Andrew Lloyd Webber's 'Phantom' Out of Shadows

It's a golden, midsummer afternoon outside, but Andrew Lloyd Webber (search) is standing inside a cool, dim chamber -- trying to coax "The Phantom of the Opera" (search) out of the shadows.

On one wall, a towering screen shows a costumed choir belting out "Masquerade" while Lloyd Webber and film director Joel Schumacher stand at a sound board full of glowing dials and levers that runs the length of three buffet tables.

Lloyd Webber is listening, Schumacher is watching.

At the end of the sequence, the music turns grim, tu'll have to die."

The ghostly hero is finally ready for his close-up. This week, the musical "The Phantom of the Opera" finally ends its 18-year journey to the screen.

Lloyd Webber, the iconic composer behind "Cats," "Jesus Christ Superstar" and "Evita," says he has wanted to make a film of the gothic romance since his show debuted in London in 1986. But a number of obstacles -- including his 1990 divorce from muse and "Phantom" stage star Sarah Brightman, Hollywood's disinterest in musicals and a worldwide collective of aggressive stage producers -- kept the musical off the screen before now.

In the early years, Lloyd Webber said, one of the main reasons he wanted to do the movie (to put the show in front of people who couldn't afford Broadway) became one of the main reasons he COULDN'T do the movie.

"So many of the producers said they wouldn't do it if there was a movie," he said. "It would have been a tremendous disincentive for them. So the movie was put on ice."

He said his actors, directors and other colleagues also urged him to keep "Phantom" in the realm of live theater. Otherwise the millions who traveled to see the thousands of performances might have saved money by going to the multiplex or video store instead.

"Everybody was sort of begging that the movie wouldn't go ahead," he said. "At the time (that) did make sense, to be honest. It was not a good idea."

Lloyd Webber maintained his interest in the film, and at one point after the stage show was several years old, there was talk of a film version starring Brightman and Antonio Banderas. But when Lloyd Webber and Brightman divorced, the project's legal and emotional ties became tangled.

"It was sort of their baby," Schumacher said. "He says it's his most personal work."

Brightman, whom Lloyd Webber met when she was a performer in "Cats," inspired his crafting of the young diva Christine, who is caught up in the teaching and music of the mysterious phantom -- who prefers to stay behind the scenes.

The story originates from a serialized novel by Gaston Leroux, published in 1911. Lloyd Webber became entranced by it when he picked up an old copy in a bookstore and began writing the music for Brightman, who became a star through "Phantom" and its cast recording, which has sold 40 million copies worldwide.

The split evolved amicably and Lloyd Webber and Brightman now speak frequently, he said. There are no hard feelings, he added, saying she wasn't used in the film simply because at age 43, she was too old to portray 16-year-old Christine. (Emmy Rossum, who was 17 during filming, got the role.)

"(Brightman) is very supportive of it," Lloyd Webber said of the movie. "And she's got a huge career of her own now, which is not based on my music at all."

In the mid-1990s, he began another push to make the movie but was met with resistance from studio executives. In those years before the Oscar-winning "Chicago" and surreal-pop "Moulin Rouge!" many producers couldn't fathom investing big money in a musical, a format they believed had little drawing power.

"People would say things to me like, 'We understand why people would sing in an opera house, but we don't understand why they sing on the opera house roof,"' Lloyd Webber recalled. "And (I would) say, 'It's a musical, you see.' I remember in one instance saying, 'What you're saying is you understand why nuns would sing in a convent but you don't understand why Julie Andrews sings 'The hills are alive!' in 'The Sound of Music."'

Eventually, Lloyd Webber used $85 million of his considerable fortune to finance the entire film himself, which allowed him to control changes to the story and hire his own director without studio interference. Warner Brothers paid for the distribution rights.

Schumacher, the director of such thrillers as "Falling Down" and "Flatliners" as well as the campy last two "Batman" films, seemed an unlikely choice for "Phantom" -- even to himself -- when Lloyd Webber first approached him in 1987.

The composer and Brightman had enjoyed Schumacher's vampire movie "The Lost Boys," about teenage bloodsuckers roaming California, and they particularly liked the way he blended action with his rock 'n' roll soundtrack.

"I was shocked he wanted to meet me. I was just starting out and there were many more famous directors who wanted to do it," Schumacher said. "I really thought he had made a mistake and had confused me with someone else. I didn't think he'd even see a movie like 'The Lost Boys."'

Although Schumacher's availability came and went throughout Lloyd Webber's various attempts to make the movie, the composer repeatedly met with him over the years to keep him involved.

His interest in making the film stemmed from his own childhood, when he was exposed to musicals like "Carousel," "Oklahoma" and "West Side Story" not from the stage, but from the movies.

Besides that, there was a question of immortality for the play. Unlike other musicals that survive after their heyday in community theater groups or high school shows, the high-tech, epic-sized "Phantom" is not likely to turn up on small-town stages.

And although there have been an estimated 65,000 performances of the show in 18 countries -- each one evaporates except in memory. A film would be, in Lloyd Webber's words, "a fantastic document."

"The most exciting thing about it," he said, "is to feel that this one is a version of the stage show that, I hope, will be around forever."