Phantom of the Opera

     by Walter Murphy

You know what's great for taking your mind off all your woes in life? Disco.

 

Walter Murphy is a dude who, back in the seventies, made something of a name for himself by re-arranging classical music in disco form, thus fusing sparkly electronic music with classical tone patterns. These days, some may be entertained to learn, he is composing (and winning Emmys for!) music for the Seth MacFarlane animated TV series Family Guy and American Dad.

 

This particular piece is a bit odd to categorize, because it's not technically a musical - it was never intended for staged dramatic performance as far as I know, and has no script attached - but also not really just a concept album, since it directly follows the Phantom story from beginning to end. In the end, I just ended up referring to it as "the album" all the time, because damn if I know what else to do with it. Damn thing is very hard to find on cassette tape and has never been released on CD; it's much more common on second-hand LP and 8-track, though, so if you've still got a player for either of those around, the wonders in store may still be available to you.

 

Introduction:

 

The introduction is simply a thirty-second clip of Bach's Toccata and Fugue in D Minor, one of the most recognizable organ pieces in existence. I love that toccata, so I made a little squeal, and it's also very appropriate for a Phantom story, both because of the original Erik's organ-playing and because it's a very beautiful and complicated but also very menacing-sounding piece of music.

 

The Phantom of Your Dreams:

 

And then, pow! The funk begins. This is a much more modern, disco-rock style song, full of electric guitars and powered by a slightly nasal-sounding male voice, which I believe is Murphy himself (sadly, the singers aren't credited, so I don't know for sure, but I think that Murphy plays the Phantom while the singers for Christine and Raoul are lost to the mists of time). He sounds a bit like Kermit the Frog to me in this song, though, of course, your mileage may vary. The song switches back to the toccata in the middle, with the organ juxtaposed over other parts of the fugue being echoed in drum and piano, creating an interesting aural effect before returning to the regular, un-classically-embellished chorus.

 

The lyrics are very appropriate and set the character up as a semi-supernatural, mysterious figure, making references to invading the "catacombs of your mind" and asserting that "I'm the music you think you hear", suggesting that this is addressed at least in part to Christine. In fact, the lyrics occasionally seem a bit out of place in contrast to the very quick-tempo, major-key popular music framing them, but the overall effect is a good one, of something dangerous presenting itself as something enjoyable.

 

Dance Your Face Off:

 

The title has obvious significance when we're dealing with a character that has an extremely hideous face that isolates him from the world - that is, a faceless character. The suggestion is present that other people may in fact be in danger of losing their faces, or, alternatively, that some activity in which they are participating (presumably opera performance, based on the story's setting and the presence of the performance word "dance" in the title) may have caused the character himself to lose his face.

 

This is an instrumental disco-funk piece, which nicely sets the stage by representing the bustle of life at the opera house (or, possibly, even an actual performance going on at said auditorium). It's nothing particularly dazzling, but enjoyable enough if you like the style.

 

I'm Your Man:

 

The same disco-funk trend continues here, but now with heavy use of horns and saxophones, staple instruments that will continue through most of the rest of the album. The song is, like the first one, sung by Murphy as the Phantom, and, also like the first one, the melodic line seems almost too upbeat for the lyrics. Ostensibly a sort of cheerful love song to the object of the Phantom's affections, the song contains lines such as "if you want to get them to listen/Just stand next to me/You'll be given undivided attention" or "believe me, girl, if I'm around/Whatever's in your way is gonna tumble down", which seem like innocuous enough protestations of affection and the song could easily be interpreted as a very generic one without prior knowledge of the plot.

 

In context, of course, those lines become more than a little bit sinister, and the effect is a cute one that invites those "in the know" to be in on the riddle while others might have no inkling until the end. The barely-there suggestion of things to come gives the listener a good background for why Christine might have viewed this person as a safe, helpful individual, and, interestingly enough, the frequent use of the word "man" and the general appealing aspect of the song makes the Phantom seem like a much more human figure than he otherwise might.

 

And there are Bee Gees-style falsetto whoops here and there, so what more do you want?

 

A Night at the Opera:

 

Another instrumental; in fact, it looks like the entire album is pretty much laid out that way, with the pieces in instrumental-vocal-instrumental-vocal order.

 

This is a much more tempo-driven piece, with a more recognizable rock beat beneath the same use of horns and what sounds like an electric organ. Again, because of the title, one assumes that this is a performance taking place at the opera house, possibly even Christine's debut performance, considering its chronological placement in events. A highly pop-isized (so not a word) version of Beethoven's Ode to Joy is the centerpiece, with extra syncopation and constant electronic instruments beneath a string section and choir in order to keep the piece moving quickly and emphasize its modernization. The idea of a performance is ably communicated, despite the somewhat weird synergy between the two styles.

 

The Music Will Not End:

 

After another very recognizable classical piano introduction, this is the Phantom's love ballad for Christine, sung in a slow, pop-music style. The lyrics are nothing particularly special - they could belong to any love song - but the idea that Christine is personified as music (touched on in the Yeston/Kopit musical's "You Are Music") is an appropriate one for a character who idolizes music as his only escape from an otherwise bleak existence. Various lyrics suggest that she makes him feel "reborn", which refers to his eventual redemption through her, and his descriptions of her as "profound" and "serene" are much more positive and calming than any language used so far on the album.

 

Reverie for Christine:

 

Back to instrumental music. This is the gentlest piece on the album, by far, and is composed mainly of piano and string music over what sounds like cannibalized bits of Beethoven's Moonlight Sonata. The electric organ heard on other parts of the album sneaks in at about three-quarters of the way through, suggesting that the piece is either being physically composed or played by the Phantom, or that it is a mental journey of his.

 

It's worth noting that this is the only place any of the characters are named, aside from the title of the album itself. Raoul and Erik, while certainly and obviously present, are not mentioned by name.

 

Toccata and Funk in D Minor:

 

Bach is back! And much badder than ever, as one would expect from a classical/pop fusion. I love the way that Murphy plays with contrasts here, juxtaposing the fugue itself, played on classical organ with meticulous, fantastic precision, with a drum and electric guitar counterpoint that adds urgency to the sound and roughens things up somewhat. The toccata continues to play mostly uninterrupted for the first half of the piece, after which point straight disco-funk of Murphy's composition takes over for a while, but it's enjoyable popular music, so I have no real complaints (especially since the toccata comes back - with moaning minor-key choirs! - shortly thereafter to finish things off with a bang).

 

Keep Dancin' (Then It's Back to the Dungeon Again):

 

This piece fairly obviously represents the masquerade ball from Leroux's novel (as an aside, I'm fairly certain that this album is almost entirely based either on that novel or on the 1925 Julian/Chaney film; I can find no real influence from other versions anywhere). The lyrics (sung by the Phantom again) reference both Mardi Gras and Carnivale, probably two of the most well-known masked events still celebrated today, and play heavily on the idea of the Phantom being able to enjoy himself in the safety of anonymity as everyone else masks up, too. This, along with the preceding toccata, is the high point of the album, the popular music composed mostly of syncopated piano, counterpoint percussion, and horns and guitars moving the action forward, not to mention a pretty bitchin' guitar solo about halfway through.

 

This is one of the most interesting songs for lyrics, as the Phantom really lets loose and gives us some insight into his inner workings. The idea of a certain amount of sensual physicality is explored when he asserts that he "taught Valentino to tango", and other lines add to the sense of a sexual force. Probably the most intriguing, however, is the little backstory he gives us for himself, in which he says that he was "Singing songs the devil won't sing/In a fit I danced my whole face off/And that's when they elected me king." The infernal symbolism (which, by the way, explains the cover, which is very Faustian and which excited my curiosity from the outset), fanciful though it may be, suggests itself as a metaphor for the original Erik's belief that he was cursed with ugliness because of his foreordained evil nature, and the second half of the line reminds us that, despite his hatred of his condition, it is the very hideousness of his face that gives him so much of his power (obtained, naturally, through the fear of others and the ability to terrorize them).

 

Also, I giggled when he said, "I look so good in red, it's a sin," referring to the Red Death costume. Hee.

 

Gentle Explosion:

 

This piece is obviously softer and more romantic, but it's straight pop-disco, none of that pesky classical nonsense getting in the way of the electronic beat and synthesized instruments. This is Raoul's only song, and the voice is noticeably different from the Phantom's, but damn if I know if it's Murphy again or a completely different singer--I'd bet money on the latter, but unfortunately there is no credit for the singers anywhere on the album, which makes me a sad panda. Despite the uninspired instrumentation and melodic line, the use of a small choir whispering "J'taime" in the background is a nice touch that keeps things tied to the original French drama, and the lyrics rely heavily on warm, sunny imagery, very unlike the Phantom's many songs, in their expression of devotion.

 

You Can't Do That To Me:

 

The Phantom's response song, a disco version of a jealous rage, is surprisingly laid-back in its melody line, major-key and not overly hurried while still managing to sound somewhat menacing. The lyrics help, most of them having to do with his anger over having been "two-timed"; he mentions her "spitting in his face" at one point, but it is impossible to take things seriously after, near the end of the song, he informs Christine that if she messes with him, "Girl, you'll be chicken fricassee". Snort-laugh. A lot of Murphy's lyrics have walked the line between interpretation and silliness, but there's no saving that one.

 

Rescue Me:

 

And we've come to Christine's only song, sung, again, by a woman whose name I don't know because she isn't credited and the internets have failed me in my quest to suss her out. Unsurprisingly, it's a very soft-pop, melodic love song style, as Christine implores Raoul to rescue her from her predicament (one assumes this is post-kidnapping). Interestingly, she waffles between begging for rescue and trying to deter him, using lyrics such as "I'm in a place I hope you'll never be", which nicely captures the original Christine's desire to go to Raoul for comfort but also her fear that he would become too involved and be murdered by a jealous Erik.

 

The Chase, et fin:

 

This part is the biggest clue that the album is probably inspired at least in part by the Julian/Chaney film and its manic carriage-chase ending, as the title suggests a similar scene being played out. The instrumentation and tempo become frenetic; strings sawing away, percussion and pizzicato thumping along at odds with one another, and heavy bass instruments underscoring the possible menace all add to the atmosphere of danger. The music comes to an obvious climax about halfway through, when the music cuts and only near-inaudible bass instruments and a few distant churchbells break the silent tension; I'd hazard a guess that this is the moment in the 1925 film in which the Phantom faces down the mob on the bridge, momentarily seizing control over the situation again. This seems borne out when, a moment later, the piece ends with distinctly funereal organ music.

 

It's certainly a very different take on the story, and interesting because I haven't seen anything quite like it before; however, the music, even allowing for the change in cultural tastes since the disco period, is less than impressive, and the format doesn't allow for a lot of really in-depth examination of the material. But it really is interesting, and a good effort at translating a subject into a difficult medium, so if that sounds intriguing to you (or if you just love you some disco and love you some Phantom and see a bright, beautiful possibility on the horizon) it would definitely be worth a look.

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