Messing with Metaphors: The ‘New’ POTO

poto1

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.)

poto2
This is the best new addition, the floating stairs.

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.

photo3
This is the original blocking. This scene is much more powerful as a result.

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.

16 Replies to “Messing with Metaphors: The ‘New’ POTO”

  1. You have hit on the perfect phrase that embodies my feelings about the loss of magic, “characters have no reason to be afraid of [Erik].” He’s the same as they are; there is nothing magical or otherworldly about him and it PAINS me.

    Caitlin and I watched Cudia’s version last night and tonight and OH MY GOSH, the blocking, the passion, the intimacy, the otherworldliness of Erik’s being so unreachable is BRILLIANT. It reminded me of us, in the audience, weeping at the end because his anguish of loss just RIPPED us to shreds.

    This new “reimagined” tour of PotO is a waste of time for anyone who has ever seen the musical performed before. It would be worth traveling to New York just to see the original blocking. I don’t necessarily mind the new costuming, but I miss the costumes from the Masquerade number, all of them, but especially Red Death. There’s no reason for anyone to be afraid of a man in sparkly white mask. At least it was fun spending time together . . . and at least now we know.

    1. I rewatched the 25th anniversary performance on Monday night and felt the same way — it actually made me cry. The emotions drenching the audience, the intensity of the acting, the nearness of everyone to one another, even him clinging to the wedding veil, a symbol of love lost, was heart-wrenching. (The new blocking also removes the veil as a prop, did you notice?) SIGH. Be still, my heart.

      I did have fun. Something horrible about me is, I often enjoy ripping something apart just as much as I enjoy praising it. So it was fun to spend time with you, fun to see the changes, fun to complain about them on the way home, and fun to replace memories of a lackluster show with a far superior version.

  2. Hi, I found your site through Christian Answers and you said to leave a message on your blog if I was interested in submitting reviews. I am also a reviewer for Christian Answers and wondered if you would like me to submit those reviews to you as well when I write them. That way they would be published on both websites!

    1. If it’s a review of a costume drama, yes. I don’t accept or print any other kind (apart from the odd BBC production that I think readers might be interested in). And you might want to make some minor changes to the reviews, since I’d rather not have direct copies off another website.

      If you’re still interested, let me know and I’ll tell you where to send them.

        1. Costume drama, or period films, are set prior to 1970. “Ben-Hur” is a costume drama, because it’s set in Ancient Rome. “Marie Antoinette” is a costume drama, because it’s set in the 1700s. “Call the Midwife” is a costume drama, because it’s set in 1950-60.

          Since there are so many movie review websites that review every new film that comes out, Charity’s Place specializes in reviewing period films / costume dramas (movies, miniseries, television shows set in the different eras). (See? http://www.charitysplace.com/reviews.htm)

          I’m not interested in modern spy thrillers / television shows / anything set in a period after 1970. 🙂

          1. That’s cool! I can go with all that whenever I review a period drama. I’ve applied to review The Magnificent Seven in September. Yes, I’m interested!

            I checked out your review of The Great Gatsby, and found it very refreshing. That movie is garbage.

  3. People sure do love messing with things that are fine as they are and putting a new spin on them, not realizing that “new” is not always “better.” In fact, it’s often worse because they don’t understand what made the original work in the first place.

    1. I don’t mind improvements if they actually fix problems in the original (pacing, bad portions of dialogue, clunky exposition, cheesiness) … but I get the sense here that the producers thought, “Well, a billion people have seen this… and now the movie and 25th anniversary show are out, so we need to shake things up to keep it interesting.” Many of the changes felt directly influenced by the film (which was horrible, and didn’t understand the material either), which is a mistake.

      By all means, include the cool circular staircase trick, bring in more catwalks so Erik is looming over people more, change up the set and wardrobe design, leave out the wedding gown doll… but only fix what doesn’t work. Don’t mess with the iconic things that DO.

      This is the problem with the world: it never knows when to stop.

          1. Yeah, a couple of other people and I were saying something similar–the whole point was that the phantom was not supposed to be physically attractive. And yet in the movie, he was. And Gerard’s singing doesn’t fit the style of someone who is in an opera house. He had more of a rock sound.

            Another thing I noticed when comparing the movie to the stage version is–is that the movie was more…sexualized overall. Compare the Point of No Return scenes, for example.

            Speaking of the singing, I really liked the guys who did the Phantom’s Italian and Spanish voiceovers. That helped.

          2. Gerard’s inability to carry a tune did not help, either. =P

            I am of the opinion that if you adapt a musical for the big screen, you should hire professional singers — Broadway, if possible; you may need to coach them on how to act ‘on-screen’ (less dramatic) but at least you have a good singing cast. Since the show has a built in audience, most of whom are going to be very picky about the music, and you are not trying to market it to the mainstream (though many will still go), I don’t see the need to Hollywoodize it, or use semi-popular talent. POTO, the movie, was a disaster on those terms, with a director who did not understand the source material, and undermined a lot of the themes — similar to how this new blocking destroys the greater concepts at work in the stage play.

            I did not mind the increase of sexuality (it never became too lewd, in my opinion) but it was just… eh, it felt like an increased attempt to make something about the film extraordinary; the older it gets, the more I re-watch it, the tawdrier the entire movie seems.

            It’s funny you’d mention the dubbing — I’ve never listened to the movie in another language, but a friend of mine said she liked the Italian and Spanish voices also. 😉

  4. Sad . . .

    I suppose we can only hope that whoever’s responsible for the new changes “will curse the day they did not do all that the Phantom asked of them”?

Share Your Thoughts

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s