The Phantom of the Opera

This past weekend, at the Royal Albert Hall in London, Phantom of the Opera turned 25 years old. No one knew when the show opened that it would become one of the most profitable shows in the history of live theater, nor that it would become the longest continuing run, surpassing even Cats. It has grossed over three billion dollars worldwide, making it more profitable than Avatar and with far more staying power. And its London birthday was celebrated with a special three night performance outside its usual venue, with over 200 original and current cast members in attendance — including Michael Crawford. For the fans worldwide, it was broadcast for a three night only venue to theaters across the globe — and in England, managed to make it to #2 at the box office. (There is a BluRay/DVD release of the performance coming, released first in England next month and making it to America early next year.)

My experience with the show has been a long one — I have been a fan almost as long as I have been a writer, and in many ways the pasteche novel revolving around Erik by Susan Kay inspired me to become the brand of writer that I am. Everyone who truly knows me knows that I am a Phantom Phan. You need only walk into my house and see the assortment of memorabilia scattered through it. I was a devotee of the original cast recording seven years before I made it to Broadway to see the show live. I loved everything about New York, from the billboards to the fact that you could walk from one end of a street to another and encounter cops and bootleggers in the same place. But the greatest thing about it was Phantom of the Opera. We ate pizza and dashed across the street in the rain to claim our seats in its official theater, complete with ornate scroll work on the ceilings and a magnificent falling chandelier. My first Phantom (and their slogan really is true — you never forget your first time 😉 was Hugh Panaro, whom I met after the performance. He was gracious and kind to four girls from the mid-west who just wanted their pictures taken with him.

It was an interesting weekend for all of us — because the very next afternoon, while we were all still walking around in a daze, the first trailer for the film version of Phantom of the Opera premiered. It was such a small file and the images moved so quickly that we were all crammed in around the laptop, shoving one another out of the way as we had it on endless repeat. We mused on whether or not a film could possibly live up to the real thing and spent months in anticipation until the Christmas release. Being the dedicated fan that I was, I had the movie soundtrack on pre-order and received it about a week before the movie came out. I sat down alone in my room, popped it into my CD player — and halfway through was in tears. Not because it was recreating the magnificence of the stage production, not because I was so excited that my favorite musical was coming to the big screen, but because of how truly awful the soundtrack was. If you have ever seen the film, you may have noticed how much some of the actors struggle to sing — well, it’s even worse when stripped of the gorgeousness of the film’s costumes and set design. I sat there listening to Gerard Butler butcher songs that had been set in stone in my mind by Michal Crawford and my heart sank. This was not Phantom of the Opera.

The true Phantom of the Opera has such incredibly powerful music that it arouses your emotions — when sang in a powerful voice, as it is meant to be, it sets your skin to tingling and puts your heart through a wringer. If you are not completely and utterly empathetic toward its tortured anti-hero by the end, in which he sings the final sorrowful few notes to his monkey-box, it has failed to do its job. I went to the movie half-anticipating it and half-dreading it, along with an aunt who had never seen nor heard the musical before, and both was very glad that I had taken her and that I had heard the music first and prepared for how awful it was. I discovered something that night — that those unfamiliar with the original and particularly those who have never been to Broadway, tend to enjoy the film, but not nearly to the extent that it should be enjoyed. My tomboyish aunt sat there with tears running down her face at the end, so it did its job for the common viewer but not really for the dedicated fans. It is a movie that is beautiful and in time I have learned to accept the fact that Gerard, Cirian, and many of the other cast members struggle with their songs, but … it’s not my Phantom. Listening to the original still invokes far more powerful emotions for me than watching the film does.

One friend commented after I released my official review that she couldn’t tell if I liked it or not! In truth, I did… but not as much as I hoped to like it. If you are fans of the film, please bear with me as I discuss a few of the changes that disappointed me below. I am not going to be cruel, because in truth the movie has settled into a particular place in my heart. I was even delighted when the DVD was released on my birthday the following year. But there are nuances of the original that I missed seeing on screen — ones that hopefully will be included on the upcoming Royal Albert Hall release. (Because of the venue, subtle but important changes have been made.)

One of the most profoundly noted absences in the film is Erik’s malicious sense of humor. The Phantom enjoys manipulating the opera managers and frightening the ballet girls and toying with Carlotta. It gives him immense pleasure to use his skills to throw her voice and make it sound as if a frog is croaking the lyrics of her song. (If you have any doubts, listen to Michael Crawford’s delighted little laugh at key moments in the original soundtrack.) They completely undermine the magic of Erik in the film, making him entirely too human and on occasion humiliating him in ways that the original would never permit himself to be humiliated. The “real” Phantom is a master manipulator — of his surroundings, the people around him, and the control he carries over each of them, which means…

The film’s Phantom is too macho. The power of Erik lies in his seductive music, his voice, and his slight of hand. He is sexy because of his knowledge and talents, not because he is solidly and powerfully built. When watching “Music of the Night,” we shouldn’t sigh because Gerard Butler is hot, but because as a character, Erik’s power and control makes him attractive. Erik knows that physically, he is no match for anyone, so he uses his intelligence and magic rather than brawn to maintain the upper hand. This is why I absolutely hate the graveyard scene in the film and love it in the musical. In the film, Erik and Raoul engage in a sword fight that Erik loses; Christine saves his life by pulling Raoul away and they leave him there alone, humiliated in the snow.

In the musical, it is Erik that maintains the upper hand — when Raoul intrudes on his conversation with Christine, he snatches up a spike with a skull impaled on it and flashes of fire streak from it toward Raoul. Erik is not angry — he is amused, intent on drawing the foolish boy to his death. “Bravo, Monseiur!” he shouts; “I am here, the angel of death! Come on! Come on!” Flames burn, sparks sizzle, and if it were not for Christine pulling Raoul away, we would have had Fried Raoul on a stick. This emphasizes how much more powerful Erik is than Raoul, that Raoul cannot save Christine — but it is Christine who must save herself in the end by being honest and selfless with the Phantom. The musical maintains the sense of mystery that surrounds Erik — the movie explains too much. It shows his escape in the end rather than merely his disappearance; it explains his origins and his connection to Madame Giry. It makes him less a mystery and more of a man… and it doesn’t work.

Lastly, there is possibly the second biggest mistake in the film other than casting a lead actor who cannot sing — his face. On film, you have a chance to be horrific… magnificent… you can do CGI on screen that you could never accomplish in a live performance. I was geared up to see that mask be ripped off and be utterly horrified, for everyone to understand why the Phantom has been forced underground and fears that no woman will ever love him. Instead, the mask is ripped off to reveal… a bad sunburn with a touch of skin cancer? … really? That’s the best they could do? Were they afraid of messing up the Pretty Boy too much? In the novel, and in the stage production, Erik’s skull is showing through in several places. He has a gouging hole in his cheek, and half the skin around his eye is gone. He looks like a monster from the pit of hell, which is why he hates mirrors but has learned to manipulate with them — because Erik knows that beauty is just an illusion. Mirrors show you what you do and do not want to see, and he has gained power over them and his reflection. This is why it means so much to him that Christine would kiss him — not merely on the lips, but on that side of his face.

When you remove his true hideousness of appearance, you diminish the overall impact of the story. Struggling vocals aside, there’s no way of getting around the mistakes the production made. That is not to say that it isn’t magnificent in its own way — I love the atmosphere of the film, the immaculate detail of the Opera House, the soft lighting, the sets, the revamped costumes and presentation of “Past the Point of No Return” (it’s never been sexier, but it is done as tastefully as the original), and the climax, in which the chandelier crashes to the ground and sets the entire building on fire. The movie made me fall in love with Meg in a way that the Broadway production never did and I think the casting of Miranda Richardson for Madame Giry was to the film’s credit. Emmy did an admirable job with Christine — a role that is highly demanding for such a young performer — and she and Patrick had the strongest voices in the cast.

I look forward to the release of the stage production on DVD next year and hope that those of you who have never experienced the stage production or merely have seen the film and enjoyed it will give the original a chance. There is room in our hearts for both — but everyone should see the real thing at least once.

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