Ghostly triumph booked in for eternity

First Night: 'The Phantom of the Opera', Basel
DAVID LISTER

Both the show and the business elements of showbusiness were played out here yesterday as Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber's artistic colonisation of Europe moved on to a new plane.

Indeed, the plane was one of the more remarkable elements. A Crossair Saab 2000 aeroplane had its fuselage painted with the Phantom of the Opera logo and mask, dwarfing the Swiss flag. As it took off from Heathrow yesterday, the climax to the title track played through the cabin. The official carrier for the show in Basel, it will bring people from cities all over Europe with Phantom ticket hot lines already installed in Swiss and German airports.

Last night was the unveiling of the pounds 25m marble, steel and glass 1500- seat theatre that Basel businessmen and city fathers built solely to hand to Sir Andrew's Really Useful Group to boost the economy of the city. Sir Andrew's team will run the theatre and probably stage the Phantom of the Opera in perpetuity. Should that show ever close, he has an "on- going programming option" to replace it.

But it won't be closing for a while. Before last night's Swiss premiere, his staff said they had sold pounds 10m of advance tickets. And they didn't even have to pay for the pounds 150,000 banquet after the show. Basel's grateful businessmen coughed up.

The show part of showbusiness began earlier with a press conference in the city hall where the composer faced a bewildering mixture of lavish tributes and hostile questions.

First, Herr Uli Vischer, vice-president of Basle city government, said that Basel shared certain qualities with Britain including a tendency to under-statement. The vice-president then continued: "With all probability, Basel is honoured today by the most distinguished visit from the United Kingdom since Her Majesty the Queen was greeted here 15 years ago ... Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber is the man who inspires, promotes and enlivens with his genius again and again."

But, he was asked, what do you say to a Swiss newspaper which calls your music a patchwork of other composers?"

"I say rubbish," replied Sir Andrew.

And what do you say to claims that you are the Mozart of today, asked another.

"I say rubbish," replied Sir Andrew again.

Then the normally shy composer began to discourse unusually freely. Asked if he would write with Sir Tim Rice again, he damned with conspicuously faint praise: "I don't think it's likely. He has his own career now as an occasional lyricist with Disney, and I don't think we're on the same wavelength now."

He tried to deter questions about profits from the show -which go to the Really Useful Group - saying he was merely a shareholder in the group. The holding was 70 per cent.

And he told how Phantom began. He bought a book of it for 50 cents at a New York bookstall, thought the story "a load of hokum" and handed it to the director, Hal Prince, who wanted to direct a romantic musical. When they did collaborate on it, Sir Andrew said yesterday, "There was a lot of love in it for me. I wrote the role of Christine for my then wife Sarah Brightman and a lot of passion went into it."

The show, performed in German with Hal Prince again directing, looked and sounded splendid. In December Sir Andrew takes over a new theatre in Frankfurt purpose-built for his Sunset Boulevard. Britain's passionate one-man export drive rolls on.

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