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February 18, 2023 will be a notable date in the history of Broadway. “Phantom of the Opera” is scheduled to close at the Majestic Theatre after 45 years and over 13,500 performances. It is the longest running show in Broadway history.

(I have to admit how glad I was to see this something less than earth-shattering bit of news because it deflected my inclination to write about the mind-numbing cruelty demonstrated by Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and his shameless political games with people’s lives. Believe it or not, I get tired of writing about lowlifes.

I’m sure DeSantis’s despicable maneuver got a lot of chuckles over gin and tonics in the various upscale watering holes where the privileged gather in the deceptively called Sunshine State. I’m equally sure that was exactly the intent.

The generous and humane reception that the immigrants received by residents and officials on Martha’s Vineyard vividly illustrated that the governor’s smallness isn’t just physical, but he certainly possesses all the ruthlessness to ascend the ladder in today’s version of the Republican Party. He very likely will be their candidate for president in 2024 if the other keeper of the GOP flame is in jail.)

Now, back to the dimming of the lights at the Majestic.

The opulent adaptation of Gaston Leroux’s 1910 novel, with music by Andrew Lloyd Webber and Charles Hart, and a book by Webber and Richard Stilgoe, opened in London in 1986. It was directed by Harold Prince and starred Michael Crawford in the title role and Sarah Brightman as the object of his affections. Ms. Brightman was also Mrs. Lloyd Webber at the time. The stars would both reprise their roles in the New York production that opened two years later.

Producers cite continued declines in attendance to the extremely expensive musical even as much of Broadway begins to recover from the losses incurred by one of New York’s most reliable tourist lures during the pandemic. The show has struggled to maintain financial viability since it reopened in New York in October of 2021.

It is, of course, not unreasonable to conclude that the number of people who wanted to hear “The Music of the Night” one more time had simply declined to the point where sustaining the show became untenable.

Ticket prices to “Phantom” range from around $100 to almost $350 depending upon where you can afford to sit. That might have had something to do with it, too. The exorbitant cost of tickets is not unique to “Phantom” by any means. It could be argued that the expense of mounting and maintaining any Broadway show has, to a great extent, meant that a large segment of the theater-going public can’t afford to see it.

It’s a sad state of affairs when a salesman like Willy Loman couldn’t afford to see a play about himself.

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I used to go to New York frequently to see shows and, as snobbish as it may sound to avid theatergoers, there is nothing quite like a Broadway show. I think my wife and I used to enjoy an entire weekend in Manhattan for what two theater tickets cost today. We haven’t been in a long time, but the opportunity to see a new Stephen Sondheim musical is gone now, so there is far less an enticement. (I’m damned if I would pay $200 to hear “The Ladies Who Lunch” again even if Patti LuPone did a great job of it.)

I can remember many, many years ago (at my age, I can add the second many), I debated over whether I wanted to spend $15 to sit in the orchestra section and watch a musical with Vivien Leigh. I decided that I did.

It is difficult to describe the experience of watching the actress who played what was probably the most coveted role in the history of motion pictures. That may have been a mixed blessing for Leigh, who always preferred the theater to working in films.

It had been nearly a quarter of a century since she accompanied a friend to the huge set at MGM where the burning of Atlanta was being filmed and David O. Selznick finally found his leading lady.

I suppose that it is inevitable that the people upon whose shoulders you project so many imagined expectations are almost always a little smaller when you see them in person. It may have been impossible for any actor to completely dispel an image so finely ingrained on the public consciousness as her incarnation of Scarlett O’Hara in “Gone with the Wind.” Perhaps it was because I was vaguely aware of her troubled personal history that the steely determination that characterized her Scarlett seemed to have been replaced by the fragility she projected in “A Streetcar Named Desire.”

Opinions of Leigh’s talent varied widely, although most agreed that her breathtaking beauty hampered her determination to be regarded as a great actress. Elia Kazan, who directed her in “Streetcar,” thought she possessed only a “modest talent.” But, Tennessee Williams, who wrote the original play, said she brought “everything that I intended, and much that I had never dreamed of” to the role of the tragic Blanche DuBois.

Leigh later said that she invested so much into the role that “it tipped me over into madness.”

She was subject to episodes of depression, paranoia, and violent outbursts throughout her adult life. Director Stanley Kramer was so delighted by the Charleston she danced in “Tovarich” that he asked her to incorporate it into her performance as a disillusioned divorcee in “Ship of Fools,” which proved to be her last film. Kramer later said he had no idea how troubled she was. She became emotionally distraught during a difficult scene with Lee Marvin and struck the actor so hard with the spiked heel of her slipper that it left a mark on his face.

Vivien Leigh died of tuberculosis at her London home on July 7, 1967. She was 53 years old.

None of the demons that haunted her were on the stage the night I saw “Tovarich” all those years ago and I never regretted spending a single penny of that $15.

Alden Graves writes a regular column for Vermont News & Media. The opinions expressed by columnists do not necessarily reflect the views of Vermont News & Media.


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