Thirty-four years ago today, Phantom of the Opera debuted on Broadway. It has been performed over 13,000 times, making it the longest-running show in Broadway history. As we know, Andrew Lloyd Webber wrote the musical, giving it an iconic place in our culture. But I knew nothing about the story’s origins, so I decided to do a little digging.
French author Gaston Leroux wrote Phantom of the Opera in 1909. Originally published as a serialized story in a Parisian newspaper, it came out in book form in 1910 and was translated into English in 1911.
The idea for the story was sparked by actual events. Leroux was a journalist-turned-novelist who spent the early part of his career as a theatre critic. He also covered a story about the Paris Opera house, Palais Garnier. Leroux was aware that once, during a live performance, a fire in the roof of the opera house had melted through a wire and caused a chandelier to crash, killing one person and injuring several more. It was that accident, combined with rumours of a ghost in that same opera house, that kindled the idea for Leroux’s story. The underground lake that he wrote about actually exists beneath the opera house, and it’s still used for training firefighters to swim in the dark. The impetus to write the story down came from Leroux’s curiosity and belief that the Phantom was indeed real. He did considerable research to prove the truth of the ghost, and even on his death bed, he maintained the rumours were true.
Phantom of the Opera sold poorly initially and was even out of print several times during the twentieth century. Today, the story is considered a classic of French literature, and Leroux’s contribution to French detective fiction is comparable to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle in the UK and Edgar Allan Poe in the United States.