Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Broadway production of The Phantom of the Opera is either a lot of flash with little substance or one of the best musicals of all time, depending on your personal tastes. It undoubtedly has incredible sets and costumes paired with beautiful music. Whether that is enough to overcome the way it glosses over many of the meatier parts of Gaston Leroux’s novel is a matter of some debate. One thing is sure, however: it brings the love story from that novel back to scenter stage.
Return of the Love Triangle
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 adaptations 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.
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.
Trimming the Story Down
For one, the play 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. This is 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 think it hurts the story’s tension when so the audience becomes 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.
The character of the Phantom is a hard tightrope to walk. He’s a murderer and a monster, but he’s also a sad figure and one deserving of pity. It’s very hard for a work of fiction to signal the latter without glossing over the former. It’s an even bigger slippery slope to ask the audience to pretend that the Phantom’s crimes don’t exist just because he’s sexy.
You can see this trend in future adaptations of the story and even in other stage productions, where the Phantom becomes increasingly less disfigured. Although the makeup in the 1986 version does a good job on presenting somebody who falls into the category of conventionally ugly, future takes on the production would tone that down. This becomes one of the significant problems with the 2004 film adaptation, but that is a rant for another time. The sexier you make the Phantom look, the harder it is for audiences not to let their horny override their common sense and make excuses for the guy’s awful behavior.
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.