Phantom of the Opera (1997)

     by Rob Barron & David Spencer

          starring Benjamin A. Damiano & Marni Raab

The C- grade makes it look like I'm going to be all shouty and stuff, but this is not actually the case (for the most part). It's hard to shout at a childrens' adaptation of a story; this little musical is very obviously intended to entertain young 'uns, and therefore even someone as crusty and aged as I am can't quite rip it apart for changing things. After all, I suppose I can't expect people to be subjecting the children to Gothic romances full of scariness, violence, and thinly-disguised-by-metaphor sexual shenanigans. Sure, some of us were reading Norse myths when we were barely out of diapers, but look what it turned us all into.

 

So, anyway, another musical! Barron's production is small (only six roles) and intended to be performable on a budget in any small venue for the enjoyment of children. It is therefore unfair of me to expect it to be an extravaganza of multitudinous symbolic layers.

 

To start with, this cast recording is broken up into twenty-seven tracks, which doesn't make a whole lot of sense to me since several of them are only fifteen to twenty seconds long. It made keeping track of where I was in between making dinner and chasing kittens somewhat distracting. I wouldn't want to deprive anyone else of the experience, so we'll follow their breakdown.

 

1) Prologue with Broom

 

Yes, it's really called that. I presume that the narrator character, Gaston (aha! A clever mention of Leroux's first name! Well done, musical! Pity it will be about the only relic of the original story in the entire show), is carrying a broom while narrating this portion, unless there's some kind of wackiness going on that even I am unable to postulate from the recording. One of my peeves was hit early on: I'm not crazy about the use of electronic instruments and synthesizers in place of actual orchestral instruments, so I was somewhat grumbly through a lot of this musical. Of course, this is meant to be a small production for a small space and a presumably small budget, so it only makes sense that they don't have a fifty-six piece hanging out in the pit. Still, I would have liked to see a little splurge for the actual cast recording. None of the music is really all that challenging.

 

2) Speech: 'You Came to Hear the Story'

 

Here's where it becomes obvious that this is meant for children, since Gaston is speaking directly to them in the audience and using that slow, wide-eyed voice that adults use when they're talking to someone aged eight or younger. I figured I could relax; "Old Gaston" is going to take us on a children's story adventure version of the Phantom story, so how wrong could we possibly go? At least there won't be any threesomes in the lair.

 

3) Someone Different

 

So into the first musical number we go, which is about as cutesy as you might expect ("Some are scared of monsters under the bed..."), though there were occasional moments where the dialogue seemed to be a bit edgier and more adult than I would have used around six-year-olds (maybe six-year-olds aren't as squeamish as I think they are, but mention of bloodstains would have squicked me out at that age). It's almost tooth-grindingly schmaltzy, but on the positive side, the cast has some lovely voices in it and the modal choices are very interesting, often employing entirely unexpected chord progressions.

 

4) Scene: 'That Fateful Day'

 

The story is set in 1881, just as it (probably) is in Leroux's novel! Yay! Somebody involved read it!

 

Events are related flashback-style, narration by Gaston giving way to the rest of the cast doing their thing. Heidi Anderson, who is playing a particularly histrionic incarnation of Carlotta, has a very impressively ear-mangling operatic scream. The violence and haunting of the opera house has been very obviously downplayed for the childrens' benefit; nobody gets hung or even seriously inconvenienced, though music is stolen and instruments and costumes are occasionally damaged. This passive-aggressive (but not actively violent) behavior on the Phantom's part reminds me of the 1962 Fisher/Lom film, in which a mostly benevolent Phantom just sort of made a nuisance of himself when he didn't appreciate events unfolding.

 

5) Giry's Queries

 

There's some more screaming here. Seriously, if you thought Meg Giry's screams in the Lloyd Webber musical were hyper-dramatic and over-the-top, you ain't heard nothin' yet. Mention is made here of a mysterious fire that ravaged the opera house some years ago, which those versed in previous Phantom versions may immediately fixate on with an air of, "Aha! A clue, Watson!" And they would be right, though of course it will be a great mystery until the very end of the show. This version of Madame Giry is very obviously based upon Lloyd Webber's image of the character; she is given a very large, very instrumental role in the plot and is used as an impromptu mother/confidant/partner-in-crime figure for both Christine and the Phantom. An interesting new dynamic enters here as Madame Giry is afraid that the Phantom's shenanigans will cause the owners to get fed up and close the place down, and she begs him to stop; it's very reminiscent of Carriere's talk with his respective Phantom in the 1990 Richardson/Dance miniseries.

 

6) Scene: 'Who Are You Talking To?'

 

Oh, good, we got a title for her! Madame Giry is the "Manager of Backstage". Sniggering should be held to the end (oh, come on... kids won't know the difference, and it sounds more important than "stage manager").

 

7) Angel of Music

 

The exposition suffers from a critical case of Simplified Saying Everything Out Loud Disease (a medical term), but again... children really don't have particularly long attention spans or particularly well-developed abilities to draw conclusions on their own. I find it interesting that this childrens' version of the show actually uses a much more operatic style in the music and the singers' voices than the better-known musicals (the Lloyd Webber and the Kopit/Yeston), which generally rely on a more pop/musical theatre style, do. The 1990 miniseries (and the musical it was based on, too) seems to have some more influence again in that Christine shows up at the opera house at this point in search of lessons and a job, rather than already being part of the company as she is in Leroux's novel.

 

In case anyone is wondering, this song bears no resemblance to the identically-named piece in Lloyd Webber's musical. Unfortunately, while it is technically superior to Lloyd Webber's music in a lot of ways, most of Barron's music was instantly forgettable for me. Sitting here a mere eight hours after finishing my listen-through, I can only hum one line from one song; I literally have no idea what tunes were going on in the rest of the show.

 

8) Scene: 'The Company Meeting'

 

I may not remember it, but apparently the electronic instruments were marked enough here to warrant me writing another cranky note about how I didn't like them.

 

Again, the violence is sanitized right out of the piece; the stories about the Phantom's previous exploits and adventures in running off managers that he didn't like are all about harmless pranks and scares, and haven't even the slightest hint of murder attached. More interesting than that, however, is the fact that the opera house is having financial difficulties and desperately needs a rejuvenating new season in order to defray their expenses; the only other place in which I've seen a financial motive enter this strongly into things is in the 1937 Weibang/Sheng film and its progeny (the managers in Leroux's original novel and several of its adaptations do dither over money quite frequently, but it's always a question of maximizing profit rather than fretting over imminent bankruptcy).

 

What, ho! Mention of "The Great Opera House Fire" is made again! Could it have some future relevancy to it? Perhaps a hint of ominous significance?

 

9) New World Order

 

And here we meet the new manager of the opera house, Richard (Moncharmin has apparently been relegated to the Bin of Neglected Sidekicks). He is Not Nice, as evidenced by his excessive pragmatism (he mentions that he sells his old horses for feed when they're no longer in their prime) and financial fixation (he's determined to fire everyone he doesn't like and completely overhaul the inner workings of the opera house). Personally, while I don't like the guy overly much, he seems to be perfectly reasonable; after all, the opera house has been leaking money like a sieve and probably does need a business-model overhaul. However, that's not really going to occur to most kids in the audience, so Richard is That Mean Man Who Fires People and Is Mean To Them. His declaration that Christine had better ace her audition or he'll fire both her and Madame Giry neatly takes the role of tyrant from the Phantom's bony shoulders and drops it square on this new antagonist; like Carlotta in the 1990 Richardson/Dance miniseries, Richard is taking on the enemy role so that the Phantom can be free to be more sympathetic.

 

The battle lines are clearly drawn here (with a gigantic neon marker, in fact, in case any of the kids in the audience might have been confused); the Phantom hates change, and Richard wants to change everything. There's a suggestion in the presentation that the traditional way of doing things represents integrity and artistry, whereas the modern plans are amoral and capitalist in nature; this idea will be confusing for me later on when the entire cast does an abrupt about-face on it, but more on that when the time comes. On a metaphorical level, the suggestion is that the entire opera world is clinging to the glory of yore, desperately recycling its singers and material while the world matures around it.

 

Oh, and also, can I just say how awesome it is that Richard says that anybody caught sucking at their jobs will not only be thrown out of the opera house, but he'll have them "thrown out of Paris!"? That's right, y'all, he has the mayor in his pocket or something, I guess.

 

10) Dressing Room Three

 

Madame Giry insists that Christine take up residence in dressing room number three; Christine's hopes are dashed when Giry lets her know that it's cramped and dark and drafty and generally not very desirable, an interlude which is pretty cute in execution. However, it is, of course, the dressing room that the Phantom has access to, so she'll stop complaining soon enough. Madame Giry not only obviously knows the room to be one of the Phantom's haunts, but there's even a subtle implication that she's put singers in there for him to tutor before. I loved that little suggestion, and would have theorized all kinds of things about how it could tie into the fan and footstool business from Leroux's novel, but... that really would have required some inkling of Leroux's book in this show, and it's pretty obviously at least third generation from the original. Madame Giry begs the unseen Phantom to help tutor Christine; he was already barely an antagonist, but now he's a kind of guardian angel or patron saint of the opera house, which is something that I haven't seen used seriously yet (it was done in Pratchett's novel of the previous year, but that wasn't quite what you could call seriously).

 

11) Scene: 'Oh Papa'

 

Christine talks to her dead father for no apparent reason. In fact, she does this often, which looks a little odd but probably helps a child audience gain sympathy for her feelings of isolation away from her parent.

 

12) Find Me

 

Well, hey, we finally get to hear the Phantom's voice! It's nice - nothing to write home about, but certainly quite serviceable--and credibly spooky, at least in the beginning. It reminds me of nothing so much as Dance's version of the Phantom in the 1990 miniseries, another unremarkable but pleasant enough singing voice. I applauded the recording team that constantly oscillated the Phantom's voice from one speaker to the other but never recorded him in stereo in this first piece, enhancing the ventriloquism feeling of his disembodied voice. I did not applaud the one again jarring electronic instruments, but what can you do?

 

In the same childish vein as the rest of the show, Christine now embarks on a game of Hot-Cold with the Phantom, who declares that her first test before he will teach her is just for her to find him. Being the airhead that this version of her appears to be, she has immediately decided that the disembodied masculine voice in the room is her angel of music, and is alternately whining about how he's being mean and crowing over his existence. Interestingly, this Phantom has no romantic interest in Christine at this stage; he's just helping her out because Giry asked him to and because he wants the opera house to stay open, not because he's invested in her personally. In fact, he's content to let her fail to find him, though in a schoolyard move she accuses him of being scared and tricks him into revealing himself to prove that he isn't.

 

13) Scene: 'First Lesson'

 

My only note was that I thought the aria she was singing was pretty, though cursory research suggests it's an invention of Barron's and not from any actual opera. The Phantom is obviously trying to get a more passionate performance out of her rather than focusing on any technical teaching (which would probably bore children silly).

 

14) I'd Do It All Again

 

The full aria is now sung at Christine's audition. The metaphor about resisting the rule of a tyrant and refusing to bend to an unfair higher law is less than subtle, especially with Richard watching the proceedings. Luckily, of course, she aces it because of the Phantom's coaching prowess.

 

15) Scene: 'Giry!'

 

And now, she's the star of the entire opera company! That was fast, wasn't it?

 

16) Speech: 'I'll Never Forget'

 

Gaston breaks into the story here to tell us that the drama backstage was just as complicated as the drama of the operas onstage. Naw. That never happens. Anybody else sense a comment on the inherent drama of this story, which is set in an opera house which is a setting for dramas?

 

17) The Mini-Opera (Finally)

 

The Phantom is presented here as fundamentally lonely, rather than intentionally antisocial, another change to make the character more palatable for a child audience. It's about here that it becomes blindingly clear that there will be no romantic ties between him and Christine; rather, he begins to treasure her presence as his only friend, the only person who shares his passion for music and makes him feel wanted by the world above. I can only presume that Spencer didn't want to put any icky teacher/student inappropriate relationships in front of the kiddies, which I think we can all appreciate.

 

Meanwhile, Richard and Madame Giry are trying to decide on an opera to perform for the new season, and their in-and-out conversation is one of the few truly hilarious moments in the show. I won't go through the whole catalogue of suggested and rejected shows, but my favorite exchange is Madame Giry's suggestion of, "I Pagliaccio?", followed by Richard's refusal of, "No. I'm scared of clowns."

 

And here, we're going to get a new perspective on Carlotta, which is always interesting. While she is about to take on an antagonist role, much as she did in the 1990 miniseries or the 1993 Kopit/Yeston musical it was based on, she will at least have a more sympathetic basis for doing so; having been summarily replaced by Christine thanks to the new owner, she is both outraged by the action and confused as to why the Phantom isn't doing anything about it. After all, the Phantom is known to despise change and to cause difficulty until his wishes are enacted, so the diva is very upset and confused as to why he isn't defending her as he always defends the opera house and its inhabitants. The idea of Carlotta and the Phantom being on the same side seldom comes up in Phantom stories, usually because he's "in charge" instead of the owner that has taken over that role here. At any rate, Carlotta manages to sell Richard on the opera that she thinks Christine should perform, and there's a lot of ominous doom and gloom about how it'll be terrible, etc.

 

In fact, it is so terrible that Gaston pops in again to inform us of it with the immortal line, "With that, we all arrived at the point of no return." Groannnn. I'm sure that's a commandment... Thou Shalt Not Quote Other Musicals In Thine Own Derivative Musical. If it's not, it should be.

 

18) Scene: 'The Big Announcement'

 

The opera in question turns out to be Faust. I couldn't laud this faithfulness to the original material all that much, because I was too busy sniggering over the ridiculous way it was handled. Oh, really? Paris has never seen Faust in 1881, even though it debuted (in Paris, I might add) twenty-three years previous and was by Gounod, one of the most beloved of French opera composers? Even though it's been one of the most-performed staples of the Paris Opera House's repertoire since 1862? No, no. This is a totally new opera. Never before seen! Come one, come all!

 

In fact, after the entire opera house panics over the announcement of the opera and it is explained that The Great Opera House Fire (aha!) occurred the last time they tried to perform it, it begins to look like they've confused Faust with Macbeth, which is often considered to be a "cursed" show (anyone remember that 1987 Argento/Barberini film?) and which was indeed quite out of favor around 1881. But who cares what I think? It's not like the kids, again, would have any idea that Faust is one of the most popular French operas of all time.

 

19) Scene: 'I've Got the Score'

 

Then the Phantom and Christine have a spat over it, because she wants to make her debut and he has a violent reaction to the idea of that particular show being staged here. More nonsense abounds about how the show has never been performed, including a lot of contradictory statements (how can it simultaneously be "never before seen in Paris" and "one of the great roles"?).

 

Gee. I wonder what could possibly make the Phantom so cranky about this particular show. If only there were some heavy-handed exposition and foreshadowing to tell me!

 

20) The One Who Has to Sing

 

Christine, in perhaps her first glimmer of critical thinking ever, is beginning to question this "angel" business. She's pretty sure angels don't slam doors like peevish teenagers when crossed.

 

21) Scene: 'I'm Not Your Angel'

 

But she's still quite willing to talk to her dead daddy, out loud, all the time, so there's some more of that now. Luckily, the Phantom bursts in to inform her, deeply aggrieved, as to the reason he is so violently opposed to Faust's performance. You see (be prepared for le shock), he was a singer at the opera some years ago and was set to star in Faust, but then the Great Fire broke out and he was set ablaze and his face was disfigured! Christine is only made curious by this shocking, totally unanticipated revelation. I am only made annoyed, since I hate it when people claim something "exploded" in their faces and that's where their scars come from. I hated it in the 1974 Levitt/Cassidy film, and I hate it here. Nobody's face survives a close-up explosion with minor cosmetic scarring; it has, you see, exploded. But anyway. The fire and disfigurement of the star seem to be pulled straight from the 1995 Yu/Cheung film, though of course there were elements of them present in that film's 1937 predecessor.

 

22) And I Awoke

 

Time for Emo Hour. After threatening to drop the chandelier if Christine insists on performing this show (by the way, that's the closest anybody's going to get to any chandelier... again, small budget), the Phantom launches into his tirade about staggering out of the burned wreckage of the opera house and being shunned, stoned, and generally treated like a monster by his fellow men. The wandering the streets bit reminds me somewhat of the 1943 Lubin/Rains film, but that's all I got, here. The screaming mob that calls him a monster and a devil and calls for his destruction is patently ridiculous; he's obviously injured, having obviously just been through a fire, which might excite some disgust and pity but would hardly provoke the same response that Leroux's Erik's skeletal death's-head would. But for the kids, the blaringly obvious moral - Don't Be Mean To People For Being Different - carries, so at least they're learning something worthwhile (it sure ain't French history).

 

23) Scene: 'The Only Place I Can Live'

 

So that's why the Phantom hates change (we're going to talk about it in the exposition now, in case you weren't paying attention to the subtext, kids): he wants to hang onto the glory days of the opera, because those were his glory days, too, before the fire. Christine, who is totally not worried about the fact that he just threatened to flatten people with a light fixture, takes a page from the Kopit/Yeston playbook and demands that the Phantom show her his face. She is not willing to take no for an answer, and when she gets grabby he lashes out and accidentally knocks her out. Wow. Way to be a douchebag, everyone involved.

 

24) Scene: 'Chase Through the Catacombs'

 

Of course, everyone thinks that the Phantom attacked their new diva, and there is a great hue and cry and torches and pitchforks spring up out of nowhere and off they go, running down the tunnels. The mob hunt, in spite of used in several previous film versions of the story, is probably borrowed from Lloyd Webber's musical (after all, so much else in this show is). In another Lloyd-Webber-like turn (and one reminiscent, again, of Carriere's behavior in the Kopit/Yeston version), Madame Giry is helping him to escape unharmed. Somebody tries to shoot him, though of course they don't succeed because you can't shoot people in a kids' show.

 

And then we find out that Madame Giry IS TOTALLY THE PHANTOM'S MOM. She really is Carriere from the Kopit/Yeston musical! This is the first time I've ever seen this particular choice in relations, though I'm sure, given the truckloads of material still waiting on my shelves, that it probably isn't the last.

 

25) In the World Above

 

The Phantom gets caught, of course, but a freshly-conscious Christine stops anyone from spitting him and, after some more angsting about how the upper world is barred to him, everyone encourages the Phantom to buck up and rejoin society. Come on! It's easy! We'll like you! Dreams always come true if you just belieeeeve! Madame Giry herself informs him that, "Christine is your angel! She can help you return to the stage!" Ah. It's like undiluted Disney.

 

26) Scene: 'The Reveal'

 

Some angel. Christine demands that the Phantom (who mentions his name here - once - as Erik, though again I suspect that has more to do with the Kopit/Yeston musical than with the original novel) remove his mask as his traditional debut gift to her. But, of course, contrary to previous musical versions, nobody minds the scarring and it's all happiness and acceptance and fluffy bunnies and puppies with ice cream cones, and everyone realizes that there's nothing wrong with being different and the Phantom gets to go off and live happily ever after above ground like everybody else. Whee!

 

27) Someone Different (Finale)

 

Then, of course, the finale, which is just a recap of the "Accept Others Who Are Different!" moral set to the same music from the beginning of the show. The brightest spot is when it seems that even Spencer is aware of spreading it too thick: at one point the cast starts to repeat the moral, and someone objects, "But we just--!" only to be cut off with someone else's long-suffering, "Just in case."

 

So that's the show. But wait. I have some sort of lingering feeling that something's been forgotten. You know? That somewhere, in the mess of morality and specious conclusions, something might have fallen by the waysi...

 

Oh, my god. RAOUL. What happened to him? That poor, poor boy, entirely excised from the story of which he is purportedly the hero! Sacrificed on the altar of removing the romantic relationships to make the story more kiddie-friendly and less violent! He will be mourned.

 

So there we have it. Take a tub of Lloyd Webber, add three Kopit/Yeston eggs and beat thoroughly, then leaven with a cup of Weibang/Sheng and a tumbler of Yu/Cheung and add a sprinkling of any of the previous film versions to taste. Voila: Creme de la Barron/Spencer.

 

In the end, the show does what it sets out to do, which is hopefully keeping the children from driving their mothers to violence and simultaneously attempting to instill some sort of morality into the space currently occupied entirely by hair-pulling and snot. So it's not a failure; just very, very, very much not an insightful adaptation of the story by any kind of measure you want to think up.

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