Phantom (1991)

     by Arthur Kopit & Maury Yeston

          starring Richard White, Glory Crampton & Paul Schoeffler

If you've been keeping track of things over in Movieland, this is the same story that was previously used for the 1990 Richardson/Dance miniseries, but in its original form. The miniseries was released first, but only because the emergence and success of Lloyd Webber's musical delayed this stage adaptation for a bit, leaving the movie to come out before its source material did. The wildly different direction that Kopit takes the story in this version works, in my opinion, much better when paired with Yeston's lush orchestrations and in a stage format. It was originally written for the stage, and that shows somewhat in the miniseries.

 

Kopit states in his liner notes that he was familiar with the film versions of the story - specifically the 1925, 1943 and 1962 adaptations - but not with Leroux's novel. This, again, shows; Kopit's Phantom is much more human, much more carefeully presented as sympathetic and blameless in most of what he does, and much more of an innocently beleagured figure than Leroux's twisted, dangerous criminal.

 

The other thing of note that he mentions is that his greatest problem with the story was a sense that the Phantom's reasons for loving Christine were never adequately presented. While Leroux's monstrous recluse was extremely mentally unstable and didn't really require more than a thirst for innocence and musical talent to fixate on the little Swede, the Phantoms of the later film versions were more human and relatable, and it's not difficult to see why Kopit felt that they needed a more concrete reason for their obsession. This is the reason he gives for including the Phantom's first meeting with his protege (and the reason that the dynamic of their relationship is so very different from pretty much every other version of the story, methinks).

 

I find it intensely interesting that Kopit solves the problem of why the Phantom loves Christine in exactly the same way that Susan Kay did in her 1990 novel of the same name; while the two were written so closely together that I don't know if there's any validity to the idea that they might have influenced one another, the fact that both chose the same idea for their explanation (that of Christine being a dead ringer, both physically and vocally, for Erik's mother) makes me wonder why that idea would occur to two different writers at practically the same time. One of the most poignant lines in the original novel is the one in which Erik laments that even his mother never kissed him; while Leroux's Christine certainly did function as a surrogate mother figure for the sometimes childish Erik, the idea that she actually IS his mother (reincarnated, or returned to earth, or just looks a hell of a lot like her) takes that to an extreme. It seems to be a subconscious response to that lament; especially if, as Kopit's and Kay's Phantoms are, you make Erik a much more sympathetic figure, it becomes monstrously unfair that the physicality which he cannot change should have robbed him of that most basic of loves from his mother. Making Christine a literal mother figure rather than just a symbolic one doesn't just allow the reader or viewer to enjoy the romance between the characters; it gives the audience a very real, concrete "fix" for that problem, a "resolution" to the unfairness that is Erik's life. I think that it also says something about our perceptions of romantic relationships - the idea of Christine mothering Erik is first and foremost in both adaptations, the idea of her being a wife only secondary.

 

I'm not going to reiterate the story, since most of it is exactly the same as in the miniseries. However, I will note where there are differences or relevant moments.

 

Overture:

 

The overture comes right out with the spooky, ominous minor horns and rumbling timpani to presage the Phantom's ghostly presence. However, like the frightening mystique of this particular Phantom, it doesn't last long, giving way fairly quickly to sprightly, operatic strings and flutes. It's a fake-out, however; the minor chords and timpani sneak back in and fuse the two sounds, before the music becomes entirely ominous again, almost epically so when the churchbells are added. The whole thing finishes off with hushed, anticipatory strings to lead us into the action.

 

Melodie de Paris:

 

This song, which Christine sings as she's wandering around the streets of Paris selling sheet music, is very simple and appropriate to its place in the action - a peasant song from a peasant woman, pretty but not ostentatious, and an everyday kind of melody that the whole town can join in on now and then in the chorus parts. It also has quite a French feel to it, which is nice to see - previous musical versions, despite the supposed setting of the story, have been very British.

 

Christine, here played by Glory Crampton, has a perfectly lovely voice, but she seems to be holding it back somewhat; I assume this is because Christine is supposedly untrained at this point in the story (though, as I said in the miniseries, bullhockey - nobody sounds like that untrained, but this is musical theatre, so all is forgiven). She is also, interestingly, much more self-possessed and confident than her film counterpart, which makes her more interesting as a character.

 

The chorus is quite lovely and has a very classic Broadway feel to it (not surprising from Yeston, who has his own shiny Tony award for composing), and the entire song works extremely well as a scene-setter for Paris; the audience gets a much better sense of the locale in this than in other musical versions, though it doesn't get quite as involved as Leroux's novel (understandably, since Leroux was a Frenchman and these guys are not).

 

As in the miniseries, Raoul is replaced (for some reason - still not sure why, though possibly in an effort to further differentiate the show from Webber's by renaming the hero) by his older brother Philippe, and his last name is changed as well, making him Count Philippe de Chandon. He is set up, of course, as quite the rake, being quite charming in his suit against Christine; much to my intense amusement, the peasant girls excitedly refer to him as the "Champagne King", which I assume is a sly reference to Mozart's Don Giovanni (quite the rake himself) and his infamous "Champagne Aria", "Fin ch'han dal vino". It would have been even funnier if they'd managed to work in the "Catalogue Aria", too, but we can't have everything in life.  (Later, Yeston himself pointed out that "Chandon" was a small joke referring to the champagne brand Moët & Chandon, and is another reason they refer to him as such.)

 

Buquet retains his bumbling, insecure costuming assistant role from the miniseries, and the use of extremely ominous cymbals, organ, timpani, and male chorus as he descends to the Phantom's domain make it fairly easy to see how long he's going to last.

 

Paris is a Tomb:

 

How excited was I to hear a darker, richer voice than we usually hear for a Phantom character? So excited. Other musicals have pretty consistently cast him as a tenor, partly because tenors are the "show" voices of musical theatre, and partly because in more sympathetic versions the higher voice lends itself better to a heroic or tragic role than the traditionally evil-associated baritone does. However, Richard White's very operatic baritone mixes just the right hint of frightening power with an overwhelming sympathy that I think it what Yeston and Kopit were really going for with the character.

 

I really appreciated that they went for the evil here, making it very clear that the Phantom is totally going to kill Buquet all over the place before the lights go down. It lends more credence to the idea of the Phantom as terrorizing the theatre rather than just inhabiting it, and is much more effective than the somewhat wussy accidental death of Buquet in the movie version.

 

Dressing for the Night:

 

We're back from the ominous thumping of the underground to a sprightly operatic chorus here, with lush harmonies and an interesting, lively orchestration. The line in the chorus, "Paris is a mask," is an intriguing change from the Phantom's doleful lament of a few minutes ago, and an ironic one considering that the metaphorical "mask" which the opera-goers are so gleefully donning is a very literal reality for the man below the floorboards.

 

It becomes very noticeable here (though it was present in earlier numbers) that there's a lot of French sprinkled all over the dialogue and lyrics, like frosting drizzle on a toaster pastry. It's not really intrusive, and it's never so complicated that a reasonably bright English-speaker doesn't know what's going on; generally, I hate it when this device is used in the Phantom story because it seems unnecessary in a context wherein it's clear that everyone is already speaking French, but I didn't mind it in this show, oddly enough. It was clearly not placed there just in a misguided attempt to show off research or make characters that are not very French to begin with sound a little more authentic. Instead, it enhanced an already fairly well-presented "Frenchness" to the piece, and served as an acceptable garnish to the show's text.

 

In the midst of all these society ladies and gents getting dressed to the nines, Christine's very simple, sweet melodies underscore her naivete and simplicity, and mark her as apart from the bustling world of the opera house. This apartness is something new in this version, and is mostly likely intended to make her an even better fit for the Phantom's love interest, since he, too, is an outcast.

 

Where in the World:

 

This song is, of course, no relation to the one with the same title in The Secret Garden (although I love that song). The Phantom's "reign of terror" is in this version a direct result of the change in management; he views music as his only pleasure and solace in his fairly miserable existence, so the idea of having to listen to Carlotta suck it up onstage all the time is perceived as a serious threat. While Leroux's character did ramp up his activity a bit during the management change, in order to make sure that they accepted his control over certain areas, Kopit's Phantom is much more invested in making sure things run exactly to his liking, and his threats to destroy the opera house can be taken quite seriously in context.

 

Carriere is, of course, revealed to be aiding the Phantom in the same way he is during the film. In fact, the phrase "protects him" is used, which suggests not only that the Phantom is somewhat vulnerable or unable to function on his own, but which obviously foreshadows the father/son relationship between the two long before it's actually revealed.

 

Erik wails, "Oh, for an angel of music to come..." as he's wishing that someone would replace Carlotta; the line is interesting because it reveals the reversal of much of the relationship between Christine and the Phantom in this particular version. Christine's angelic facets are emphasized (and will be again when he repeats his later line from the movie, "Up there is hell - I will not send an angel to hell!") and she is placed in an even more overt savior role than Leroux had her in, while the Phantom's ruse (pretending to be her father's Angel of Music) is completely removed. Not only does the removal of the subterfuge cement Christine as the only truly angelic figure in the story, but it also makes the Phantom much more sympathetic since he's not such a lying bastard this way (Kopit really, really wants us to like Erik, and sympathizes him so much that it's a wonder he didn't come out the other end as a fluffy orange kitten).

 

I was diverted for a moment by an interesting concept: Kopit states in his booklet notes about this song that the Phantom "needs beauty to survive", referring to his search for Christine. However, everything is exclusively woman-based in this need for beauty, and I have to wonder why. Where's the male singer love? That's beauty, too - why is Erik so certain that the beautiful scion of Music Incarnate that he's looking for has to be a woman? Is it because he subconsciously equates music, as the only positive thing in his environment, with a romantic or sexual relationship, or because (more mundanely) he just wants someone decent to replace Carlotta? It seems that the subtext completely swamped Kopit into writing the search for musical perfection as also a search for feminine perfection, which also makes me wonder if there's more than a little bit of the cultural subconscious regarding music as a feminine pursuit at work here; certainly, the popular perception is that the arts are gentler, more "womanly" pursuits, as opposed to hard labor (not to mention the whole idea that beauty is "feminine" and required for women while men are allowed or even expected to be coarse or ugly without backlash). That gets into our entire cultural underpinnings which tend to equate emotion (since the arts are really all focused on the presentation of or interpretation of emotion) with femininty and impassivity with masculinity, so I won't follow that road too far lest it turn into an entire treatise right here and now.  But I'm JUST SAYING.

 

However, in light of all that, the Phantom's behavior in the rest of this song, and a lot of the next scene, is kind of blatantly sex-focused, which I'm not sure was really Kopit's intent (though with some of these lyrics, he must have intended at least a side implication). The Phantom constantly talks about seeking this perfect woman, whom he describes with quite a lot of superlatives and sometimes mentions without also mentioning the voice that's supposed to be the point of the exercise; when he's bellowing that he will "find his desire", I'm going, come on, dude. You're not just after a pretty voice. You'd like a pretty voice in a pretty case, if you know what I'm saying (and I think you do).

 

The fact that the Phantom is declaring his intent to embark on an active search for his "angel" is another dynamic-changer; most obviously, it makes Christine's magical arrival at the opera that very same day perhaps a wee bit too patly convenient (either she arrived on cue in a cosmic coincidence, or he's settling for her because, hey, he doesn't have to leave the opera house now). The larger change, however, is in the Phantom's character, once again: where Leroux's Phantom was fairly passive, not taking an active role in much of anything even within the opera house until meeting Christine, Kopit's character is not just running the opera house but also actively seeking to expand his influence out of it and change his own environment, something that was pretty much totally foreign to the reclusive, original Erik. Like Lloyd Webber's version of the character, Kopit's Phantom is a sort of grand director, set apart socially but not actually withdrawing or avoiding contact with society unless it benefits him directly to do so. Leroux's Erik lurked and was generally happy if he was allowed to do his own thing undisturbed; Kopit's wants to run the show.

 

And, of course, I can't help but mention the unintentional irony of the Phantom singing an extended piece about how angelically beautiful and physically perfect his ideal woman is. Of course, in Leroux's novel this was a sort of compensation technique - Erik felt that with a beautiful, graceful wife he could be a part of society, that possessing someone so lovely would prove to the rest of the world that he was as worthwhile and deserving as the next man (and in some small way make up for his own ugliness) - but here, without that context, it just seems to smack the tiniest bit of hypocrisy.

 

This Place is Mine:

 

Meg Bussert (not the original stage Carlotta, by the way, but excellent nevertheless) can sing, no question, but she does an excellent job of making herself sound like a seventy-year-old diva with serious cord difficulties. Rather than sacrifice the core components of good singing (which would possibly injure her and be counterproductive in a musical theatre setting anyway), she adds all the unnecessary bells and whistles, scooping to every note further away than a minor third, making copious use of dirty breaths and gutturals until it's perfectly obvious why an audience wouldn't really want to sit through her for long. She plays the hubris of the role up well; unlike the novel's Carlotta, Kopit's version of her is a fame-obsessed, near-talentless old beldame, and the scene is entertaining despite the obvious caricaturing of the character.

 

The song itself also has moments of parody that are brilliant, most notably the show-boating mock "cadenzas" and the unnecessarily high ending note (which even Bussert couldn't make sound hideous, not at that height).

 

Home:

 

Christine's song is meant to be a contrast to Carlotta's theatrics, and as such is gentle, smooth and streamlined where Carlotta's was full of frenetic melismas, almost lullaby-like in its simplicity. The most noticeable part about this song is Christine's contentment; contrary to her film incarnation, she is happy simply to be in the opera house, even if she isn't performing (or doing much she wouldn't be doing in any general labor job anywhere). While she enjoys daydreams of performance, she has no active ambitions; it's the Phantom that pushes her toward public performance and acclaim. The entire song centers on the idea that the opera house is like a welcoming "home" to Christine, which is of course a much gentler, more innocent and carefree version of the Phantom's same sentiment earlier; it's the music that makes the home.

 

We get the trademark ominous horns and percussion to mark the Phantom's entrance, but they give way almost immediately to the same lovely melody. His instant enchantment with Christine, which appears to melt away all the purposeful menace without difficulty, is yet another example of Kopit's much more sympathetic version of the Phantom.

 

The Music Lessons/Phantom Fugue:

 

The reasoning behind the mask that was given in the film remains intact here; the Phantom claims that he is a well-known figure and must wear a mask to hide his identity in order to avoid attracting notice during his tutoring of a peasant girl. The music lesson interlude is short, but I enjoyed it; he sounds like a very realistic, strict music teacher, and it's nice that we saw some actual lessons since this version of the story started before Christine had even met him. The lessons were, however, much too intimate for my taste; there is absolutely no element of the supernatural between the two of them at all (Christine believes him to be just some man that teaches her), and the dynamic between them is consequently much more garden-variety than in most versions that attempt to keep the "ghostly" nature of the relationship intact.

 

You Are Music:

 

I know that this song is meant to be reflective - i.e., the characters aren't really singing to one another, but we're seeing their internal monologues through song. Or at least, that's what I was thinking, until I read Kopit's notes in the CD case and he made it quite clear that no, they're actually singing to one another. Snort. It's a lovely song, don't get me wrong; but the idea that Erik just burst into devotional song in the middle of Christine's music lesson, and that she started singing it back to him, was just so melodramatic that it made me snigger into my juice for more than a minute or two.  Yeston later said that Kopit was mistaken, and that this song is not in the form of direct address when actually staged.

 

The orchestration is particularly lovely here; specifically, there's a cool, eerie little minor 2nd in the brass that is a great added touch, suggesting the Phantom's instability even in this romantic scene. The lyrics continue to incorporate the idea that music is equivalent to light (which is equivalent to Heaven, beauty, acceptance, happiness, what have you), which is a big theme throughout the musical.

 

The Bistro:

 

My favorite part of this entire show? The waiter chorus. They're adorable, operatic, set the scene effortlessly, and I love them. I wanted them to return after their part.

 

Bussert does, again, an incredible job of making a great voice sound a total mess. Her pride is evident here in contrast to Christine's song, which focuses mainly on romance (carnal romance, yet!).

 

Who Could Ever Have Dreamed Up You:

 

The patter-style song is a surprising choice for Philippe (dammit, I keep typing Raoul again), but not an inappropriate one at all; as a rich, gaily social aristocrat, it fits his somewhat carefree attitude toward life and his boyish joy at the discovery of real love in Christine. The references in the song are very man-about-town and would under other circumstances make me question his seriousness, but the song is surprisingly convincing - the very flighty nature of it indicates that Philippe is being genuine, presenting her with his true self and feelings rather than hitting her with a schmaltzy, sweeping love song (which would immediately look like he was working her over). Paul Schoeffler's French accent makes me giggle a bit, as it seems unnecessary (we do know that everyone is speaking French here!), but his voice is lovely and his delivery is spot-on, so I can forgive the quirk.

 

Christine's part of the song is much gentler and softer, but it meshes very well with his, an aural representation of how their opposing personalities complement one another. Her voice, I notice, is much stronger with Philippe in this bright environment, less timid and retiring than it is pretty much everywhere else in the show; it's a useful clue to her comfort level and emotions.

 

The end of the act comes off pretty much exactly as in the film, though Christine's aborted debut role is as Titania in The Fairy Queen rather than as Marguerite in Faust. I'm not sure why the change, unless it was out of a desire to avoid the dark overtones of Faust or to further distance this musical from Hill's earlier one.

 

Entr'acte:

 

We're faked out with frightening timpani at the beginning, but almost immediately segue into a happy reiteration of "Who Could Ever Have Dreamed Up You". We flip back and forth after that from minor keys to major to minor to major again, representing the divide between our two "heroes" - Philippe, who while a philanderer still represents love and acceptance, and Erik, who while a murderer still represents passion and art. The two of them are weighted much more equally in this version; in fact, Erik is given the advantage over Philippe, whose backstory with Christine from the film is entirely removed and who generally has much less time onstage.

 

Without Your Music:

 

As he's poling his little punt along on the underground river, the Phantom muses over the destitution of his life should the currently-unconscious Christine leave him. The underground cavern is appropriately represented, with lonely horn solos and percussive bells enhancing the idea of singularity and a hidden realm.

 

My True Love:

 

After all of the backstory with Carriere (which is much more rushed here than in the film, possibly because Burt Lancaster is not involved), which is pretty much all the same, Christine begs Erik to remove his mask for her. This version of Christine is way further gone than any other; the title here refers to the Phantom, and she spends a lot of the song promising to bring light to his darkness, forever be faithful to him, etc. The assertion that she will bring light to his darkness if he will just show her his face is tragically ironic, since it's the one thing that we know, as the audience, will drive her away; meanwhile, I'm looking at girlfriend here with a serious quirk of my eyebrow, because she was just professing her undying love to Philippe, like, a minute ago. I think we know who the unfairly philandering one is in this story, and it ain't the count. This isn't the confused, terrified indecision of Leroux's Christine; this is a girl being flighty, although it's still the most beautiful number in the show for the character.

 

I do wonder, however, if there's a bit of a deeper plot here. It seems possible that Christine, having found herself in love with Raoulippe, is still afflicted with guilt over the music teacher that she knows to be infatuated with her (she would have to be completely oblivious not to have noticed on some level). It's not too far a stretch to conclude that, having correctly guessed that Erik's mask may represent a deal-breaker, she is asking him to remove it in order to give herself a plausible excuse to leave him guilt-free.

 

My Mother Bore Me:

 

Unlike the film's treatment of the scene, Christine runs for the hills after the unmasking instead of fainting, which is a much better choice in my opinion.

 

The song, which is basically a pity party in which the Phantom can angst about how no one has ever loved him except his mother and the world is a very unfair place (all of which is true, but the presentation is so hopelessly melodramatic that I was doing more eye-rolling than empathizing), is mostly set in a higher vocal register, and the resulting thin, break-prone tone enhances the suffering and pain of the character's current emotional state. It also removes much of the power from what is a seriously powerhouse voice, which shows us White's impressive vocal scope. According to Yeston, the song is at least in part based on William Blake's poem "Infant Sorrow", which has similar frightening language describing the baby in question.

 

The big thing about this version's use of Erik's mother as a focal point is that it replaces the use in the original novel of Christine's father. The original novel had Erik impersonate the avatar of music supposedly sent to Christine by her father, in order to teach, influence, and eventually seduce her; this version, on the other hand, has Christine appear as the embodiment of Erik's mother and promise to love him as only she did, only to come up short when it came time to put her money where her mouth was. The parallel bothers me mostly because I don't see the need for it; the real purpose, I think, is to give the Phantom that much more oomph as a sympathetic character, now not only no longer a creepy angel-impersonator, but also the wronged party when it comes to the discovery at the end. It does this at the expense of Christine's character, however, who becomes less sympathetic and whose valid reasons for being upset with the original Phantom are largely gone. Kopit has all but drawn a halo around Erik's head for us, and such heavy-handed insistence that we love a character bothers me, especially when most of the interestingly complex elements of said character have been removed to make him more palatable.

 

That said, however, he does get more dangerous than he did in the film, declaring that Christine is "if not for me, for no one!", accompanied by disaster-presaging tones.

 

You Are My Own:

 

The less-than-realistic assertion that Erik was literally "dying of love" under the opera house has been replaced by him dying of a gunshot wound sustained in an altercation with the police, which lends the scene a bit more realism and generally makes me more inclined to take it seriously. The soft conversation and duet between the Phantom and his father is gorgeous, and for the first time there are glimmers of a near-hysterical humor out of both characters as they prepare to say farewell.

 

Finale: You Are Music:

 

There's not much of a change here, with the same death via the Erik's father's gun, acceptance and love from Christine and a soft lullaby accompanying his death.

 

As in the previous film, there just aren't too many of the original ideas left intact; Erik achieves no redemption, and Kopit's constant insistence that we love him, dammit, completely obliterates the larger issues of societal responsibility and innocence vs. worldliness. In the end, Yeston's score and the change of a few hyper-dramatic elements is enough to elevate this a couple of grades, but it's not enough to make me place it with the truly insightful interpretations of the story.

 

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