The Journey So Far

A chronological stroll thru the history of Broadway Musicals as they came to be recorded by Hollywood--the summation of a lifelong vocation, and a journey of self discovery. Equal parts cultural history, critique and personal memoir. Coming next: Beauty & the Beast

Tuesday, January 31, 2017

The Phantom of the Opera

December 22, 2004,  Warners   141 minutes
Shortly after Nine opened on Bway in 1982, Geoffrey Holder recruited the show's authors, Arthur Kopit & Maury Yeston, to begin work on a musical of Gaston Leroux's Phantom of the Opera--for which he had sole American rights, ahead of the work going into public domain. In Britain, however, it was already in public domain when soon thereafter Andrew Lloyd Webber made a showy pronouncement of his latest project. Fearing a pointless duel of Phantom's, Kopit & Yeston moved on to other pursuits until L-W's version revealed itself. It was, of course, the commercial smash of the century. No exaggeration. Still running uninterrupted in London since 1986 and on Bway since 1988, the show has been minting money from global box offices for as long as most people on the planet have been alive. And yet, Kopit & Yeston saw that L-W's play was sufficiently different from their approach and resumed their version which debuted in Houston in 1991, and has had over a thousand regional productions since, but hasn't dared, and likely never will, play Bway. (It might be an intersting Encores! selection, however.)

Even Cats, whose logo was "now & forever," eventually closed (tho it's needlessly back), but Phantom of the Opera is now entrenched in the majestic Majestic (first home of hits: Carousel, South Pacific, Fanny, The Music Man, Camelot, The Wiz) in what seems to be a permanent attraction. It might as well be  Madame Tussaud's come to
life. Will it ever close? Frankly, the phenomena is beyond me. Was there an unfulfilled hunger for operetta dormant for decades? Why am I so clueless to its rabid devotional appeal? Don't others find the story more silly than romantic? A disfigured, bitter, vengeful man residing in the bowels of the Paris Opera, woos a young singer hypnotized by his mystery only to lose her by his boorish behavior; while her young lover & childhood pal plays hero. A story old as time, or at least since the silent movies--known from a Lon Chaney classic in 1925. The French have a thing for these tales --"Beauty & the Beast"  by  any  other  name: Rostand's Cyrano de Bergerac, Victor Hugo's Hunchback of Notre-Dame, Cocteau's Le Belle et le Bete; Leroux's Phantom. The Alienation of the Freak; a metaphor for the outsider in all of us. The need to be seen for our Inner Beauty. Lloyd-Webber took to it like Puccini to Japan. If he needed any further inspiration, his then wife, Sarah Brightman, was the template for Christine, a role he gifted her for both London & NY premieres. The scale of the work called for the return of Harold Prince (absent from L-W World since Evita.) They immediately put together a team to address what was most important about the show: the production. No doubt much of the musical's appeal is its opulence. Aside from being set within a grand opera house giving license to Aida-sized numbers with elephant statues, there's a grand chandelier that must fall and a dry-ice  journey  into  the  bowels  of  the  Phantom's  lair.
Maria Bjornson was a British designer who worked mostly in opera and ballet and the Royal Shakespeare Co. At a time when musicals were leaning on the unit set or minimal scenery, Prince & L-W let Bjornson go wild, elevating the show's budget to over $14 million--a record at that time. But money well spent, for it generated word-of-mouth that seems to never end. I'll admit my memories of the show (seen but once on stage) are entirely visual--the lavish opera sets, the subterranean cave; and yet nothing topped the very opening: the parting of curtain after velvet curtain until at last revealing the stage. Everything that followed was inarguably smart, professional and state-of-the-art but couldn't spark much affection from this diehard musical lover.

As always, the critical question is whether the score delivers; and for me this one is postage due. It isn't fair to entirely blame Lloyd Webber for the genre he's mining--but neither operetta nor grand opera are idioms that illicit enthusiasm from this quarter, so that's strike one. Oddly, the title song is the single exception, being a sort of rock-based horror-movie kind of thingy that hasn't much comparison. It also gives the show a shot of hipness, used much (if rather misleadingly) in TV ads. The show's top ballad, "Music of the Night" having entered the L-W repertory as companion to Cats' "Memory"--tho nowhere near as pleasing to my ears--is a thin steal from Loewe's Brigadoon--"Come to Me, Bend to Me;" a snooze of a song to begin with. And in Michael Crawford's premiere recording it isn't exactly music to my ears. I've written earlier  about  my  bafflement  to  his  appeal,  but  he  was
older now and matured into a real West End matinee idol. And here he was the star of the world's most successful musical. Like Rex Harrison rising to immortality with My Fair Lady; only. . . not. He was the first, yes, but hardly the definitive Phantom and tho Crawford had once a brief, promising film career, there was no outcry to cement his performance on film, tho he was expected to when Warner's first purchased film rights in 1989, giving Sir Andrew complete artistic control. L-W quickly hired Joel Schumacher (a costume designer turned writer/director, who began in movie musicals writing scripts for Sparkle and The Wiz) and all was ready to roll when Sir Andrew's divorce from Sarah Brightman led to complications, and put the film into a long dormant stage that lasted a dozen years.

But there was really no need to rush it onto screen. Aside from the endless NY run, there were the countless tours and international companies, including a 4 year sit-down in LA, followed by a six-year fixture at the Curran in San Francisco--a city of few long runs. The show feels like a tenant you just can't get to move. As time passed, Michael Crawford became less necessary and other casting rumors circulated. For a long while John Travolta was attached, which didn't seem so wrong. Then Antonio Banderas--who might be better. Hugh Jackman was also in the mix, but in the end they chose Gerald Butler, who aside from being relatively unknown had no vocal experience whatsover. Hadn't they learned since Paint Your Wagon days? Katie Holmes and Anne Hathaway were serious contenders for Christine, which eventually went to Emmy Rossum; thus ensuring no box office value in leading players. As Raoul, Patrick Wilson was on point, still a rising star. Judy Kaye's Tony-winning opera diva, Carlotta went to a younger, hammy
Minnie Driver. Ciaran Hinds and Simon Callow were the impressarios, and Miranda Richardson, the shadowy Madame Giry. Schumacher return-ed to shoot the entire film at Pinewood in England. The film was royally unveiled in London on Dec 10, 2004 (my 52nd birthday) and in major US venues on Dec 22. However thanks to my Writers Guild emeritus, I was able to go to an industry screening at the intimate Dolby viewing rooms in SOMA, on December 1st. Coming at the property with less anticipation than usual, I was impressed enuf to return for a second look in January at the Metreon. I hadn't seen it since.

The movie begins as stunningly as it does on stage, only enhanced with digital technology. From a faded sepia postcard of Paris, 1919 we zoom into the frame as it comes alive in dusty black & white: the Opera Populaire from the street to the stage, an auction in progress, the fabled house now destined for demolition. (Shades of Follies) As a final lot comes to bid, a chandelier "in pieces" is hoisted upward and in the process wipes the theater from ruin to pristine glory and b&w to color, all to Lloyd-Webber's most stirring orchestration of the title tune. The opening continues with a flurry of backstage activity that consumes an opera house of this scale. It's all breathlessly thrilling and concludes at a rehearsal in progress with La Carlotta--the house diva. In short order we meet new company owners Firmin & Andre, their patron, the Vicomte, Raoul--a childhood sweetheart of chorine Christine Daae, who is pushed forth by company manager, Madame Giry, when Carlotta bolts in tantrum. It's all rather limp understudy drama; but wait--now it gets wiggy. Instead of basking in her debut glory, Christine retreats to a basement chapel to commune with her Angel of Music--a voice she's been hearing--which Mme. Giry claims has been teaching Christine. But how? Thru the ducts or pipes? It's a puzzlement. And tho Phantom is pleased with his pupil's debut, he flies into jealous rage at Christine's reunion with Raoul, and abducts her to his lair. 
One of the musical's signature moments is the gondola ride into the underground chamber. Schumacher & Co. are aware of this and inflate the journey to ridiculous length, including one passage down a hall with human arms holding candelabras (an image stolen from Cocteau), and another down a ramp that for no visible reason involves the needless assistance of a horse--all to the throb of the Vangelis-like title tune, which upon examination makes so little sense. Why, for instance would Christine sing, "Those who've seen your face/Draw back in fear"? How would she know?--those who've seen it are all dead. The man cave itself is so absurdly choked with candles (but where is all this smoke venting?) that you can easily expect a good half-days work just in getting them lit. But the extravagance is convincing in accepting Christine's hypnotic surrender, tho she has to endure, as do we, his lugubrious "Music of the Night." A novice vocalist, Gerard Butler took lessons--which leaves him sounding like a novice who's had a few lessons. (Tho in truth, neither Michael Crawford, nor anyone else I'd ever heard made this song sound any good.) But Butler is no better with any of the music, and not that compelling a presence, which pretty much nullifies his casting. Minnie Driver, on the other hand overdoes an annoying Italian accent, finding scant warmth underneath her bitchy shell.
Her  best  moment  is  in  "Prima Donna" being carried to stage in a sedan chaise. This sequence which begins in the Opera lobby as a heavily expositional song, "Notes," perks up the movie after the dark scenes of Christine's encounter with the Phantom--which should have been the more enticing. A major mistake was made in giving his facial disfigurement such a soft pass. Unlike previous film Phantoms, who looked truly scary, Butler looks no worse than your average burn victim. Nor do we see any look of horror in Christine's eyes when she dares to peek under his mask--now fully melted in empathy to this creature. Was this an editing oversight? Without Christine's repulsion, the Phantom's enraged reaction to her act seems all the more psychotic. By now it's clear that the central story is either silly or moribund but what really works is all the otherwise arcana surrounding the Opera. 
The stage sets are lovely enuf, but even more stunning are the operahouse rooftop and a foggy graveyard. Along with solid performances by Patrick Wilson & Emmy Rossum these details make tolerable another two L-W ballads of no particular distinction: "All I Ask of You" and "Wishing You Were Here Again." There's far too many ballads in this score, and tho it's too facile to say they all sound alike (they don't) they do propound a feeling of sameness--a gateway to tedium. And damn if L-W can't dispense with his insistence on thru-sung musicals--burdening the show with yards of his painful recitative. (Not to put too fine a point on it: but Maury Yeston's version sounds positively lively--and no less dramatic--in comparison.)
"Masquerade" begins in fine form, dazzling in every way--a latter day "Ascot Gavotte" with Alexandra Byrne's costumes giving Cecil Beaton a run for his money. But the number dissembles after awhile, and ends rudely; the Phantom's entrance on the main staircase abruptly silencing the room. Does this make sense? First off he's masked as is everyone else present. It's not like his figure is well known; in fact few have ever seen him--so what's the panic?   Is  it  because  he's  dressed  in  red?  Like  the 
devil? As it happens, the opera he's come to demand they perform (so he's a writer!--But, as we shall soon see, he really wants to direct) is apparently set in the third circle of hell: something called Don Juan Triumphant--tho the movie drops the adverb from the title. It's a wholly different work than what we've seen so far--something dissonant and "modern" with no indication whether it's meant to be ahead of its time, or simply bad. A troupe of Martha Graham-like dancers pop up so unexpectedly I could only laugh. The Phantom drops in to play his own protagonist for the "Point of No Return" and from there it's swordfights and dungeon drama and the Kiss from Beauty to the Beast--the act of transformation, the great romantic climax. She's now free to go with Raoul and the Phantom can slip away into legend.  I know millions are moved by all this claptrap, but I'm afraid, like A Chorus Line's Morales, I felt nothing. Still, the movie has an epic sweep and elegance that recalls My Fair Lady, tho without the indelible performances or the unquestionable score. After Chicago, the Phantom's makers had every hope Hlwd's Academy would embrace them, but the film won only three nominations: cinematography and art direction were givens (so how did they miss costumes?) but nothing in the major categories. Lloyd-Webber (with Charles Hart) got notice for the obligatory end-credits new song, "Learn to Be Lonely"--an absurd bid for aggrandizement in a category long since bowdlerized by the lack of original songs in post '60s movies. It lost to a Spanish tune (no doubt lovely) from Motorcycle Diaries that no one's heard of since. Not that "Learn to Be Lonely" has entered the L-W canon. Without the imprimatur of Oscar, The Phantom of the Opera grossed $51,269,000 domestically--a soft showing for the "world's most popular" musical. The film did much better overseas, doubling that for a global total of $154,649,000. That's not peanuts, but compared to the new standard, Chicago, disappointing to Warners, and Really Useful (Lloyd-Webber's empire).

By the time of the film's release I was pretty much entrenched in my own grotto, a social phantom, writing--at a snail's pace--my own musical. Three years after my presentation to a gaggle of 42nd Street Moon players, I had managed to rewrite the first act and pen lyrics to ten songs. My composer apparently wasn't in much of a hurry, either. These were dark years, the looming Bush/Cheney cabal unleashing a MidEast hornet's nest; a still traumatized general public; a prevalent post-millenium depression. I soldiered on, but my long-held belief in my own protective angels was shattered when I suffered a head-on collision on Post St. moments after dropping Greg off at physical therapy. I never found out why this illegal Latino "borrowing" his bosses truck drove straight into me, but I was fortunate to suffer no worse than a broken wrist (from the airbag--of all things) and some long-range PTSD. But my contract with the universe was now forever broken. That it happened on the eleventh of June, on top of Greg's initial car accident (Dec 11) the Madrid bombings (July 11) and of course the grandaddy of them all: 9/11; branded the 11th as my day to beware. By 2004, my last known blood relative on the planet, Mother, was 83--and having always been older than her years, a very old 83. Yet determined to remain on her own in her 2-story tomb of a house; with daily reminders of where her husband shot himself. In widow's shock she declined to the point her mind couldn't make simple connections, basic logic, or reasoning. The sad truth was she had no good reason for being alive. And wanted nothing more than to die. Only for some bizarre reason (as we will later find out) she couldn't. She was about as negative, unpleasant and tiring a person as you can imagine being around. And now, suddenly on her own, she demanded a good deal more attention, meaning almost ceaseless weekend visits and nightly phone check-ins. I went back into therapy.

In May I returned to NY for the first time since 9/11. There was nothing of interest at ground zero--just a giant construction site; but Bway had changed. It was roaring back to life--not Golden Age/National Influence life but thrivingly cultishly popular as well as freshly creative (or shamelessly commercial)--and the newly renovated Times Square now swarmed with family-friendly crowds in this musical comedy (and drama) Disneyland. In truth what finally drew back to Manhattan was Encores! production of Bye Bye Birdie (which was crisply done, but undermined by low-wattage casting.) I came in via Boston, where I stayed with my dear old Laura (who by now I hardly ever saw anymore), but also to take in some unfamiliar sites to freshen these tired eyes; and Boston is a lovely town. I met Larry in NY and we stayed in a condo near Penn Station so uniformly white as to feel like a booby hatch. In short order we saw Caroline or Change (with my beloved Alice Playten!); Assassins, Jumpers, Here Lies Jenny, and Bombay Dreams. The Roundabout Studio 54 Assassins was best, but in truth none have lingered in fond memory. I saw a fair share of theater in California as well: Urinetown, Hairspray, Man of No Importance, the tryout of Wicked in SF; A rare revival of Duke Ellington's Beggar's Opera in Marin, Bat Boy in Mt. View; Elaine Stritch At Liberty, Grand Hotel, my friend, Lisa Loomer's latest at the Taper: Living Out--in LA; and the most enchanting surprise of all: the tryout of Dirty Rotten Scoundrels at the cozy Globe Theater in San Diego--the most fondly recalled of all those above.

The revived commercial interest in Musical Comedy led to two documentaries released in 2004: one on PBS in conjunction with a book by Michael Kantor & Laurence Maslon called Broadway: The American Musical--an enter-taining affair that by time constraints jumped from one pillar to another, but with much unfamiliar historical footage. The other, Broadway: The Golden Age by Rick McKay was more visceral: living legends from the Golden Age (filmed like "witnesses" in Warren Beatty's Reds style) recalling stories familiar and un- of all aspects of the stage. (These weren't restricted to musicals). There weren't any movies I enjoyed more that year. I was still attending the cinema then but with waning frequency. For the most part movies were less & less interesting, and I mostly went to year-end screenings of those intended For My Consideration as Writers Guild emeritus. But there was really more interesting work happening in new platforms on cable television: Six Feet Under, Sex & the City, Absolutely Fabulous, The Sopranos, and two new exceptional (and underrated) series, Carnivale and Dead Like Me. Fortunately HBO gave Mike Nichols the freedom
to film Angels in America with the budget, the length and the all-star cast the play deserved. And with the introduction of Netflix DVD rentals, along with gigantic flat screen TVs dropping rapidly in price, going to the cinema was less & less necessary; drifting me further into reclusion. It seemed apt that my worse years would coincide with what then seemed to be the worst possible American administration. Most surprisingly I found pitiful solace in Elvis Presley movies--a genre I'd steadfastly ignored before. Now they appealed in their utter  innocence,  but  even   more  for   their  Technicolor
travelogues made back in my favorite decade, the '60s: Blue Hawaii, Fun in Acapulco, Viva Las Vegas. Celluloid valium to counteract all the disturbing political turmoil--altho this had become an unlikey subject of fascination as well, which resulted in my new, unexpected devotion to CNN & MSNBC. The 2004 election was more gripping than any fictional thriller, down to the climax with a downbeat--nay, dystopian--ending.

One thing was looking up--literally. After a decade living deep in San Francisco's forever-gentrifying, yet always noisy/filthy Mission District, I found a new apartment up the hill on Twin Peaks, looking down at my old 'hood, and the whole eastern part of the city. More than moving from Victorian to contemporary '70s digs, the psychological effect was incalcuble. Scaling down considerably in size, we purged a lot; but foolishly (aside from some help with the biggest furniture pieces) I moved every last bell, book & candle up the hill by myself in countless car trips--which is the last time I'll be doing that. A compact apartment, it met our needs in crucial ways: a garage with same level access (for Greg's now apparent long-term disability) two bedrooms at separate ends; modern not drafty. The main room provided an office niche for Greg, and my bedroom buried deep in the back, became my office & library as well, from which I type these words a dozen years later. In compensation for a single bath and small kitchen,  there  is  a room-sized  deck with stunning
eastern views, which is more often than not uninviting as day progresses into night, and SF weather flaunts its famous fog and bone-chilling wind. Installation of a compact vinyl hot tub made outdoor evenings possible, and became my meditation studio. Radish & Shannon our two aging felines, used to roaming the back alleys of South Van Ness, took to the new sun-drenched digs like two elderly gentlemen retiring to Miami. A fresh start was needed by all. We had moved from the trenches up into the caves; we could look out on our world again (to live in SF without a view is nearly criminal) and gain some perspective. Right after our first Xmas, as Phantom of the Opera was just opening around the world, the horrific tsunami-to-end-all-tsunamis (my core horror) happened in South East Asia--washing away at least a quarter of a million souls. It's easier to be vigilant from atop a mountain.

Coming Next: Rent

Report CardPhantom of the Opera
Overall Film:  B
Bway Fidelity: A--  
Songs from Bway:  11
Songs Cut from Bway:  3
Worst Inclusion:  the endless recitative
New Songs:  1 (accessory: over end credits)
Standout Numbers:  "Notes"/"Prima Donna"
Casting:  Uneven, lacking star charisma
Standout Cast: Patrick Wilson
Sorethumb Cast: Gerard Butler, Minnie Driver
Cast from Bway: None
Direction: Competent, occasionally brilliant
Choreography:  Minimal
Scenic Design:  Lavish, enchanting, detailed
Costumes:  Sumptuous, Best in Show
Titles:  Endless, dull end titles
Oscar noms: 3; Cinematography, Art
            Direction, Song ("Learn to Be Lonely")

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