The Phantom of the Opera is many things, not the least of which is being one of the most successful Broadway musicals in history. So when I heard the tour was “re-imagined,” I sighed and wondered, why mess with a good thing? There’s both good and bad aspects… but the worst undermines the story.
Phantom is the tale of an aspiring opera singer (Christine) caught between two men – her “angel of music” teacher (Erik), who happens to be deformed recluse living in the basement of the opera house; and her childhood friend, Raoul. His arrival coincides with the Phantom deciding now is her time to shine. Erik’s jealousy leads to a showdown, where her sacrificial love helps him find redemption. It’s a story of obsession, lust, longing, loneliness, and deliverance.
Two things sell this musical to billions of fans worldwide: the tragic title figure and the pairing of intense sexual tension and powerful music. But until now, I never realized how vital blocking is to the experience.
“Blocking” is determining where your actor should stand, to what extent he touches costars, and what gestures he (or she) should perform. The “new and improved” tour’s blocking is amateur at best, and undermines the story at worst; it’s awkward throughout, leaving its actors stranded on the stage or holding poses too long. Worse, and most importantly, it has about a five or six foot gap between Christine and her costars, most of the time. There’s no emotional intimacy as a result, so the entire thing falls flat. (It’s bad when almost the only time Erik touches Christine is to violently abuse her.)
In Music of the Night, Erik expresses his desire for Christine to look at him with her heart, not her eyes. Erik is delighted to be so close to her and frightened she might get too close. The original choreography has them alternatively advancing on and interacting with each other, with Erik often retreating behind his musical instrument. This played to the symbolism that music is his way to Christine and a protective barrier against her. His moment of embracing the iron grating behind them symbolized how he feels imprisoned in the opera house; jailed away from the world. Christine is his way out. Now, the beautiful metaphors are reduced to… a blindfold, a ten foot gap, and a few awkward interactions. Gone are the two classic poses seen and ionized around the world. Gone, too, is the intimacy between them – and as a result, they have no emotional relationship, and no reason for him to have a meltdown as he feels her slipping away from him.
This also happens in Christine and Raoul’s scenes together, with them barely touching; even in Masquerade, he spends half the dance on the other side of the stage. Another scene that suffers from horrendous choreography is the “new” Point of No Return. I turned to my friends at the end and said, “I never thought they could take the sex out of that song, but they just neutered it.” Again, actors singing across a stage at each other, barely touching. At one point, Christine climbs up on the table and sings from there, where before the choreography undermined their seductive attraction to one another. This song is one Erik wrote, verbalizing his intense sexual desire for Christine, and thanks to boring choreography, it’s lifeless.
Some scenes are dramatically improved (there’s no creepy life-size doll, for one thing; I enjoyed most of the new costumes; the new chandelier is quite impressive; and it’s a brilliant idea to have Erik in the rafters much of the time). By far the best addition is the rotating stage, where stairs magically appear for Erik and Christine’s descent. It’s an incredible spectacular in keeping with Erik’s illusions. Having them vanish on Raoul is a nice touch! Alas, other choices, like doing away with his Red Death costume and his staircase appearance in Masquerade, and having him on the same level as Raoul in the graveyard, is a poor decision.
Earlier productions had Erik “above… always above.” This furthered his illusion as the angel of music; it implied his superior attitude about himself, high above mere humanity (thus explaining how he could kill without conscience, because they’re all beneath him and his art anyway); it visually depicted his position as a mentor and teacher to Christine, because he was only on her level in moments of intimacy or vulnerability. (He feels “safe” up high; so having him brought to his knees when she unmasks him in his lair symbolizes his “lowest” moment, totally vulnerable and naked to her eyes.) It showed how he uses cleverness, tricks, and magic to mess with Raoul, intimidate the opera house managers, and terrify the ballet dancers. It also contrasts with his actual living space, which is under the opera house. That ties into the metaphor of him being a devil figure (down below, in “hell”) aspiring to masquerade as an “angel” of light to Christine, luring her with music into giving her “mind, blindly.”
When you take that away, the beautiful layers of metaphor disintegrate. He’s too often on other characters’ levels, which erodes his illusion of being a ghost; without that illusion, characters have no reason to be afraid of him, so it makes no sense that the dancers are too frightened to attack him in Masquerade. Having Raoul punch him several times in the graveyard undermines Christine’s belief that he really is either a ghost or an angel.
Even the end has changed. It shouldn’t. He needs to vanish alone, so all Meg finds is his mask. That moment, perhaps more powerfully than all the rest, tells the entirety of Erik’s story. Clever, elusive, intelligent… and forever out of reach… as the opera ghost.