Front Row Seat: Duluth plans sendoff as 'Phantom of the Opera' ends era on Broadway

Andrew Lloyd Webber's smash-hit musical is closing after 35 years on the Great White Way. Lyric Opera of the North will mark the show's final night with a Greysolon party.

Elaborate chandelier hangs above bare theater stage, with empty seats visible in background.
A swooping chandelier is one of the signature props in "Phantom of the Opera" on Broadway.
Contributed / Joan Marcus

DULUTH — There are a dozen currently sitting members of the U.S. House of Representatives who hadn't even been born when "Phantom of the Opera" opened on Broadway in 1988.

When "Phantom" came to America, neither MC Hammer nor Billy Ray Cyrus had yet graced the Duluth Arena stage (but both soon would). The Minnesota North Stars were still our state's team in the National Hockey League.

Three "Phantom of the Opera" cast members pose for photo, costumed for the stage. Phantom at left, Christine in center.
Sarah Lawrence poses with two "Phantom of the Opera" castmates backstage in Las Vegas during her run of shows there in the 2000s.
Contributed / Sarah Lawrence

Now, just over 35 years later, "Phantom" is dropping its last chandelier on the Great White Way. The COVID-19 pandemic finally claimed Broadway's longest-running show: after lockdown ended, the audiences that had sustained the show since Ronald Reagan was president finally petered out.

Sarah Lawrence, who along with her husband, Calland Metts, is artistic director of Lyric Opera of the North, believes the musical has remained so popular for so long because it delivers the kind of classic, larger-than-life musical drama associated with its subject.

"It's why people love opera, too," said Lawrence, noting that "Phantom" is not a true opera, but rather a musical about an opera company. "The size of the production is so impressive, and so you can go 10 times and see something new every time."


Lawrence knows what she's talking about — she spent several years performing in "Phantom of the Opera," including in the starring role of Christine Daae. Though Lawrence wasn't on Broadway, in the early 2000s, she joined the musical's national tour and, later, a Las Vegas production.

Logo art for "Phantom of the Opera," featuring white mask and red rose.
Logo art for "Phantom of the Opera" on Broadway.
Contributed / The Publicity Office

"It's impossible not to get the chills when that overture starts and the scene changes from the auction to the opera company rehearsal," said Lawrence. "It started with two famous people — it was written for Sarah Brightman and Michael Crawford — but after that, it was just about the show."

Marni Raab has performed the role of Christine over 3,000 times, on Broadway and elsewhere; she's a member of the current Broadway cast in a swing capacity.

Raab wrote in an email to the News Tribune that "'Phantom of the Opera' on Broadway has always felt like a permanent fixture. That’s crazy when you consider that most Broadway shows run less than a year."

Lucas Bouk talked performing “As One” in a different role, with a different voice.

Raab and Lawrence worked together on "Phantom" and became "really, really good pals," said Lawrence. Raab has previously directed and sang for Lyric Opera of the North, and she'll be returning to direct the company's production of "Cavalleria Rusticana" (June 9 and 11).

Given the Duluth company's close ties to "Phantom," board member Annie Dugan though it only fitting for Lyric Opera of the North to host a local party on the final night of the musical's Broadway run. That's this coming Sunday: a "Pharewell to Phantom" will take place at Greysolon's Moorish Room.

Performers costumed as Phantom (with red-lined cape and white face mask) and Pristina (in vintage skirt and button-up blouse) stand in front of a white backdrop.
In April 2005, Gary Kruchowski rehearses a "Phantom of the NorShor" scene with Sarah Lawrence.
Amanda Odeski / File / Duluth News Tribune

"I think it's an interesting thing for our community to have that connection back to the Broadway show," said Dugan, "and I think some people might be 'Phantom of the Opera' or Broadway mainstays, but they might feel like opera with a capital O isn't for them. And I think that leap isn't that far."

Numerous Lyric Opera of the North affiliates — including Lawrence, Metts and company founder Ruth Jacobson — performed in "Phantom of the NorShor," a parody that played in the eponymous Duluth theater in 2005.


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"In the musical, representatives of CinemaOmniMegaPlex corporation and the architectural firm of Just, Plain and Ugly plan to tear down the NorShor Theatre," explained the News Tribune at the time. "The performers on the NorShor's stage are told they have two hours to get out."

Written by Jean Sramek, Margi Preus and composer Tyler Kaiser for the company Colder By the Lake, "Phantom of the NorShor" was a comedy, but one that touched on the real-life threats to Duluth's historic theaters.

"This was before any decisions had been made about what was going to happen with the NorShor," remembered Lawrence. "People didn't know if it was going to get torn down. There was a lot of, 'It's falling to ruins,' but of course, lots of people wanted to save it, and thank goodness they did."

"At least one hit song from 'Phantom of the NorShor' will be performed at the Pharewell party!" promises a news release about Sunday's event. "In addition to music there will plenty of ‘phan’ based frivolity including a photo booth and chandelier pinata."

"We're not performing 'The Phantom of the Opera,' we're celebrating it," clarified Lawrence. "All I can say is, there's some fun surprises in store."

Three light-skinned women and a light-skinned girl pose for a selfie in front of red curtain and stage in theater.
Sarah Lawrence (far left) and Annie Dugan (far right) were among a group of Duluth friends who recently attended "Phantom of the Opera" on Broadway.
Contributed / Annie Dugan

Dugan had never seen "Phantom" until recently, when she attended the Broadway production with Lawrence and other friends. Dugan learned, she said, why the show has appealed to so many people for so long, despite a potentially off-putting premise.

"When you look at the face value of the story, you're like, hmm, this guy is kind of a creepy jerk that is basically preying on this woman," said Dugan about the Phantom, a masked musical genius who is obsessed with opera singer Christine. (The musical is based on Gaston Leroux's 1910 novel.)

The musical ends with a "moment of redemption," Dugan discovered. "It doesn't excuse the problematic nature of (the story), but it does sort of explain why it's relevant now."


"Phantom" aside, Lawrence is glad that grand musicals with large orchestras may be coming back into vogue after decades during which many musicals have operated with lean arrangements, whether due to artistic or budgetary considerations.

"'Sweeney Todd' just opened on Broadway" with an orchestra of 26, observed Lawrence. "It will give people chills. It's a fantastic score, it's a great musical, a terrific cast."

Work in the "Phantom" pit has sustained musicians for decades, in a world where such reliable work can be hard to come by.

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"When (original director) Hal (Prince) was still with us to speak at milestone celebrations, he used to love sharing the number of people in all the different departments that 'Phantom' has employed over the years," wrote Raab. "It’s literally thousands of jobs. Mostly, I am extremely grateful to have been a part of it for so long."

If "Phantom" has helped introduce some musical theater fans to the world of opera, Sunday's Duluth celebration may help make Northlanders aware of how much nationally known talent performs here.

"One of my very best friends, a 'Phantom' I worked with for a long time, has come out here twice to sing leading tenor roles in our operas," said Lawrence.

"We are not paying what someone gets paid to sing 'Phantom' on the national tour," Lawrence continued. "People just say, 'I'd love to come there, I'd love to spend a month in Duluth and help our friends build an opera company in this sort of unlikely place.'"

A limited number of "Pharewell to Phantom" tickets will be available at the door. For information, see


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Arts and entertainment reporter Jay Gabler joined the Duluth News Tribune in 2022. His previous experience includes eight years as a digital producer at The Current (Minnesota Public Radio), four years as theater critic at Minneapolis alt-weekly City Pages, and six years as arts editor at the Twin Cities Daily Planet. He's a co-founder of pop culture and creative writing blog The Tangential; he's also a member of the National Book Critics Circle and the Minnesota Film Critics Alliance. You can reach him at or 218-279-5536.
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