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The Phantom of the Opera (1988)

     by John Kenley, Robert Thomas Noll & David


This little stage show claims to be based exclusively on Leroux's novel, which I can't dispute since most of it is pretty identifiably book-based. However, it seems to have been written from a very weird standpoint when it comes to some of the metaphors at work in that fine novel, leaving me at turns pleased by its adherence to the story and totally baffled by its bizarre interpretation.


The music for this piece is primarily borrowed from Gounod's opera Faust, which of course was the centerpiece of much of the action in Leroux's novel; the English translation of the lyrics is actually fairly well-done, getting the point across pretty admirably, and the use of period opera in the modern musical's score is something that seems to point to a little bit of influence from (or at least the same idea as) Hill's 1984 musical.


Interestingly enough, the first lines are narrated by none other than the daroga, named Hassan in this version. Hot damn! The daroga! This is his first appearance ever in a stage show, and he functions well in the role of narrator, bringing Leroux's own use of him in that context to mind. The lines might be somewhat hammy in the wrong hands, but I found that the monologue was also nicely evocative and set up the Phantom fairly well as a mysterious, frightening figure. This fuzzy feeling was pretty much entirely dashed when the stage directions called, a moment later, for the Phantom to swing over the audience on a rope and then disappear while cackling madly, but I suppose that does also help establish the Phantom as a human agency, rather than a supernatural one. It's still the first clue, however, that this musical is going to be chock-full of melodrama.


The element of this show that I found perhaps the most entertaining was the fierce, relentless lampooning of opera singers and their personalities. The lead tenor of the company is renamed Enrico here, an obvious reference to legendary operatic tenor Enrico Caruso; his ridiculous antics and the way that everyone in the cast (including himself, often by accident) mocks his foibles is not only very funny, but also a good example of the kind of stereotype of opera singers that the average modern audience usually already conceives of. Not only that, but Caruso is one of the singers whose voice was recorded and buried in the urns under the Opera Garnier, which Leroux mentions in his novel. It's a very nice touch for opera fans, but the fun doesn't stop there. Carlotta is similarly shamelessly mocked (but, notably, not because she can't sing, which is a common misconception in later versions of the story, most notably in Lloyd Webber's version and those based on it - the chances of a soprano without some serious chops ever becoming the preferred lead in a major opera house in that time period [or any other, for that matter] are almost inconceivably low); while, of course, Kenley and Noll are using the opera singer from Leroux's novel instead of referencing an opera singer of the time to go with Enrico, they take great pleasure in mentioning other divas of the time period as well, including Lilli Lehmann and Adelina Patti, both notoriously difficult divas (and notoriously beautiful voices) of the time period. The campy scenes between Enrico and Carlotta are an unexpected delight, because their vastly overblown characters play into the larger-than-life humor that Kenley and Noll tend to favor. Other parts of the play are not helped by their tendency toward overdoing things, but these two are practically begging for it.


Raoul's (a count in this version, instead of the original viscount... sorry, Philippe, you've been written out again) introduction is great for a few reasons, most notably because Kenley and Noll take some liberties and get creative with his backstory, with excellent results. For one thing, he has apparently already returned from a tour of duty, which makes him a more manful, adult character and allows modern audiences who aren't up on the whole childlike hero thing that Victorian novels loved so much to take him more seriously. Additionally, there are hints and flavors of their past relationship added all over their first conversation, including some seriously cute mention of Raoul's attempt to ask Christine's father for her hand at age thirteen; not only is this super duper adorable, but it's also very helpful for encouraging us to take the relationship seriously as something that has built over time and is valid in its own right, instead of having to swallow the idea that the two haven't seen one another since age eight or so but are still madly in love (Leroux's novel, true to its time period, has no problem doing this, but it's a hard thing to accept for your average viewer today). There is also mention that the two of them have been writing letters to one another for some time; while this doesn't actually reinforce the relationship more than a little bit since neither one of them ever received said letters, but it does help set the Phantom up as the interloper in their relationship (he's been intercepting and destroying the letters) rather than allowing the audience to fall into the common trap of seeing him as having "staked his claim", at least in his own mind, before Raoul reappeared.


I mentioned before that the daroga is present, which I still enjoy, but his handling is more than a little bit different from his original incarnation. For one thing, Christine knows him and apparently trusts him as a friend, which is a big jump from the dude sort of lurking about the opera house and not talking to anyone. For another, and this is the larger of the two changes, Hassan is actually used here as a sort of henchman/personal assistant to the Phantom, which is a serious change indeed from Leroux's morally-minded pursuing policeman. There's no real reason to do this from the standpoint of the daroga's character, except possibly because it makes him slightly less of a deus ex machina and more of an already-extant character; what I think this really does is fill that void that so many authors and filmmakers seem to feel is present when the Phantom has no human contact whatsoever. The closest analogue, Erik's Persian boy-slave in Bischoff's novel, was introduced a few years prior to the time this play was written, but there's a strong tradition of film henchmen (Ivan in the 1962 Fisher/Lom film and Lajos in the 1983 Markowitz/Schell production) that seem more likely to be the precursors to this decision.


It's interesting to speculate about whether authors simply find the idea of Erik existing without some kind of helper to be too much of a stretch of logic, or whether they require some kind of interaction in order to provide character development, but honestly it could just as easily be an unconscious decision. While there is some effort later to make Hassan into more of a brother/confidant figure for the Phantom instead of a servant one, the fact that he spends most of the show skulking about, threatening people to leave the Phantom and Christine alone, and picking up deliveries of food for the Phantom really put him firmly at a lower social level (always interesting, since Leroux's Phantom was at the lowest social level possible and therefore not a candidate for social power over anyone).


There are more than a few grammar errors scattered here and there throughout the text; while it makes me sad to see them, it's hard to condemn them too hard since this is a show meant to be performed, not read, and a misplaced comma doesn't usually cross over in the hands of a skilled actor.


So far, we as the audience are pretty firmly in Raoul's camp after all that cuteness (though it should be noted that he is intentionally portrayed as more forceful in order to place him in a slightly less flattering light, especially when he insists that Christine will marry him), but in contrast we are now going to be treated to a merciless defamation of the two managers, here named Richard and Charles (apparently we've switched to first names instead of surnames and left poor Moncharmin by the wayside again). I'm not sure why he's always the one that gets renamed, except maybe that English-speaking writers find his name to be a little bit too French.  I also can't help but notice that Richard Stilgoe and Charles Hart are the lyricists for Lloyd Webber's show... coincidence?


These two are, if not outright villainized, at least very thoroughly de-sympathized; Richard's vocal pursuit of Christine (because he beds all the opera girls, you see) in particular is meant to make us dislike him, though despite the annoyance one feels at his callousness it's not entirely period-inaccurate for him to have those expectations. The original characters were bumbling and tight-fisted, but the introduction of sexual misbehavior into the equation is a very obvious (and successful) bid to align the audience against them.


Buquet is replaced here by a gentleman named Didot, though I can't seem to find any valid reason for his renaming (the Didot family of French printers appear to have nothing whatsoever to do with this character). Interestingly, while we are encouraged to dislike the managers, we are encouraged to like Didot as much as possible; he's a fairly nice guy and usually behaves sympathetically, which sets us up to be more upset when, inevitably, he dies (as is the lot of all Buquet characters the Know Too Much).


These changes are all creative, but within the bounds of reasonable tinkering and interesting experimentation. It's in the next scene, wherein Christine is hanging out with the Phantom and asking him to play his opera for her (something that the original Phantom refused point-blank to do, by the way, but this Phantom is a little bit of a wussy where his music is concerned). The opera is, of course, Don Juan Triumphant, just as it was in Leroux's novel, but the similarities end there. Not only does the Phantom tell Christine that he wrote the opera for her (a substantial change, as the original opera was a sort of metaphor for the Phantom's life, evidenced by his assertions that he had been working on it for his entire adult life and would die the day he finished it), but he also tells her that the opera is about two angels (he calls her the Angel of Song and himself the Angel of Music) that represent the two of them, and that Don Juan, obviously intended to represent Raoul, sets out to destroy them.


Whoa, whoa. Back that train the hell up. You're casting Raoul as Don Juan? Even leaving aside the silliness with the angels (Don Juan myths usually have little to do with the divine), that... makes no sense. Leroux's use of the Don Juan myth (mostly based on Mozart's interpretation, Don Giovanni) was to represent the Phantom, who saw himself as a man doomed to hell by his sins (including his hideous physicality, an outward badge of his inward corruption) and unable (or, out of pride, unwilling) to redeem himself before death. Additionally, Don Juan's legendary status as a rake and seducer of women allowed some seriously self-referential irony for Erik's character, who was very aware of the character's differences from himself.


Raoul, in contrast, has absolutely no characteristics of Don Juan whatsoever, except for the fact that the Phantom sees him as a potential threat to the relationship he's attempting to build with this woman (but, of course, his relationship with Christine is predicated on untruths and intentional lack of communication, which are far more Don Juan-like traits). I would have written the entire mess off as one of the quirks of fantasy that the Phantom is prone to indulge in, except that it just didn't make much sense, even from that point - it makes the Phantom a much less self-aware, much less complex character, and in turn makes me give far less of a shit what happens to him. Kenley and Noll make a point of carrying this weird metaphor through right up until the end, bothering me every time with what seems to be a completely off-the-wall interpretation of the metaphor that Leroux was using.


The duet that Christine sings with the Phantom in this scene is also somewhat out of place; there seems to be an element of romance that is out of place for the innocent Christine that the playwrights seem to have been trying to cultivate (but this Christine is confusing as hell, anyway... she is aware, apparently, that the Phantom is a real man seeking a relationship and not an angel, yet is shocked and discombobulated when these things are actually stated later on), and several lines introduce a powerful idea of loneliness ("living without one beside me", etc.) that, while possibly applicable to Christine's status as an orphan, would have been more useful from the point of view of the Phantom. The whole scene is frustrating because it seems like that well-crafted backstory for Raoul has entirely evaporated, leaving a Christine who is totally into in this masked guy who sneaks into her dressing room, and a Raoul who is being set up as a "woman-thief" instead of as a valid character in his own right (especially at the end of the scene, wherein Raoul barges into Christine's dressing room in search of her through the use of physical force against Didot).


The Phantom's kidnapping of Christine and their subsequent interaction underground are weird, to say the least. Christine seems to show no particular concern or fear over her kidnapping, or even curiosity, while the Phantom's ranting and raving seems out of place in the face of her tranquility. The part that gripes me the most is the overt discussion of ideas that should be inference from the characters' action. For example, any of these lines:


"Forget the mask! Think of my devotion!"

"You make me feel even more ghastly!"

"If I am evil - it is because man's hatred has made me so. But my love for you could have changed all that."

"I demand to be treated like a human. I will not be cheated out of my happiness."


The problem with these lines is not that they're wrong, per se... it's just that they shouldn't be coming out of characters' mouths. Despite the melodrama with which they are presented, most of these ideas (alienation, society's creation of evil, equality) amount to meta-commenting by the characters on their own motivations and representations, and it's not done with anything approaching the careful handling it would need to be acceptable from a literary standpoint. It's fine to have characters once in a while break through with some brilliant line that really ties the idea together or makes it suddenly clear to the audience - in fact, I love that! - but they can't do it all the time. It's just telling instead of showing, and while that's really a downer in written fiction, it's absolute kryptonite in performance. It removes the depth and motivations of the characters and takes away the audience's opportunity to understand and follow the ideas through to their logical conclusions, and cheapens the meta-comments themselves by making them so obvious that much of their value is lost. The end result is dialogue that is overdone and boring, and characters that are now entirely flat because all their depth has been channeled into dialogue instead.


The soap opera between Christine and the Phantom continues for a little while, through the unmasking and subsequent tantrum, while all the good things about the beginning of the play recede to either antagonistic or peripheral status. Eventually he returns her, while informing her that he will be taking her to the masked ball, and no one else! Oh, lord. He's no longer a scary, lordly figure; now he's a jealous, girlfriend-beating asshole with boundary issues. I could see this incarnation of the Phantom in a trailer park epic, wearing a stained undershirt and declaring that he's just trying to make her learn. The character is not endeared to me.


The side characters reappear for a little while; Didot, it seems, has a puppy-love crush on Christine which we instantly understand will seal his doom (in case we didn't know he was the Buquet analogue, of course), while Richard's persistent pursuit of Christine is played up as much as possible to help elevate him to predator status. Neither interaction seems strictly necessary, as this has all been set up already. The Phantom seems to be fond of appearing in person (not just once in a while, all the time!) to threaten the managers, which really damages his credibility as far as mystery and finesse are concerned; the longer this play continues, the more I see him as just an unstable pain in the ass, which doesn't seem to jibe with the (at least in some form) sympathetic character that Kenley and Noll have been trying to set up. The heightened melodrama of the scene's final lines - Richard exclaiming, "I'll be damned if he'll tell us what to do around here - I'll be damned!" and Charles solemnly replying, "You just might be, Richard. We both might be." - make little sense since this Phantom is very obviously not supernatural in nature, and don't really do much to raise my opinion of the scene as a whole.


The final scene of the act, in which Carlotta performs only to be threatened by the Phantom mid-song, is mixed for me. On the one hand, even overblown, caricatured Carlotta has the professional chutzpah to tell him to go to hell and to start right in singing again. On the other hand, the stage directions inform me that the Phantom retaliates and "shoots out fire onto the stage". What the fuck? I mean... seriously. This Phantom would be a great villain in a sort of horror movie context, but he's absolutely cartoonish here. His infrequent self-awareness is out of place, and despite his impassioned speeches earlier and Kenley's and Noll's attempts to sympathize him, I have no time left for him now.


Confusingly, at the top of the next act, Hassan starts carrying messages to Raoul from Christine, begging for rescue. Wait. When did Hassan become Christine's friend instead of the Phantom's? Am I missing something here? The rest of the play doesn't really explain this, except that Hassan has apparently had some kind of an attack of conscience at some point for some reason (maybe he's sweet on Christine, too, because god knows now is an odd time to just suddenly decide the Phantom's ways are no longer acceptable).


The Phantom's costume at the ball is, oddly enough, that of a cavalier instead of his traditional costume as the Red Death. I'm not sure why this is (though I'm reasonably sure it has nothing to do with the 1974 Levitt/Cassidy film), except that the Phantom is supposedly accompanying Christine at this ball, and thus decided to wear something a little less evocative of death and ruin. But, really, this Phantom is apparently loath to identify himself with Don Juan, so why would he want to identify himself with the Red Death? He doesn't have Leroux's character's melancholy self-awareness. The masquerade scene makes no sense and seems to be here just to scare Christine and remind us that, hey, this guy is unstable. Somehow, his actions seem counterproductive when they have no logical purpose other than to scare the bejeezus out of the woman he ostensibly is trying to woo.


I am equally unimpressed with Christine's and Raoul's conversation on the roof (the Apollo's lyre scene, for those keeping track from home). I'm not sure when the opera house sprouted a budget such that they can (or want to) post armed guards to follow Christine everywhere to safeguard her from harm. I'm also not sure why neither of the characters are aware that the guard currently standing next to them is the Phantom, since it is blindingly obvious to the entire audience. Christine's totally cavalier (ha, used the word twice in two different contexts!) attitude toward her impending kidnapping/possible death just makes me think she's somehow even less competent that I had previously thought, and Raoul's concern seems justified to me. Their conversation is a frank, blatant discussion of the relationship dynamics at work between the three characters, which is another instance of heavy meta-commenting on the parts of the characters that really just bored me to tears and made me sad for what might have been.


Here comes Hassan again, though, so let's examine his new backstory (everyone else got one, after all!). He and Erik (now finally named, unlike in Leroux's novel, wherein Christine knew the Phantom's name very early on), he claims, were "like brothers" from the time that Erik's father brought him to Persia. Apparently, Hassan's mother was Erik's private tutor since his face precluded him from attending normal school. His father (an architect, which idea will be explored more thoroughly in Kay's novel in about two years) blames and brutalizes Erik for the death of his mother, who died in childbirth, and is repeatedly described as being unable to look at his son; it's interesting that the father becomes the important childhood figure here, since every other version I've seen to date that includes Erik's childhood tends to make his mother the most influential character, possibly as a response to the lack of mother figures in Leroux's novel. It's not overly surprising that this change is here, now that I think about it; not only is this version obviously a little on the weird side when it comes to interpretation, but Christine is very much a marginalized and incidental character, primarily there to be moved by the workings of others instead of providing any real character development of her own, so the introduction of another influential male character may be a clue that Kenley and Noll are less interested in characters on the female end of the spectrum in this story (another example: there is no Madame Giry, and the only other females are ballet girls that are presented as flighty and foolish whenever they're onstage).


Oddly enough, Hassan is made the violinist in this version, rather than Erik; he says that he played in the opera's orchestra with Christine's father. For one thing, that kind of dents Erik's usual violin cred, but for another, it really changes Christine's character quite a bit; it removes her idyllic upbringing and makes her a part of the opera world from childhood, totally ignoring the idea of a pastoral setting equalling innocence and making her more of a fluke. How and why Hassan got to Paris (he only says that Erik's father brought him) is not explained, and I found myself wondering what Hassan's actual parents had to say about all this.


The final scene has a few interesting elements to it; for one thing, the Phantom's greatest sin becomes the removal of Christine from the performance arena she so craves. This is the direct opposite of the original dichotomy, wherein Raoul represented retirement from performance and a step into a different life. I can't feel too sorry for Christine when she's shouting things like, "I thought you were my friend!", since Kenly and Noll haven't bothered to present her as believably innocent or naive and mostly she just sounds petulant. The writers seem to have given up at the end here, as well, and Erik's abrupt about-face to letting Christine go is... well, abrupt. And apparently without source. Erik's final anguished cries of, "You are gone... Don Juan has triumphed!" are just icing on the cake for me, reminding me of why I totally lost my ability to root for this version of the story about a quarter of the way through.


It's not a terrible version of the story, but it certainly isn't what I'd call good, either. While there are some very interesting things present that may be part of a much larger evolution of interpretation, as a single version, it just didn't do it for me, in large part because of the misinterpretation of Leroux's metaphors and their odd, nonsensical presentation here.

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