By Andrew Briedis
My mom was consumed by Phantom Mania.
It was the late 80s and The Phantom of the Opera was like Hamilton in the summer of 2015. Or Into the Woods in the summer of 2022. Or The Lion King every summer, apparently. It was the British Invasion of Broadway and Michael Crawford was my mom’s Harry Styles.
She played her cassette tape of the original Broadway cast recording while driving me to school. She had the Madame Alexander dolls—Yes, there were Madame Alexander Dolls. And one Halloween, she hosted a Phantom-themed party, where she served French pastries in a fully-committed Phantom costume—complete with horror makeup and multiple wigs. Let’s just say, one of the first things I remember learning about my mom was that she lived for that music of the night, baby!
I grew up in San Diego. To me, New York City and whatever “Broadway” was might as well have been Mars. But my mom once visited the New York of the 1970s, where she saw A Chorus Line during the height of its power, so she knew a phenomenon when it was clear and present. But with Phantom, my mom wasn’t attracted to the It Ticket prestige or the groundbreaking spectacle. It was the score. She loved, loved, loved that score. And she wanted so desperately to hear it live, but at that stage in her life—with two kids, my dad’s work in flux, and a fear of flying—a cross-country trip to see the first musical to weaponize a synthesizer was out of the question.
Luckily for my mom, by the early 90s, The Phantom of the Opera had opened a Los Angeles company, and my uncle and aunt got my parents tickets so she could finally attend her beloved masquerade in the flesh. I was very little, but I remember this being a deeply special moment for her. I don’t recall anything about the day she went, or how I assume her eyes lit up for weeks afterwards. There’s just a distant feeling from all those years ago, that I knew—at the time—a dream of hers came true.
Our family didn’t always have the expendable income to see live theatre, especially if it was “Direct from Broadway!” Titanic at the Ahmanson was my marquee gift one Christmas, and for some reason when I was around ten, my mom and I ended up seeing Ralph Macchio star in How to Succeed in Business without Really Trying. But attending major national tours was not the cornerstone of my childhood. However, during the summer when I was fifteen, we learned Phantom was coming to San Diego later that year, and my mom was ready to sell our Princess Diana Beanie Baby to make that happen.
“I’m going to take you to Phantom of the Opera,” she said with stage door glee, as she looked up from the full-page ad for the San Diego Civic Theatre’s season in our local paper.
“Oh, cool!” I lied, with feigned excitement.
Phantom was her thing. And while I respected the passion, I was fifteen. Phantom was…old. I wanted to see Footloose starring future CAA power agent, Joe Machota, and the guy who would become Christian Borle.
I’ll never know what corners my mom cut to afford tickets, but we went down to the literal box office that sweltering day in July to buy them. No Ticketmaster.com. No Will Call. My mom wanted to hold the tickets in her hand and keep watch over them like her own personal Christine Daae´ during the four months that followed, until the arrival of that Sunday matinee—November 14th—when she could finally show me one of her most favorite things.
The summer carried on as usual, I grew even more randomly obsessed with Footloose, and that fall, I started tenth grade. Then, on a random afternoon in September, my mom told me that she would be placed in hospice care.
Okay, look, I know buried the lede! But in a way, that was deliberate. Because my mom’s health was sort of like the fate of Phantom itself: a bit of a blindside if you didn’t have all of the information.
For exposition purposes, my mom had been battling breast cancer my entire life. This wasn’t something my parents ever hid from me, but it also wasn’t something that consumed my childhood. My mom knew the reality of her situation, but never wanted her fight to define my memory of her. Only once, when I was thirteen, did she reveal during a rare moment of truth that, “This will eventually kill me.”
I never actually thought it would happen. She was my mom! She was unstoppable! There couldn’t be a world without her presence. That would be like imagining a universe where something else played The Majestic!
“What’s hospice…?” I asked her, as she sat upright in her hospital bed.
My dad stood beside me. He didn’t know how to explain it. Instead, he looked to her. We always looked to her.
“They stop,” she stated, matter-of-factly. “And they make a hospital for me at home.”
“And then what?”
I truly wasn’t getting it.
She shrugged. “And… That’s it, Andrew.”
The wheels in my head turned for a few seconds. Seconds that felt like two and a half hours with an intermission. And then the chandelier dropped.
“But…” My head cocked to the side casually. My eyes took on the pointed shape of a kid trying to solve an Algebra equation.
“You’re supposed to take me to Phantom of the Opera.”
My mind could have gone any number of directions, and cobbled together a myriad of more appropriate sentences: “Why is life so unfair?” “I’m fifteen, I still need you.” “Who’s gonna dance with me during that part at my wedding?”
But, NO! At the most pivotal moment of my young life, the first thing I thought about was tickets to the third or sixth national tour of a musical I didn’t really want to see.
There’s a scene in the TV series This is Us, where Mandy Moore’s character finds out that her husband has suddenly died. One minute he was fine, the next he was gone. She doesn’t cry or break into hysterics. She stares off as if she’s stuck on a Wordle, and then she inexplicably bites into a candy bar. When I first saw this scene, I said out loud to my wife: “Whoever wrote that has lived it.” The Phantom of the Opera was my candy bar.
You never know how you’re going to respond to something like this until it happens to you. Nor will you ever fully uncover the mystery of why your reaction manifested the way that it did. Maybe my thinking of Phantom was just trauma-induced randomness. Perhaps my subconscious conjured the thought of something she loved in an effort to calm me. Or the more likely scenario: My mom had always been there, and this might be the first time she wouldn’t be—for the rest of my life.
Without having ever seen it, The Phantom of the Opera had inserted itself into a unique place within my heart because of this moment. It’s forever part of my mom’s death story. The Majestic will get renovated and reopen with something like Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants 2: The Two-sical, but The Phantom of the Opera has a permanent residence in one of the most personal experiences of my life.
But I don’t think you need a dead mom to have at least felt a brief moment of melancholy when the news broke that the longest running Broadway show would just stop running. Phantom is something I don’t think anyone ever thought would leave New York. It’s part of the city. And just like the city, people love it and people hate it. To some, it’s a rat nest beneath an outdoor pandemic café that was supposed to be temporary, and to others, it’s the Empire State Building. No matter how you feel about it, Phantom was a constant.
There’s comfort in a constant.
When something endures for so long, we define our personal experience by the length of its existence. Think of everything you’ve done during the near 14,000 times the Auctioneer has banged that gavel and shouted, “SOLD!” It might be your entire life. And while I’ve yet to see the Broadway production of Phantom, every time I walked by The Majestic, I always felt my mom winking at me from within the iconic images that she loved so dearly adorning those walls.
My dad took me to that matinee of The Phantom of the Opera instead of my mom. The next day, I sat beside the hospital bed in her room, and I got to share with her the experience she always wanted to have with me. It’s our last conversation that I remember.
She died the following evening.
Phantom—like my mom—will never truly be gone. It’ll re-open at New World Stages, or be revived in five years with six cast members playing the instruments and the chandelier. It’s already the backdrop of a new series for Peacock. Still, learning that the original titan is closing is bittersweet. It’ll be exciting to see what new show gets a shot in its place, even if I always secretly loved that the production on my mom’s cassette tape was still alive.
We didn’t see Phantom together, but my mom and I got to talk about it. And she sang the score to me in her car, and she even played the title role at a party. For all the years that followed, I never forgot that it was there. So, in a way, my mom did take me to The Phantom of the Opera.
Andrew Briedis is a writer, known for “Saturday Night Live” and “#SOBLESSED: The Annoying Actor Friend’s Guide to Werking in Show Business.”