The real life tragedy which inspired The Phantom of the Opera

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This article is part of Yahoo's 'On This Day' series

It has become one of the West End's longest-running musicals and is known around the world.

But The Phantom of the Opera, which opened in London 35 years ago today - on 9 October, 1986 - is more than just a fictional show.

Man takes photographs of signs at Her Majestys Theatre, home to Phantom of the Opera
Phantom of the Opera opened in London's West End on this day in 1986. Source: Getty Images

The musical was inspired by a real-life tragedy that took place in a Paris theatre, leaving one person dead.

The incident happened at one of Paris' opera houses, Palais Garnier, in May 1986, during a performance of the opera Helle.

As the first act finished, a counterweight for a chandelier plunged through the ceiling onto the audience, injuring several people and killing one person. 

The story inspired Gaston Leroux, a young journalist, who combined the story with rumours of a ghost wandering the opera house to create Phantom of the Opera.

Phantom of the Opera sign in London as people walk on the street below it
The musical, inspired by a real-life tragedy, has become one of the West End's longest-running shows. Source: Getty Images

His story about a disfigured man who lurks under the opera house, terrifying everyone inside it, was first published as a serial in Le Gaulois from 23 September 1909 to 8 January 1910, then was released in volume form in late March 1910 by Pierre Lafitte.

In 1922 Leroux gave a copy to the head of Universal Pictures while he was visiting Paris.

That led to the 1925 American silent horror film adaptation of the novel, directed by Rupert Julian and starring Lon Chaney.

Leroux's original story went on to inspire plays, films and the Andrew Lloyd Webber musical that has proved to be a hit with generations.

According to the Phantom of the Opera website, Lloyd Webber's version has played to over 140 million people in 35 countries in 166 cities around the world with an estimated gross of $6 billion (£4.4 billion).

  A man wears a face mask as he walks pasta a Phantom of the Opera advertisement
Even Phantom of the Opera couldn't hold out against the COVID crisis, closing permanently in July 2020. Source: Getty Images

The show has played in 15 different languages: English, French, German, Japanese, Danish, Polish, Swedish, Castilian, Hungarian, Dutch, Korean, Portuguese, Mexican Spanish, Estonian and Russian.

Phantom of the Opera is the the second longest-running West End musical, after Les Misérables, and the third longest-running West End show overall after The Mousetrap.

Across the pond, it is the longest running show in Broadway history, celebrating its 11,000th Broadway performance on 7 July 2014.

It has won more than 70 major theatre awards including three Olivier Awards, an Evening Standard Award, seven Tony Awards including Best Musical, seven Drama Desk Awards and five Outer Critic Circle Awards.

But despite being one of the longest-running musicals in the world, even Phantom couldn't hold out against the COVID crisis and in July 2020 was forced to close for the first time in decades.

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