The Pinchpenny Phantom of the Opera
by Dave Reiser & Jack Sharkey
Our foray into short drama continues with this play, which is very obviously Leroux-based, though it has its nods to Lloyd Webber's show here and there. In the beginning, I had only the script for this one; while it contains musical numbers in abundance, there was no copy of the score, and no recording of it anywhere to be found. But after reading my reivew, much to my surprise, Dave Reiser himself dropped me an email and offered a rare treasure: the demo recording of the show that he still had on cassette tape, from long ago (eons, in fact--in the eighties) when he and Sharkey were pitching the show. Having read my review, he mailed me this - one of few recordings of the show in existence - so I could content my little heart by finally being able to evaluate this show's musical content as well as its book. Hooray!
The "Pinchpenny" in the title refers to more than just the financial straits of the characters; Reiser and Sharkey have intentionally set the show up so that it can be performed by small theatre companies that have their own budget problems, making the cast very small and the sets and requirements minimal to nonexistent. In fact, notes in the script (often ended with a bubbly "Got that? Okay, then!") encourage players to make things look as shoddy as possible, to enhance the comedy of the performing troupe of characters. It's a cute little way to make things available on a shoestring budget, and if it isn't anything very impressive... well, in a small theatre or community company, it doesn't need to be anything more than fun.
The plot is very simple and obvious: the manager of the "opera house", Gaston (obviously, a nod to Leroux there), is running a performance company that is dead broke, and can barely afford to pay two performers and occasionally bus in a big name in order to keep the tiny place open. There's rampant historical anachronism going on here; the script notes suggest period costume from the late 19th century, but two guys on a tiny set do not an "opera house" make, nor is any of the dialogue anything but modern. However, as I said, this show is really, really not taking itself seriously, and these foibles can be forgiven since they don't exactly detract from the atmosphere of game slogging-on that Reiser and Sharkey are fostering.
The two members of the "opera company" are Bubby (a Yiddish term of affection, meaning roughly "darling" - not the last of a few obviously Jewish-inspired touches to the show), the hapless male support, and Pristine, the female support. Pristine's name is a cute parody of the original Christine's; Leroux's character, after all, represented innocence and purity on a literally Christ-like scale, so the name is an apropos mockery (all in good fun, of course). Pristine and Gaston are lovers, placing him in the Raoul role, though her frustration when he constantly refuses to let her sing the lead is comical. This may actually betray a little bit of influence from Hill's 1976 musical, which featured Raoul as son of one of the managers, but there isn't much else here to support that theory.
The best parts of the show are the parodies of operas, which take up quite a lot of time onstage; not only are the lyrics cute and clever enough to entertain me even without music, but the operas are irreverently lampooned to within an inch of their lives. Strauss's Salome becomes Salami; likewise, Mozart's The Magic Flute becomes The Magic Fruit, Bizet's Carmen becomes Karma, Strauss's (the other one) Die Fledermaus becomes Der Fledermausketart, Puccini's La Traviata becomes La Triviata (some may recall from an earlier review that Pratchett used the same parody name in his novel; however, it seems very unlikely that this play had any influence there, since that seems like the most logical way to engender a play on words in that title), Strauss's (the first one again) Der Rosenkavalier becomes Der Rosenchandelier (a dig at the chandelier-centric aspect of the Phantom story, of course), and Wagner's famous (and famously long) sagas are made fun of et al by the titanic Glasnostovich. The names are cute enough, but Reiser and Sharkey obviously actually know enough about the operas in question to also mock their content, which elevates the exercise from cutesiness to humor (for example, the original Salome's salacious content is made fun of when the soprano singing it freezes to death after doing a striptease, and Wagner's epics are mocked for their length and the stamina required to perform them). As an opera buff, I had a good time whenever these little spoofs were going on; of course, that meant that the actual plot of the play, which is more than a little bit silly, was something of a let-down, but it was nothing too terrible.
Carlotta becomes a serial character here, as there are seven operatic divas that the Phantom offs in his quest to give Pristine a shot at the part (their names are parodies, of course, as well: Shmoyna Potski, Aimee Rarement, Donna Jose, Machtilde Von Himmel, Helga Geiseln, Elektra Luxe, and Sonja Shtoy). This allows Reiser and Sharkey to go ahead and mock several different opera stereotypes within the Carlotta character (the Wagnerian fat lady, the overblown Spanish diva, the Italian histrionic, etc.) rather than being stuck with only one, and they have a lot of fun with it.
The Phantom (who, bizarrely, is named Airwick - which only looks bizarre in print until you realize that, said aloud, it sounds like someone saying "Erik" in babytalk) seems very much based in the horror model of the character; he keeps his body mostly covered and wears a hangman's hood to hide his face, reminiscent of the hood used in the 1937 and 1990 Ye ban ge sheng versions of the story, as well as being very violent (even dicing up one of the sopranos with a hacksaw). In a twist that, of course, the audience probably sees coming a mile away, he turns out to actually be Gaston in disguise (there isn't a very good reason for this, which the play pretty gleefully makes fun of itself for), which gives this play the interesting distinction of being the first version I've seen in which Raoul and the Phantom turn out to be one and the same person (though, how cool would, say, a dual-personality guy who was half-Raoul and half-Phantom be? So cool!).
Entertainingly, and again before its time (who would suspect this play of being a trailblazer?), the show ends with a mysterious female Phantom figure appearing to start the whole mess over on Bubby's behalf. This predates Ransom's female Phantom by a year, and the Falstein musical with its returning Phantom by two years. Again, I doubt it influenced either one, but it's interesting to see these ideas recurring.
By the end of the play, and after a lot of self-referential comedy and gleeful embracing of continuity errors ("Say, have we had this conversation before?" "Yes, but some members of the audience might be having trouble following the plot"), we're left with a nice warm feeling. Yeah, it was very silly and had no real merit or content, but it's a pretty good time, and that's good enough.
The overall musical style of the numbers that move the plot along (i.e., the ones that aren't opera parodies) is very classic, Rodgers-and-Hammerstein-era musical, very easy on the ears and a lot of cheerful fun. It's nothing too heavy or musically complicated, but still cute and pleasant to listen to. Of course, there are no orchestrations on my recording, just piano (it is a demo tape, after all, and a demo tape of a no-frills show at that), but there don't really need to be for this show. I particularly enjoyed the convention of the singers singing over one another at the end of the Phantom's introduction song; it's tight and well-executed from both composer and singers, and well-integrated without being too difficult to understand, like a Mozart duet.
The Salome parody's overdone psuedo-Oriental modes (segueing into bouncy classical fixtures, of course) are spot-on for Strauss's work; while there was a line with some clumsy scansion in there, it was a rarity quickly forgotten. The following love duet between Pristine and Gaston was actually quite lovely and simple in its sweetness, without any of the tongue-in-cheekness that permeates most of the narrative.
The lampooning of other opera composers is all similarly entertaining; the setting of nonsense lyrics to Mozart's carefree Magic Flute stylings pokes gentle fun at the silliness of many classical-era librettos, while the idea of ending the complicated cadenza in an actual scream laughs at the not-inconsiderable egos of that age's divas. The Carmen parody is much better performed than on the page, and even made John laugh from across the room where he was typing away.
In the end, the music isn't spectacular, but it's not intended to be, after all. It fits perfectly with the show's self-referential little world, and is entertaining enough for audiences to enjoy themselves no matter how low budget everything ends up being.