When Andrew Lloyd Webber’s “The Phantom of the Opera” opened on Broadway on Jan. 26, 1988, New York was a vastly different city.
Straphangers — if they dared — entered subway turnstiles using metal tokens. “The Tonight Show” was still hosted by Johnny Carson from Los Angeles. The High Line was an abandoned eyesore, not a tourist destination. Crime in Times Square was rampant.
So much has changed outside the Majestic Theatre on West 44th Street in 35 years. But inside, trapped in time, a masked Phantom has kept on singing “The Music of the Night,” and his aspiring diva Christine Daaé has consistently implored the audience to “think of me fondly.”
Amid the never-ending evolution of NYC, “Phantom” remained a constant — something to hold onto.
That is, until Sunday, when Lloyd Webber’s mega-hit musical romance will close as the longest-running show in Broadway history.
It will have played 13,981 performances, grossing over $1.3 billion.
“It’s exhilarating that this show, which has had such an extraordinary success beyond our wildest dreams, is going out as thrillingly as it is,” producer Cameron Mackintosh, in town from London, told The Post. “All long-running shows go out with a flurry, but this has transcended that.”
Last September, when The Post broke the news that “Phantom” would finally end its storied run, ticket sales exploded.
During the final two months, the musical has returned to being the highest-grossing production on Broadway, not to mention the hottest ticket in town — despite being more than three decades old.
The hoopla harkens back to January 1988 when “Phantom,” starring a then-unknown-in-America Michael Crawford and Sarah Brightman, opened with deafening fanfare and became an impossible ticket.
Future President Donald Trump snagged one for the big night.
“Donald Trump showed up alone,” The Post’s Cindy Adams wrote the next morning. “Despite the wind howling and the snow falling and the temperature freezing, Donald posed for photographers from England.”
Cindy added: “The show has an $18 million advance. Thus it’s inversely chic to knock it.”
Indeed, opening a musical on Broadway is always high-pressure, but especially for a team that had already brought hit after hit to the Great White Way.
“The whole show came with such an expectation at that point,” Mackintosh, 76, said, citing his track record of 1982’s “Cats” and 1987’s “Les Misérables.” “But it was amazing to see how American audiences completely fell in love with it. It was quite obvious from the first preview that this was the show they were dreaming of.”
The producer threw a gargantuan opening night soiree at the Beacon Theatre on 74th Street and Broadway, which was transformed into a dinner and party venue. The budget was a hefty $250,000 — before wine and spirits.
Usually, you’d celebrate at Sardi’s or some ballroom. But Mackintosh wanted to evoke the grandeur of the Paris Opera house, Palais Garnier, just as he’d used the Park Avenue Armory to capture the revolutionary spirit of “Les Misérables” for that show’s bash two years earlier. At the Beacon, a floor was built over the theater’s seats.
Something you’d never witness today: An inordinate number of women, including Barbara Walters and Arlene Francis of “What’s My Line?,” wearing sables and chinchillas.
The next morning, Post critic Clive Barnes’ rave review would’ve been ecstatically read by the team.
“So there it is,” he wrote. “ ‘The Phantom’ is no phantom — indeed it is a palpable hit, and will be with us for years.”
How right he was.
The show won seven Tony Awards that year, including Best Musical. Since then, 15 more actors have donned the Phantom mask over the run and there have been 36 Christines, including alternates.
Hundreds of thousands of tourists and locals have seen it.
The show’s peerless director, Harold Prince, grand choreographer Gillian Lynne and lavish designer Maria Björnson, have all died in intervening years.
“It’s both a great honor and full of sadness in some ways,” Mackintosh said. “Because, as we know, so many friends and colleagues and people who created the show are not there. There are very few of us left.”
Book writer and co-lyricist Richard Stilgoe today is 80, and co-lyricist Charles Hart is 61.
The “Phantom” family and their friends will party Sunday night at the Metropolitan Club.
But it will be a bittersweet day for theater lovers, because “Phantom” also represents a dying breed on Broadway — a musical in which grand scale and true artistry peacefully coexist.
Think of the song “Masquerade,” in which a giant staircase covered in ornately dressed dancers (and clever mannequins) accompany Lloyd Webber’s lush melodies.
Or when Björnson’s flickering candelabras emerge from the subterranean mist as the Phantom and Christine croon the title song on a boat.
These are iconic, romantic, transportive moments we don’t see much of anymore.
Even though “Phantom” is set in Paris, first premiered in Britain and was written and composed by talented Englishmen, you can’t help but feel that a true New York landmark is shutting down.
After all, the Statue of Liberty was a gift from France.