There were 250-300 people crowded onto and around a bridge over a fake canal at the Venetian for the masquerade ball. Mimicking a scene from Phantom of the Opera (sans murder and mayhem), the cast of the show mixed with superfans, everyone in costume, at the first-ever convention dedicated to Phantom, a Broadway and London institution since the ’80s. Phantom: The Las Vegas Spectacular opened in 2006.
Mandy Grainger, 21, who lives near San Francisco and works at a fabric store, was dressed as the minor character Meg Giry. The role is one of the most demanding in the production, requiring not only top-level singing and dancing but also, it seems, nearly as much stage time as the leads. As a result, Giry has found her own niche of fans. Grainger runs Little Meg, a website with forums and lots of fan fiction dedicated to Giry. Standing next to Grainger, also dressed as Giry, was Brianne Kelly Morgan, who has performed that role in Phantom: The Las Vegas Spectacular since it opened. “I think,” Grainger reported earlier, “that she is the best Meg I have ever seen.” Morgan had been nervous about performing for this superfan. More nervous, in fact, than about the critique the cast was expecting from Hal Prince, the legendary director, who’s won 21 Tony Awards. She had faced Prince before.
For BASE Entertainment, the producers of Phantom: The Las Vegas Spectacular, the convention was a stroke of marketing genius. This was the perfect way to capitalize on the peculiar obsession fans have with the show’s dark, ambiguous and unflinchingly melodramatic material. Many saw the show every night for the week of the convention. And BASE offered looks behind the scenes that cost the company virtually nothing extra, but which fans were happy to pay hundreds of dollars to enjoy. There were lectures about the theater, the costumes and the chandeliers, and even a keynote from Prince, who was happy to talk to the fans.
In short, even in a recession, this was a moment true fans could not miss. Self-created conventions like this are a good way to draw people to Vegas. Of course, you need a show or event that turns fans into superfans. From the Grateful Dead to Star Trek, superfans make up in dedication for what they may lack in numbers.
A tall, blond and attractive 23-year-old who clung to the side the bridge admiring the entire masquerade could be the spokeswoman for BASE’s success. Christina Catch discovered Phantom during her freshman year at Northeastern, and she just graduated and has started work as an engineer. None of her friends could afford the trip to Vegas, so she enlisted her mom, Sheila Catch, to accompany her from Boston. Christina spoke with awe about first seeing the show: “I saw it in 2005 and fell in love with it. Everything about it is captivating: the characters, the music …” Her voice tailed off for a moment into a fan’s reverent silence before she became one of many at the convention to tell me how much she secretly hopes the Phantom gets the girl, though she knows he can’t. Prince had told me a few hours earlier that this was the exact reaction he hoped to get from audiences.
Sheila Catch said of her daughter, “I don’t know if I get the intensity. At the end she cries every single time.” But Christina Catch was pleased precisely because this convention was packed with people who got her intensity. “I am such a geek, I know,” she said. She is a member of the fan club, follows the show’s various incarnations on the web, has read the book and knows the silent film. “I knew I would be a total dork coming to this. But I had to come. That is why they are having it, for people like me. My apartment has a lot of Phantom decorations. I have a chandelier bedspread. And people, even my friends, think it is a little strange and they kind of don’t get it. People here get it. And that is nice.”