The Phantom of the Opera has surpassed all other musicals to become the most successful, beloved, and celebrated stage show of all time, with it’s only competition being perhaps Les Miserables. That one still dominates in London’s West End, but on Broadway, Phantom reigns supreme. Financially, it’s the most successful entertainment event to date and still going strong. This means it has outperformed the Super Bowl, the Daytona 500, and every movie or rock concert you can name. It’s hard to wrap your brain around that, isn’t it? Even people who don’t like musicals tend to enjoy this one. I number myself among them.
It’s a rare thing for me to find a musical written after the age of Cole Porter that I can enjoy. It’s a standard case of “they don’t make ’em like they used to.” There are a handful, but the later the date, the fewer and farther between they become. Part of that is because the crooners and ladies who made those old songs popular are all but gone now, and their replacements leave much to be desired. And honestly, much of the stage talent just sounds the same to me now, as though every leading man and leading lady sounds exactly the ones before them with little distinction. Even so, I was predisposed to love this one right from the start. It is, after all, The Phantom of the Opera, and the Phantom has long held his dominion as my favorite monster. That doesn’t mean this musical didn’t have to earn its way into my heart, however. The thing is, Andrew Lloyd Webber had a secret weapon that meant I’d willingly surrender: his then-wife and vocal muse, Sarah Brightman.
This is one of those cyclical kinds of things for me. I love Sarah Brightman. The woman could sing the phone book, and I’d buy a ticket because I know she’d do so with the full power of her three-octave range. I’m not really certain when or how I became aware of the musical, but it was after she had embarked on her solo career, which I had no idea about at the time. It wasn’t until years later that I ran across her albums completely by accident. You’ve perhaps heard the term “classical crossover?” This is a weird pseudo-genre that was created specifically in the attempt to classify her albums, a genre that she herself claims doesn’t really fit what she offers. I’ve had the distinct privilege of seeing her up close and personal, live on stage three times. Each time I’ve seen her tour, she makes me appreciate this musical that much more. Why does that work, exactly? It’s because Lloyd Webber crafted his musical around her voice. Interestingly, it all begins with the song “The Music of the Night.” He wrote that song specifically for her to sing, but eventually gave it to the Phantom as he fleshed out the whole story with his lyricist, Charles Hart. She still performs it on stage to this day, and to hear her tell it, she never tires of singing any of those numbers.
The Phantom of the Opera has another, more obvious reason that it works so well. If you think about it, most musicals are contrived by nature. Songs are shoehorned in to fit stories that otherwise could be told just fine without them. The title says it all in this case: music is the domain of our monster, and within that context he is master. It was as natural a fit as a hand in a glove to put this story to music. if Opera is the end-all, be-all highest art form of all time (as it’s often believed to be by its devotees), then stage musicals are, for all intents, the bastard step-children of that now-struggling art. Don’t believe me? Ask anyone in the orchestra pit. It is the pop tune writ large, a format that sells big and creates songs that just get stuck in your head, often for the wrong reasons. Even so, they still sell tickets due to their mass audience appeal that modern Classical and Opera just doesn’t seem to have anymore. If you’re going to create pop tunes for a darker character like the Phantom, then it makes sense to further evolve the stage musical as a rock opera, lending the title character an extra bit of edge. The thing is, Phantom doesn’t dedicate to that format either. It flirts in the shadows between those ideas, just as the title character does, and just as its original leading lady did with her later career. I’m not one of those people who declares Lloyd Webber a genius, but quite frankly, the man knew what he was doing when he put this show together.
This isn’t the first musical based on Gaston Leroux’s classic novel, nor was it the last. Ken Hill brought his version to the stage a decade before, which used pre-existing classical music from famous composers, with new lyrics overlaid. And for those hardcore Phans who are in the know, you can find the 1990 Waterbearer version on disc if you know where to look. Neither version is impressive, especially when compared to this masterfully staged work, though similarities between all of them are hard to dismiss.
There are several scores for this musical. The original called for a 27 piece orchestra, but by the time of its 25th anniversary, evolutions in the score and extra money in the coffers bumped up the number to 45, though Broadway still uses 29 pieces. There have been a number of cast recording albums as well, with the original London cast recording selling an alleged 24 million copies worldwide.
You’ve no doubt heard the line from Picasso about how good artists borrow, but great artists steal. As it says in the Phantom lyrics, “To hell with Gluck and Handel, it’s a scandal that’ll pack them in the aisles!” With a show this big, of course there’s some controversy attached. Of course. The first is that Ken Hill’s version inspired Andrew Lloyd Webber, and Hill never saw a dime. But that’s too easy for a show this successful.
From Wikipedia (and verified elsewhere):
In 1987 the heirs of Giacomo Puccini charged in a lawsuit that the climactic phrase in “Music of the Night” closely resembled a similar phrase in the sequence “Quello che tacete” from Puccini’s opera Girl of the Golden West. The litigation was settled out of court for an undisclosed amount.
In 1990 a Baltimore songwriter named Ray Repp filed a lawsuit alleging that the title song from Phantom was based on a song that he wrote in 1978 called “Till You”. After eight years of litigation – including an unsuccessful countersuit by Lloyd Webber claiming that “Till You” was itself a plagiarism of “Close Every Door” from Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat — the jury found in Lloyd Webber’s favor.
Roger Waters has repeatedly claimed in interviews that the signature descending/ascending half-tone chord progression from Phantom’s title song was plagiarised from the bass line of a track on the 1971 Pink Floyd album Meddle called “Echoes.” He has never taken any legal action. “Life’s too long to bother with suing Andrew fucking Lloyd Webber,” he said. “I think that might make me really gloomy.”
For me, what makes this version work (aside from the heavenly vocals of Sarah Brightman) is how loyal it is to the original novel and its characters. There are differences, to be sure, such as the absence of the Persian who knows the Phantom’s secrets. Here, Madame Giry is substituted, and I think it’s a better fit within the confines of this telling. That said, with the notable exception of Lon Chaney, Sr.’s silent classic from 1925, this is quite possibly the most loyal adaptation to date. For the longest time, I’d only heard the album version and filled in the visuals via stage photos, so it was the loyalty to story that kept me interested. Since that time, I’ve managed to see a loyal stage performance of it live here in Dallas, and I’ve seen a filmed version the 25th anniversary stage production. It ticks off all the boxes in terms of what entertainment of its reputation should be. Over the years, I’ve managed to acquire a few tracks here and there of some of the other productions to compare, and the we can add consistency and evolution to its credits. Phantom is a living piece of art. It’s constantly being tweaked here and there, much to the annoyance of some who see it for the first time after only knowing the album version. But it still comes down to story. It treats the source material with reverence. The stage Phantom always seems like an extension of Lon Chaney, regardless of who’s behind the mask and in spite of the makeup. You’d never get away with that with any other classic monster. If Dracula or Frankenstein were performed today (and have been), they’d never use Lugosi or Karloff as a launching point. The sheer theatrical nature of Chaney’s original performance and mannerisms lends itself to the stage, and while it can never be imitated, it has certainly been honored.
The notable difference, however, is that Chaney’s Phantom is far too sinister to be sympathetic. The stage version has that rock and roll bad boy quality about him where you tend to believe Christine’s reactions to him, be it love, fear, or hate, depending upon the scene. The power of music does the rest. Silent film can only operate so far in this regard, sadly.
The general public tends to agree with a that evaluation. Nearly every Phan I encounter typically states that the musical is the standard by which all other Phantoms are judged. Since its debut, there have been shelves of pastiche novels that pick up right where the musical’s story left off, which is something that until recently Lloyd Webber himself was unable to make work properly. At some point in the not-too-distant future, I’ll do a write up for his sequel, Love Never Dies. For now, it’s enough to say that The Phantom of the Opera got a completely new lease on life on stage that was denied him on the big screen when compared to other classic monsters. Sometimes all it takes is the proper twist to set things right. All things considered, it seems appropriate to me that the stage remains his dominion.