrew was over the moon about it. I was bought lots of bottles of wine to be persuaded not to direct it, so we could get somebody else’ with a different background. Hill had hoped to cast British singer-dancer Sarah Brightman for the role of Christine, the ingenue for whom the Phantom’s romantic bell tolls. (Ahlgren, DAT 37)

         As everyone knows, though, Lloyd Webber ended marrying Brightman and casting her as Christine in his own version of the tale with nary another word to Hill. Hill claimed not to be bitter and even remarked, “It happens in show biz all the time...” (Ahlgren, DAT 37) As is also known, the Lloyd Webber version became the blockbuster hit and a household name. Thus it was a little bit like adding insult to injury when the producer of the Hill Phantom in San Francisco’s Theatre in the Square, Jonathan Reinis, received a letter from lawyers representing the Cameron Mackintosh Organization and the Really Useful Group demanding that the they “cease and desist” from advertising the Ken Hill Phantom as “the original stage musical.” Reinis, who was not to be cowed, sent back a letter to the effect that even the newer of Ken Hill’s two versions predated the Lloyd Webber Phantom by two years and as a result did not hear from those organizations again. (Peter, C7)

         Nevertheless, Hill’s Phantom seemed destined always to remain in the shadow of the Lloyd Webber version. In 1989, producers of the USA Hill Phantom tour filed two federal lawsuits, one in Georgia and another in Ohio against theater producers in those states who allegedly urged patrons to skip the Ken Hill production and wait for the “real” (i.e. Lloyd Webber) production. In 1992, Ken Hill producers took an appeal all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, this time against the Boston Globe which had criticized the Ken Hill Phantom’s “the original stage musical” ad as “possibly misleading the public into thinking the production was the same as the Andrew Lloyd Webber smash hit.” The Globe’s reporter Kevin Kelly had quoted the Washington Post as calling Hill’s musical “a scandal, a snake-oil job.” (Variety, 347:66) Hill producers lost that case.

Description:

In a production note, Ken Hill writes, “The playing should be real and controlled, stretched to the limits of what is believable, but never beyond. ‘Camping’ or ‘guying’ is not permitted... Playing for laughs will destroy the story...” (Hill, ix) In practice, actual productions of the Hill version have been reviewed as a “hammy, gaslight farce” (Corliss, 58), a “disrespectful spoof,” (Sunday Times, 6:7) and “hilariously infantile.” (Sunday Times, C7)

         Although the core of Leroux’s story is present, with the rivalry between Christine and Carlotta; the romance between Christine and Raoul; and Christine’s abduction by the Phantom, nearly all the incidents leading up to these have been changed. So too have many of the characters. The Persian is still present, as are Madame Giry and Carlotta. But the single manager in this version is Richard and Raoul is Richard’s son, not the Viscount de Chagny. Other, new minor characters have appeared, such as Lisette, Dominique and Mauclair. And characters who show up briefly in Leroux, such as Mephistopheles, Faust, Remy and the little dancer, Jammes, have a much larger role in this version. Interestingly Jammes, from Leroux’s Phantom, is the dancing girl upon whom this version focuses, as opposed to Meg in the Lloyd Webber version. Surprisingly, the Phantom himself has a fairly small part and is played more as a component of the ensemble than as a starring role.

Availability:

The Ken Hill Phantom still plays at different locations from time to time. Checking one’s local paper is probably the best way to catch it.

  • The book (with dialogue and lyrics) can be purchased from Amazon.co.uk.
  • The Cast album CD is available from The Sound of Music.
  • A soundclip from the CD is available at The Phantom Archives.
  • I bought the souvenir program for the Australian Ken Hill Phantom touring company several years ago from Playbill, P.O. Box 146, Pymble, NSW 2073, Australia. Phone (61) 29449 6433. No clue at all if they still have any. Good luck.

    Notes/Bibliography:
    1) Ahlgren, Calvin. “’Phantom’ Back to Haunt Webber Pal: Author Ken Hill launches own version of hit show.” San Francisco Chronicle, 25 Sept. 1988, DAT: 37.
    2) Corliss, Richard. “Phantom Mania.” Time, 1 March 1993: 58-59
    3) Flynn, John L. Phantoms of the Opera: The Face Behind the Mask. New York: Image Publishing, 1993, page 105.
    4) Hill, Ken. The Phantom of the Opera: A Musical Play. London: Samuel French Ltd., 1994.
    5) Hummler, Richard. “´Original’ ‘Phantom’ Team Flex Their Legal Biceps.” Variety, 7-13 June, 1989: 73.
    6) “Ken Hill’s ‘Phantom’ Loses Supreme Court Appeal.” Variety, 15 June, 1992: sec 347: 66.
    7) Peter, John. “Comic Arias Hit a Discordant Note: John Peter on the scent of a transatlantic wrangle over twin Phantoms of the Opera.” Sunday Times, 5 Feb. 1989: C7.
    8) Sunday Times, 12 Jan. 1992: sec 6: 7