The Phantom of the Opera (1975)

     by Ivan Jacobs

          starring Chester Ludgin and others uncredited

Thanks to gracious help from the Joyce Agency, which now owns and tours this show, I now have a wealth of new information about it that I didn't when this review was first written!  According to their representative, writing for the show was begun some time in the 70s but it first debuted in the early 80s, orchestrations were by Larry Hochman of The Book of Mormon fame, and the role of Didot was originally sung by the excellent Chester Ludgin, an American operatic badass who I wish I'd been cool enough to see perform in person.  Raoul, while he does not sing in the ending of the show, is present all the way through rather than vanishing mysteriously (darn you, incomplete information!), and the Phantom does not die at the end, though the agency would prefer everyone check out the show instead of me telling you what does happen to him.  We are assured, however, that it is "romantic, revealing, sad and uplifting".


The dramas I went through just to get this musical, let alone find any information on it (apparently it sprang fully-formed from Jacobs' forehead like Athena from Zeus'), would boggle your mind. I think it's from the seventies, although it looks like it might not have been debuted until the early eighties (at least according to the Joyce Agency, which currently owns it and administers the rights). It likes to bill itself as the first Phantom musical ever, which means it would need to predate the first 1976 incarnation of the Hill production; all I can say about that is that it might have been written first, but it doesn't look like it made it to the stage first.
 
Many other things about this show are also a mystery. Who is singing on this cast recording? I have no idea, other than knowing that Chester Ludgin, an operatic badass, is singing the role of Didiot.  After scouring used CD shops and the previously inexhaustible storehouses of the internet, I finally only managed to get a copy of this via a Phantom fan who found it kicking around in her attic and kindly sent it to me. It came with no information and no clues. It is an enigma, wrapped inside a riddle, jammed into a jewel case.
 
Interestingly, a few different places on the internet claim that this musical is directly based upon the Kenley/Noll play, which seems to have been verified by the Joyce Agency, though since that came out in 1988 I'm not sure of the timeline. Plus they seem to have very little in common, plot-wise. Plus I do not even know anymore, guys. Mystery reviews: where Anne wanders around in circles, looking sad and bewildered by her lack of information.


Overture: 


The introduction to the overture is probably my favorite part of this entire musical (which means it's all downhill from here, but what can you do?). Quiet tremolo violins over deep-voiced drums provide a chilling contrast that is only heightened by the introduction of horns and frantic strings in minor keys. I really wish this is something that could have been sustained later in the musical; while it sets a fantastically creepy mood, the plot veers off into He's Just Misunderstood territory pretty quickly and Jacobs doesn't sustain the sinister vibe, which is a shame since it would have helped the Phantom look less like an emo kid acting out against his parents by the end of the show.

The rest of the overture makes its standard journey through all of the themes-to-be of the show; a sprightly violin tune for Christine, which is quickly swamped by creepy stalker music, followed by a return to the same innocent theme, a nice interplay of contrasts. Hard on their heels, the love theme has a very classic musical theatre feel to it, which will characterize a lot of the rest of the show as well. By the end, I was torn between loving it for being so different and thoughtful and dreading continuing once I realized that I couldn't remember a single melody line from it. Seriously, I finished listening to this score literally ten minutes ago and I can't remember anything but isolated shouty chords. Uh-oh.


The Opera:


This musical suffers from a lot of mismatch of lyrics and music. Sometimes one is fantastic, but it usually means that the other is mediocre at best. In this case, great lines about the nature of opera ("So much is created... you never know what is there,") have less impact than they should thanks to somewhat uninspired orchestration, though all is forgiven when the badass baritone playing the Phantom rolls in halfway through the track, followed by a Christine who obviously knows her stuff. Jacobs obviously grasps the idea that an opera house is the perfect setting for this kind of a drama and plays it up, using what appears to be a Greek chorus of randomly expositing people (hey, it's theatre tradition - you want to say Aeschylus was wrong?); while this is an ancient convention used to good effect even in modern pieces (Sweeney Todd comes to mind), it lacks flow throughout the musical and thus feels a little bit random when actually employed, much to my sadness.
 
The singers are obviously real singers - Christine and the Phantom are clearly operatically trained, and while Raoul's tenor is lighter and less full than theirs, he is obviously also a pro. Interestingly, the traditional opera voice-part delineation is used here - soprano for the heroine, tenor for the hero and baritone for the villain - despite the fact that the story will later take a heavily sympathetic turn when it comes to the Phantom.
 
Raoul, it should be noted, has come to the opera this evening with the specific aim of finding Christine in mind; he hasn't seen her in a decade, but when he learns that she will be singing rushes to the theatre to rekindle their relationship anyway. The change from the mere coincidence of their meeting in Leroux's novel makes Raoul a much more active character, pursuing Christine intentionally (and, one must assume, without real ulterior motives, since he has no idea what she looks like now that she's an adult and she's hardly a financial catch), as well as giving him more of a foundation as a dude who genuinely cares about her.
 
The ensemble finale to the piece is a great moment for this show, tying together as it does all the concepts that center on the opera. The entire ensemble acknowledges the opera as the most central thing in their worlds (which, by extension, allows the Phantom to share in that position), and the feeling of helplessness that permeates their lines as they force themselves to complete the performance to the best of their abilities really enhances the Phantom's frightening image (lines such as "the heavenly voice that allows no other choice" help drive this home, also). Everyone in this piece is risking something; Raoul must face the possibility that his lost love doesn't return his feelings, Christine is all too conscious that her entire future rides on her debut, the Phantom shares both problems, and the cast and crew of the opera house itself are terrified of the Phantom whenever they have to put on a show under his watchful, invisible eye.


Apart From You:


Whoever this mystery baritone playing the Phantom is, he's a good choice (he gets spottier later on, but I think some of that is intentional and intended to represent his mental unraveling). His voice is at turns both impressive and terrifying.

The gist of the piece is that the bond between Christine and her "Angel" is an extraordinary one that enhances both of their artistic talents; lines such as "Apart from you there is no music; apart from you there is no joy" typify the libretto here, which is mediocre but not actively poor. The song's melody line and orchestration is, again, very classic musical theatre - lots of Rodgers & Hammerstein-style sweeping strings and chord resolutions - which is refreshing in its own way, though again it fails to be memorable enough to sustain itself for long.

In addition to the internal monologue song they're indulging in, singing in their own brains about music and joy and whatever else, there's also a song being practiced in the midst of the song, with the Phantom exhorting Christine to ever greater heights of perfection and technique. The double layer of melodies is more aurally interesting than just one would be, and the Phantom does a very credible job of sounding like an overbearing but talented impresario.


Break a Leg:


Things start to get weird here. Not in that Carlotta is, it turns out, generally disliked by the company - this should surprise no one who has ever seen a modern interpretation of the story, though as usual I wish a more inventive way could have been found to either prevent the audience from feeling too much sympathy for her or develop her reasons for being so terrible to everyone - and the other performers use the traditional theatre blessing of "Break a leg!" with considerably more venom than is generally intended. Since I have no liner notes or anything, it's also possible, considering the rest of the piece, that they aren't talking about Carlotta at all but about another reigning diva in the opera house, possibly one connected to the ballerinas (Sorelli! Is that you?!).

No, the weird part is when a scolding, deeply overdramatic matron begins shouting in outrage at the crewmembers doing the teasing, accusing them of subverting her daughter. I suppose I have to assume that this is Madame Giry, especially since said daughter is obviously a ballerina, though I was briefly excited by the idea of Carlotta's mother making an appearance again as she did in the 1925 Julian/Chaney film. Considering that her daughter is a ballerina, it makes sense that Giry views the phrase "break a leg" as considerably more sinister than a singer might, but her overdramatic antics and scenery-chewing get tiring really quickly. The constant innuendo in the piece suggests that the stagehands are all very familiar with a certain lady, if you know what I mean, though whether this is the mysterious possible-Sorelli or Meg herself is unclear.

For extra bonus weird, Meg is about to make her big-role debut by dancing in a ballet based upon the life of the Marquis de Sade. She seems completely unfazed by this, and indeed there is heavy implication that little Giry has already embarked upon quite a few sexual adventures of her own, but her mother insists that she will become corrupted her if she is allowed to dance in such a scandalous piece and continues to throw a hissy fit for three more straight minutes while Meg gyrates about, demonstrating salacious moves from the ballet while flirting mercilessly with the stagehands right under her mother's nose. Giry finally gives up with a "You're going straight to the convent!" and stalks off, though not before letting us know that she believes the Phantom has hypnotized her daughter into this kind of behavior. Yes, well, whatever lets you sleep better at night, boxkeeper lady. Let Meg live already.

The music itself seems to be oddly Spanish-flavored, which, again, is weird.


What You Believe:


Christine is trying, I'm sure, but she's kind of frustratingly inconsistent throughout the rest of the show. Despite the fact that she currently still believes the Phantom to be her Angel (I promise she does. You will know when she stops believing that), the second he leaves her lesson she starts in with all the "Oh! A devil or angel!" and "Oh! Do I love him or abhor him?!" business, which makes little sense because she ostensibly doesn't think he's a person right now and has no reason to abhor him whatsoever even if she did. The dichotomy of those concepts is of course an important part of the story, but introducing them before they're present is... well, it doesn't work very well, we'll just leave it at that. I will note, however, that the fact that she is never assailed by doubt until he leaves points to the heavy amount of influence he has over her.

If Christine is more unsure and unstable than usual, the Phantom is less so than one would expect, which is disappointing, actually. He's very humanand pretty even-keeled - even this early in the game he's already monologuing about being unsure what to do about his romantic feelings for Christine and trying to analyze his own emotions, all of it in a surprisingly rational fashion for your average Phantom. He also mentions how much he dislikes the concept of "tomorrow", which will be explained in the next song so we can stop wondering what he's talking about.

After the layers of fantasy presented in the first few songs, however, he has a great line when it comes to what finding out the truth does to them: "Reality kills."


Do You Know?:


The Phantom's big monologue here concerns "Tomorrow, tomorrow - I want today!" and generally concerns his hatred of the fact that he's spent most of his life waiting for an elusive better tomorrow and never seems to have anything go well in the present. This is going to be a repeated theme later, which is the main reason I mention it, since sadly it isn't very well-developed and thus also not very interesting.

Erik - because we now know that his name is, indeed, Erik, though we didn't need too much confirmation that this is primarily Leroux-based - begins talking in the third person here, much to my delight, snapping, "Erik does not need you!" and sundry other declamatory statements to some invisible person. My inclination is to assume that he's talking to the daroga, though said daroga has no singing part (if he's even in this show at all), but it's usually to the daroga that Erik jumps into his third-person rants, and the rest of the song's lyrics seem to indicate that he's arguing with someone who disapproves of his relationship with Christine. Of course, it's also possible he's just talking to himself, Gollum-style. I really can't tell.

He also refers to Christine as "Madonna, my divine Christine!", which is a great image, capturing as it does purity, motherhood, and worshipfulness on his part, not to mention the overtones of religious salvation. I love it when representation is done right!

The increasingly driving rhythm of the song, combined with jarring percussion, seems to indicate that Erik has boarded the Overemotional Express by this point in the story, a bit of a quick shift considering his rational behavior in the last song; it's possible that he's reacting to the introduction of Raoul, whom he mentions obliquely in passing, or that he's just one of those interpretations of the Phantom that suffers from wild mood swings. It sounds a lot like he kills somebody at the end of this song (Buquet?), but I can't prove it. Argh! Mystery musical, why are you so mysterious?


Today:


Erik here refers to "the other rats of the Paris Opera House", counting himself among their number, and further goes on to imply that he thinks of them as friends (or at least companions in squalor). While this musical ostensibly predates both the 1988 Wellen short story and the 1998 Argento/Sands film, it's interesting to see the concept present and to wonder about its origins, not to mention whether or not it might have influenced either of those two versions.

He's obviously gone fully off the rails by this point, though I'm not entirely sure why - the masquerade scene hasn't yet happened (I think) and Raoul is kind of only a peripheral threat to his plans at the moment. Nevertheless, here he is killing a guy (possibly in front of Christine, or at least while talking to her even if she isn't there), ranting about how he's tired of being Mr. Nice Phantom, and ghoulishly crowing, "Now you will see what it is like to be without a face!" Gross. Heh.

The title of the song refers to that same concept of tomorrow versus today, and reflects the Phantom's shift from being content to wait for tomorrow - that is, hopefully Christine's acceptance of him and the bloom of a relationship - to deciding to take today into his own hands. There's an underlying current of him having lost hope, which points to perhaps some overheard interaction between Christine and Raoul that isn't on the recording. He has absolutely no interest in letting her go so she'll come back to him as in Leroux's novel, and says the exact opposite point-blank; this also makes me wonder if his sudden turn down Bad Ideas Boulevard is due to him having been unmasked in this scene.

By the end of the song, it's a trio, though I have no idea if Christine and Raoul are actually there or what, in fact, is going on. There are some scores that allow a listener to construct a decent idea of the story even without seeing the non-musical dialogue, but this is definitely not one of them.


No One Must Know:


We're back to the idea of rats again, but this time Erik is comparing the nobility and performers of the opera house to them in a pejorative manner. Dude, you need to decide which side you are on re: rats. Argento has taught us that straddling the line only leads to heartbreak.

The music itself does a decent job of combining ominous motifs with a theme gamely struggling to try to retain its gaeity, painting a good picture of the contrast between the atmosphere of the masquerade and the dampening effects of the Phantom's presence. The modes and chord choices, however, are pretty much totally forgettable, and like most of the rest of the show, the song in general is not much on the memorable side (which is a sad fact considering that I think it might be the most memorable piece in the whole shebang). The exception to this is a sudden motif that sounds astonishingly similar to "In My Life" from the Schoenberg/Boubil musical Les Miserables, which is something of a surprise considering that said musical didn't come out until 1980. Whether this is me uncovering the plagiarism scandal of the century or just coincidence we will never know.

The Greek chorus has returned, this time with a lead singer who reminds me of Mr. Midnight from the 1995 Danova musical, desperately declaiming that no one must ever know who the Red Death is. Further lines hint at a sympathetic and even entitled feeling for the Phantom, culminating in the phrase, "No one can love like he loves her; no one can suffer such pain." An interesting possibility is that the leader of the chorus here, so to speak, might be the daroga talking to Raoul, which would be borne out later in the song when Raoul takes over as the central drama queen of the piece by using several of the same lines, referring to his ten-year separation from Christine in the same light as the Phantom's many-year obsession with her.

Masks, obviously, are powerful symbols. Erik's mask, in particular, is a very recognizable example of this. I applaud composers and writers who use mask ideas in Phantom-related adaptations, because it would be silly to ignore them; but, sadly, most of the mask metaphors in this song (and the others in the show) are way too heavy-handed and over-obvious to be effective, especially all this overwrought business about "being" the mask. I wanted to like it, but it was a good idea with a bad presentation.

Much more interesting is the internal conflict Raoul is displaying, a facet of the original novel frequently overlooked; he despairingly admits that he feels like he should shun Christine for her low status and ability to make him miserable, but finds himself unable to do so because of his love for her, rendering him unable to "protect" himself. This is quite appropriate for his state by the time Leroux's novel gets to the masquerade, when he's about to start crying from frustration at the mysterious nature of their relationship and her perceived betrayals.


Living on the Edge:


It's time for something I don't think I've actually seen in any previous adaptation, and which makes me super excited: Jacobs is devoting some time to Christine's and Raoul's little fight when they sneak away from the masquerade to talk. Of course, they get way more personal and direct here than they do in the novel, which significantly changes the tenor of the argument, but it's not an invalid choice for representing the heated exchange to a modern audience.

Raoul, who is not pulling any punches once he gets mad at her, has a nice line when he accuses, "You're in love with the thrill of danger instead of the dangers of love!" (Well, I mean, it's nice in the sense that it's a decent sum-up of the Phantom's attraction for Christine, not nice in the sense of actually making any sense.) This is basically the theme of the entire song, in which he accuses her of being a thrill-seeker who prefers Erik and is only playing with him, referring to himself as "an angel's pawn". I did a little clap-dance in my cubicle when Raoul alluded to his, "And to think!..." line from the novel, though he doesn't come right out and say it.

Christine, however, is a free spirit who can't be tied down; she argues that Erik has changed her life and Raoul is probably just going to leave her like a jerk, and besides she is a career woman and he should respect that. I love the fact that the fight's included at all, even if at the end I am... kind of unsure if that might have been Raoul's exit from the story. I was later informed that it wasn't, and that he will remain around, being valiant, until the end of the show, but we won't hear him on the recording, so you'll just have to imagine any further gallantry and/or weeping on his part.

This piece takes a lot of modal chances, which is brave and laudable, but sadly most of them don't really work. The idea of anger and chaos comes across very well, but the melody is too atonal and choppy to really enjoy even under those circumstances, and frequently even the singers sound unsure of whether they're doing it right or just hitting a note that is probably in the right quarter-tone area.


A Flower or a Tree:


We're about to return to the weird parts of the show. Buckle up.

Christine finds out about Erik's human nature here, rather late for most stories, and has a gratifyingly strong reaction. It helps offset the fact that I'm intensely confused as to her prior behavior if she really didn't know; I mean, she's been all but declaring she's in love with him in very concrete and future-planning terms, and there's been no mention in any previous versions of any Mother of the Nephilim ambitions as far as I can tell. The "Oh my god you're human!" business doesn't quite jibe with the "I love you with passionate mortal passion!" stuff... at least, not from what I can tell from the recording, but then again they might be handling it better during the spoken dialogue. I have no idea.

Erik, desperate to win back her affection, embarks upon a bizarre metaphor in which he asks, "What is a man, a flower or a tree?" I swear to you I have listened to this song several times and am barely any closer to figuring out what the hell he's talking about. Apparently trees are bad, in Erik's opinion, and flowers are good. Trees are posers - Raoul is trying to be a tree! - while flowers are more honest and open about love. Or something. She thinks she wants a tree, but really she wants an unabashed flower like himself, Erik. I... is this a dirty euphemism? I think it has something to do with the idea that men should be allowed to have squishy feelings, too, so flower-men are embracing that and showing their true selves while tree-men are trying too hard to keep themselves strong and impervious. Or something. The point is that Erik is a beauteous flower and Christine should appreciate that.

There's a great deal of dialogue straight from Leroux's text in this song, primarily the poignant lines - mention of Erik's mother giving him his first mask, etc. - which is always nice to hear, particularly because this flower-and-tree metaphor is limping along really painfully and we could use the relief. Christine's agonized cries about her own naivete are made more poignant by her fight with Raoul earlier, since she now realizes that she was defending and basing her choices on something that wasn't real at all. It's nice to see her taking responsibility; I may not understand her very well in this show, but she seems to be a strong character and I appreciate strong Christines who follow in the tradition of Leroux's quietly strong lady.

We get some backstory for Erik here, where he informs us that his mother abandoned him at a playground in his youth and he was raised by his father, who built the Opera. This is an interesting idea; it could be a long-ago precursor to Carriere in the 1991 Yeston/Kopit musical, or, even more intriguing, this could be an implication that the Phantom is Garnier's son. That's an idea I'm surprised nobody's pursued before - it certainly makes sense (as much as anything does in context of the story, and if you fudge the dates a bit) and has very interesting avenues of exploration to it. There won't be any exploring here, but at least the idea was present. He also whinges on for a bit about how he used to go out barefaced into Paris and get Quasimodo-style harangued with shouts and thrown fruit, which is overdramatic at best.

It turns out that Erik didn't get unmasked earlier in the show, or at least not by Christine, because she insists that she needs to see his face in order to trust him enough to remain in love with him - a low blow for Erik and again very reminiscent of the Yeston/Kopit version of the story, particularly the 1990 Richardson/Dance screen adaptation. My bewailing of a lack of timeframe and proper context for this show continues.

Erik's voice breaks and jumps like a fourteen-year-old's when he talks about his face; while it's a little on the hyper-dramatic side, it's also effective and makes sense considering that it's the source of all his neuroses. It's one of the only vaguely interesting facets to this song, actually, which is basically just a huge, extended recitative conversation between Erik and Christine, completely lacking in musical inventiveness. I mean, I like clever recitative, but this is just boring recitative. Sondheim Jacobs ain't.

Whoa, whoa, whoa, Christine - what exactly do you mean by "the girl you turned into a woman"?! Has there been behind-the-scenes hanky-panky with a masked angel? These would be important things to know! I'm pretty sure she's just being metaphorical about his mentorship and blah blah blah, but what if she's not? Argh! She also freely admits to being in love with him, which is both a bit hard to swallow following her very recent flailings over discovering his mortal nature and a bit surprising, as is Erik's apparent lack of reaction to it.

By the end of the song, Christine is now the flower? I think? Perhaps they are flowers together?


I Am Loved:


Ah, there's the acknowledgment. Erik, you are some serious dramatic monologue-slinging kind of a dude. The hyperbole's starting to get to me, though - you've been down here for a thousand years, eh?

As usual, I'm not one hundred percent sure what's going on here. I think he's talking to someone - possibly that elusive daroga again, since he addresses someone as "my dearest friend" and is giving the classic "I am loved for myself!" monologue he gave him in the novel - and apparently Christine has already kissed him, which is somewhat confusing since we are not yet at the end of the story. Considering the way things have been going, I doubt it was the chaste Leroux kiss, though there's also no real evidence of the makin' out from the Lloyd Webber side of the scale, either. He mentions several times in passing that he's a good deal older than Christine, something I always like to see addressed, though nobody really does anything else with it.

The melody's one of the nicer ones for the show, but it's still less than coherent and the song finishes off with a way unnecessarily-long coda that killed my vague thoughts of approbation.


Opera Biche:


Dude, we've been so mired in Underground Emo Theatre that I forgot there was anything going on upstairs. This is Carlotta's big number, which is a bit strange considering its late placement in the show; she's presented as very Italian (in the vein of other interpretations, most notably the 1943 Lubin/Rains film and Lloyd Webber and its descendents), very loud, and very promiscuous, thus ensuring that we know it's okay not to feel sorry for her. Her actress does one of the best jobs I've ever heard of sounding like shit in spite of herself, however, which lends irony to the lyrics, which are all about how they can think what they want about her personality but she had to have talent to come this far. She's a very obvious representation, along with the earlier ballet scene, of the time period's perceptions of performers as sexually loose.

What actually happens here? Who the fuck knows? The song ends and everyone appears to still be alive and doing stuff.


The Glow:


The unmasking has occurred just before this song, which appears to be full of angst and aftermath; this is also the last number, and the rearrangement of events, as near as I can tell, fundamentally changes the story, making it one about Erik and Christine and their doomed romance, which survives Raoul's presence but cannot survive her fear of his face. Kidnapping, murdering, yes, that all happened peripherally, but the Phantom's more frightening qualities are seriously glossed over.

My favorite line of the show is here, though, when Erik snaps, "I'm fantastic but not a fool." It's a poignant line when you use the original meaning of the word fantastic.

As near as I can tell, Erik and Christine have actually been officially lovers for a little while here, or at least courting, all of which is ruined when she panics after seeing his face (oh, she tries to apologize, but it's TOO LATE YOU LITTLE HATER ERIK IS HAVING NONE OF IT). Erik in turn claims dramatically that he had never cried in his life before meeting her, which seems pretty specious considering what a ridiculous sack of maudlin potatoes he is in this show. Interestingly, he refers to her here as the "Angel of Music" - a crossing of the concept that has mostly been seen in Lloyd Webber's musical and its progeny, though it's obviously one that translates well to most versions of the story.

I giggled a bit when Erik tried to explain his expertise in love; you see, he's watched all the grand operas, seen all the greatest romances unfold on stage, so he's an expert in matters of romance and the heart. He is serious when he says this; while that would be laughably naive from most people, if he grew up only in the opera house it's likely that the shows are his only window into the interactions of people in the outside world, and I'm not surprised that he took them on faith. It's a neat idea, though mostly ignored besides this one mention. At least we know where his penchant for over-the-top dramatics comes from, now.

 

From the recording, my original guesses about this ending reconstructed a scenario about the Phantom booting Christine out of his lair and Raoul being gone or possibly dead, and then the Phantom dying of a broken heart. Apparently this was all incorrect, though, and this is the first musical ever wherein Christine tells Raoul she's going to stay with Erik and doesn't, in fact, escape to the rest of the world. The inconsistent piecemeal nature of both this show and my copy of it makes it hard for me to have an opinion on it, since I can't tell hwo well-developed their relationship actually is. And then we're done, as mysteriously and confusingly as we started.

While this is not a bad effort, it has precious few interesting things going on and really nothing to recommend it above others, not even the bizarrely reversed and moved-around plot. It's the sort of show I worry about falling asleep during, but at least I didn't hate it, and with me, that counts for something.

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