January 26, 2001 at 05:00 AM EST

Before Miss Saigon‘s helicopter, Sunset Boulevard‘s moving mansion, or The Lion King‘s jungle processional, there was The Phantom of the Opera‘s chandelier. Once Phantom was unmasked at London’s Her Majesty’s Theatre in October of 1986, people couldn’t stop talking about it — or the 10-foot, 900-pound sparkling behemoth that hovered menacingly over the highest-priced seats and ”fell” to the stage with a fiery flourish. By the time Phantom premiered on Jan. 26, 1988, at Broadway’s Majestic Theatre, it had already secured a place in theatrical history.

Of course, the show had a few other things going for it: infectious, pop-rock music by Andrew Lloyd Webber (who had staged his own British invasion with 1979’s Evita, 1982’s Cats, and 1987’s Starlight Express); a beauty-and-the-beast story line, courtesy of Gaston Leroux’s 1911 literary thriller; a no-expenses-spared $8 million production from Cameron Mackintosh (the man behind the similarly successful Cats and Les Misérables); and a career-making turn by Michael Crawford as the titular masked man. All this — plus that glittering half ton of brass and beads — generated an unprecedented amount of hype, which translated into advance ticket sales to the tune of $18 million.

Phantom changed everything for me. The attention was enormous, from the public and the media,” recalls Lloyd Webber, who himself landed on the cover of TIME magazine brandishing — what else? — a mask. Both audiences and critics (except for The New York Times‘ Frank Rich, who penned a now-notorious dissenting opinion) were captivated by the tale of a disfigured man who terrorizes an opera house and obsesses over a young soprano (originally played by Lloyd Webber’s then wife, Sarah Brightman).

”When you get so much hype, it can go against you,” notes Crawford, who would play the Phantom for a combined three and a half years in the London, New York, and Los Angeles runs. ”But the audience responded to the emotion of the piece. And I think there lies the true success to it.” In June 1988, Phantom scored seven Tony awards, including best actor for Crawford and Best Musical.

Thirteen years later, the Broadway production is still playing to packed houses (at $425 million and counting, it has grossed more than most of the top 10 films of all time) and six other still-on-the-boards productions chip in for a take of over $3 billion worldwide.

As for that famous chandelier, it still burns as bright as ever. But here’s a little-known fact: On a few occasions, for technical reasons, it has failed to take that spectacular plummet. No matter, the audience is thrilled just the same.


Time Capsule/Jan. 26, 1988

At the movies, Moonstruck, starring Nicolas Cage and Best Actress-to-be Cher (right), reinvigorates romantic comedy in theaters. In music, Michael Jackson’s ”The Way You Make Me Feel” and INXS’s ”Need You Tonight” battle for No. 1 on the Billboard singles chart. In bookstores, Tom Wolfe’s The Bonfire of the Vanities tops the New York Times best-seller list. And in the news, the Reagan White House announces plans to ask Congress for $36.25 million to aid the Nicaraguan contra rebels in their fight against the Sandinista government.

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