THE recent flap over casting a principal role in the Broadway production of ``The Phantom of the Opera'' vividly dramatized two salient facts of life in today's popular musical theater: the preeminence of the British and of Andrew Lloyd Webber. More often than not, the two coincide. The transatlantic offstage drama surrounding ``Phantom'' will have a happy ending. Actors' Equity Association will allow Sarah Brightman to re-create in New York the leading female role she originated in the London hit musical composed and co-produced by Mr. Lloyd Webber, her husband. Under the arrangement agreed to by British Equity, the ``Phantom'' producers ``guarantee to employ a non-star American actor to create a leading role in a new major production on the West End'' and to meet certain other stipulations.
The ``Phantom'' affair illustrates that protectionism can constrict the arts as well as trade and manufacture. American Equity's toughness occurred within the context of certain reciprocities under which American and British actors' unions mingle a degree of artistic responsibility with their responsibility as labor organizations in a high-unemployment profession.
The mechanisms work in several ways. For instance, Robert Lindsay came to New York to appear in ``Me and My Girl'' for six months while George Hearn re-created his Broadway role in ``La Cage Aux Folles'' in London. Players like Michael Crawford of ``Phantom,'' whom Equity considers international stars, are given special entree. As the work of an ongoing institution, the Royal Shakespeare Company's ``Les Liaisons Dangereuses'' is allowed to play New York in its entirety for 20 weeks before cast substitutions are required.
A unique arrangement exists between the New York Shakespeare Festival and London's Royal Court Theatre. The two companies simply exchange productions. In August, the festival's brilliant satirical revue, ``The Colored Museum,'' will open at the Royal Court. The Court's mounting of Caryl Churchill's ``Serious Money'' comes to the Shakespeare Festival's Public Theatre in November.
``The Phantom of the Opera'' touches on larger and more complex issues, many of which have to do with the rise of the British musical. Without ignoring American Equity's concerns, there is a certain irony in the fact that Lloyd Webber and his creative collaborators have provided more employment for American actors over the last decade than any other source in the popular musical theater. Shows like ``Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat,'' ``Jesus Christ Superstar,'' and ``Evita'' have created hundreds of jobs for a work force including actors, backstage crews, press agents, and ushers.
Two Lloyd Webber shows - ``Cats'' and ``Starlight Express'' - are currently running on Broadway. ``Cats'' (with three national companies) and ``Song and Dance'' are touring the United States. Although Lloyd Webber dominates the West End-Broadway phenomenon, he doesn't quite monopolize it. Here is a rundown of the acting jobs in New York created by musicals with a British imprimatur:
``Cats'' - 35 Americans, no Britons.
``Les Mis'erables'' - 34 Americans, 2 Britons.
``Me and My Girl''- 36 Americans, 2 British resident aliens.
``Starlight Express'' - 31 Americans, no Britons.
``The Phantom of the Opera'' wasn't the only recent case of protectionist zeal. American Equity initially refused to allow South Africa's Yvonne Bryceland to re-create in New York the part written for her by Athol Fugard in ``The Road to Mecca.'' The union recently reversed its position, enabling the veteran interpreter of Fugard roles to travel to Broadway next season.
Equity's recent actions have led some theater observers to wonder whether the union has been motivated by other than normal considerations. Commenting on the ``Phantom'' contretemps before its resolution, Variety critic Richard Hummler speculated that ``the nix of Brightman probably reflects many union members' resentment of the critical acclaim, publicity, high pay, and awards won by British acting talent on Broadway in recent seasons, i.e., a backlash.''
If so, the figures cited above amply demonstrate that any such backlash is not justified. The ``Phantom'' decision supplies the latest backstage drama with a happy ending: for Miss Brightman and for the as yet unknown American actor who will appear on a West End stage. Meanwhile, Lloyd Webber and company will continue creating more jobs, not only for British and American performers, but for their colleagues the world over.
John Beaufort covers New York theater for the Monitor.