Phantom's marathon

FOR Hong Kong, it is one of the biggest shows ever to have been booked; for the people at the Really Useful Group, it is 'a limited engagement only'.

But with 157,000 tickets available for 96 performances of the hit musical Phantom of the Opera next summer, this is a ghost that promises to be a very noisy spectre indeed in Hong Kong.

The advertising budget for the 12-week show announced yesterday is about HK$20 million, and head of Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber's Really Useful Group, Patrick McKenna, has said there will be blanket coverage of radio, TV and newspapers, as well as a host of promotional events.

'This is not just a show . . . this is one of the seven wonders of the world,' he said.

Many in the arts world might disagree with his sentiment, but in producer-speak he is probably right.

In comparison with the Phantom of the Opera, all other musicals have been a relative flop.

Even Cats, which had 85 per cent bookings in Hong Kong earlier this year and which has grossed more than US$800 million (HK$6.2 billion) worldwide since it was first performed in 1981, is about to be overtaken by the runaway success of the much more recent Phantom.

'We haven't had an empty seat for Phantom in the West End or Broadway since it opened in 1986,' said Mr McKenna happily.

'Before the show even started we had advance box-office bookings of US$20 million, and we've still got advance bookings of US$20 million; it's a producer's dream,' he said.

And the activity of touts - of which both management and the law firmly disapprove - outside most of the theatres hosting the musical, shows its huge popularity.

Tickets are regularly sold at two or three times the original price, with GBP25 (HK$315) tickets for Michael Crawford's last performance as the Phantom in London's West End changing hands for around GBP5,000 outside the theatre.

'The show has something for everyone - it is romantic, sometimes terrifying; it is accessible, and the music is very strong,' said Mr McKenna, who has seen Phantom at least 20 times.

It is based on the age-old story of 'Beauty and the Beast'. The Phantom, born with a hideously deformed face, forced to wear a mask from the time he was a baby, now lurks in the labyrinthine Paris Opera House.

Then he falls in love with a young soprano, Catherine, and in his attempt to make her a star, exercises a reign of terror over all the occupants of the Opera.

The decision that the Phantom should have been born with his deformities is one that Lloyd Webber made deliberately, to elicit a very specific sympathetic response from the audience.

And while the producers at Warner Brothers, who are battling for the rights to screen the musical, are trying to change the story Hollywood-style to make the Phantom the victim of a terrible accident, Mr McKenna said this highly emotional aspect of the piece 'would never be changed'.

The cast, which has yet to be announced, will be taken mainly from the production that is touring Canada at the moment.

But although it is set to move from city to city, the promoters have guaranteed that Hong Kong will not have to make do with a cut-down version of the Broadway show.

'This will be identical to the Phantoms in the rest of the world, and the Phantom himself will be played by someone with Broadway or West End experience,' promised Robert Topol, vice-president of Live Entertainment Corporation, which is co-sponsoring the show.

He said that as well as the huge technical crews, the musicians and the cast of 41 performers, the equivalent of three jumbo-loads of effects and costumes will arrive at Hong Kong's Cultural Centre Grand Theatre next May.

The infamous 550 kilogram chandelier that crashes to spectacular effect during the climax of the show will be transported in its own specially designed crate, along with the 10 fog machines, a bridge, a full-size model of an elephant, and hundreds of other special effects.

Top tickets at the weekend performances will be $750 - $100 more than the top prices for Cats 'to acknowledge that this is a much bigger production,' while the cheapest seats will be available for $250.

But even with the premium, Mr McKenna said that the Hong Kong tour was unlikely to be a huge money spinner, after the Really Useful Group has paid out an estimated US$8 million to get the show to the territory.

'We don't disclose our break-even point, but I can say that we need the theatre to be full every night,' he said.

'This is more of a long-term investment in the region: we think that Hong Kong and Asia are going to be important for us in the future, so we want people to get used to seeing these kinds of spectacular shows.

And after the Hong Kong public has been 'educated' in the way of spending lots of money months in advance to see Lloyd Webber musicals, the stars are the limit for the future, Mr McKenna promised.

He said Starlight Express, that fast moving song and dance spectacular about trains, was almost certain to come within the next two years - with the performers all on rollerblades.

And the Really Useful Group is even considering the idea of sponsoring Cantonese-language spectaculars, after the huge demand shown for bookings to Hong Kong's own Walled City musical this week.

Tickets for the Phantom of the Opera go on sale to the general public on December 3; priority bookings are available for American Express card-holders from November 7. The first performance will be on June 16 1995, and the show will be shown with subtitles in Cantonese.