The Phantom of the Opera: The 1986 Musical
While I despise what Andrew Lloyd Webber did through his interference in the 2004 Phantom of the Opera movie and the absolute abomination that is Love Never Dies, I have to admit that the 1986 musical is pretty good. It has its flaws, but it has enough high points to put it right up there with the best of the Phantom adaptations. Most of the musical’s success comes from a very talented cast and the fact that it is the first real adaptation of the love story at the core of Gaston Leroux’s novel.
In between fight scenes, races through the sewers, and comedic breaks focused around the new owners of the Paris Opera House, Leroux’s original story was about a love triangle. Both Raoul and Erik loved Christine, and she loved both of them back, although her love for Erik was tinged with pity. However, the adaptations that had come since did away with that love story. The 1925 film made the Phantom too evil to love, the 1943 film made his more of a father figure to Christine, and the 1962 film made him a tormented mentor. All of these films had their own strengths, but none of them touched upon the Phantom’s love for Christine or Christine’s own feelings for her angel of music.
Lloyd Webber viewed the 1925 and 1943 films in working on the script, but kept hitting stumbling blocks. The novel was out of print at that point, but he came across a second-hand copy in New York. Reading that novel allowed him to realize the importance of the love story to the plot, which led him to create the musical that is beloved by many today.
The musical got back to that love story and met with rave reviews largely because of that. It also had a few signature numbers that really drove the play, specifically the now-classic title song. Combined with terrific costumes and sets and a ridiculous amount of talent between Sarah Brightman and Michael Crawford, this musical was a runaway success in ways that other adaptations never were.
There are ways that the musical did its job a little too well, though.
For one, it eschewed the unveiling of the Phantom’s backstory. While this did serve to make him more mysterious and romantic, it means that the audience never really got into the Phantom’s head – a sin which every other adaptation has also committed. The decision to get rid of the Persian was probably a good one, since that character just sort of pops in unannounced in the last act of the story. However, getting rid of him entirely meant that we got no indication of the Phantom as a person, so we don’t really know what drives him.
The biggest fault of the musical is the same one we’ve seen in two of the other three adaptations – it over-romanticizes the Phantom. This was probably inevitable given the nature of it as a stage play. Songs are a great way to everybody’s heart, and Michael Crawford as the Phantom almost took over the show with his talent (although Sarah Brightman was his equal in this regard). That combined with the enhanced mystery around his origin makes the Phantom a deeply romanticized figure, to the point where many members of the audience are willing to ignore the fact that he is an unrepentant killer and kidnapped Christine multiple times. That makes the love triangle less effective because many people aren’t interested in Raoul. He doesn’t get any of the keynote songs and generally pales in comparison to the Phantom, who already has an advantage of being the bad boy of the story.
I guess that it’s worth going into the notion of the bad boy, because I have to admit that I don’t get the obsession that many women have with finding a guy who is horrible for them under the belief that they can change him. This is such a popular fantasy that it has pervaded modern fiction, with stuff like the Twilight series being nothing but masturbatory fantasies of handsome but damaged men who need the one perfect woman to fix them. I admit that I am often willing to let sex appeal override common sense at times. For example, even if I was told that Famke Janssen’s character in Goldeneye likes to crush men to death with her thighs, I would still probably be willing to go to bed with her given the chance:
However, the bad boy concept seems to go beyond just one’s libido making them stupid. The Phantom is a perfect example of this. He’s a murderer. He’s a kidnapper. He’s a thief. In some readings of the play, people suggest that he even rapes Christine. And yet his looks and singing talent are apparently enough to lead people to think he can be “fixed” and is therefore more desirable than the honest, forthright, and capable Raoul. Again, my hormones would override good sense when it comes to Xenia Onatopp, but I’m not about to fantasize that I could somehow cure her of her murderous tendencies and live happily ever after with her.
Overall, I guess this notion of fixing bad boys is just something I don’t get. However, I think it hurts the story’s tension when so many people are willing to ignore Raoul and pine for the Phantom. It gets even worse when folks tend to see Raoul as a bad guy who is keeping Christine from happiness by trying to stop the Phantom. Want evidence that this attitude exists? Just check out any Phantom-related fan fiction. Or go ahead and look at Love Never Dies, which seems largely aimed to appeal to this audience by making Raoul an abusive drunk in order to force Christine into the Phantom’s arms.
In terms of romanticizing the Phantom, I have to wonder what would have happened if the original look of the character had been retained. Apparently, the original plan was to have makeup similar to the 1925 film (I have no hard source for this, so take it with a grain of salt). However, the makeup was too time-consuming and prevented Crawford from being able to sing properly, so the modern half-mask look was put in place instead. Looks are important, and the Phantom’s appearance is the only way that a visual medium has of showing his monstrous nature. By comparison, the book could include a lot of other sensory details, such as him being cold to the touch and smelling like a fresh grave. If the Phantom was ugly like he’s supposed to be, I think the general reaction to the musical would be very different. Then again, maybe it never would have become as popular as it is now, which would mean that Leroux’s original novel would remain out of print, preventing me from ever having read it and forestalling any of these cheery rants of mine.
To sum up, The Phantom of the Opera is a good musical. It’s easier for me to expound on the play’s few faults, but it truly is worth watching. If you can view the West End or Broadway production, or one of the revivals, then it is totally worth doing so. Despite its flaws, this is a key piece of Phantom history and probably the biggest reason that Leroux’s work is even still available in print.