|Andrew Lloyd Webber's
The Phantom of the Opera
One of the world's most popular stage musicals is the Andrew Lloyd Webber version of
THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA, adapted from Gaston Leroux's 1911 potboiler. As of this
writing, the production is the second-longest musical on Broadway (second only to Lord
Lloyd-Webber's CATS, which was released direct-to-video). Honestly, I'm not a big fan of the
show's. When it first opened in 1988, under the direction of Harold Prince, THE PHANTOM OF
THE OPERA was acclaimed for its lush staging, a stellar lead performance by Michael Crawford
and the trick effect of having the chandelier fall toward the audience at the end of Act One.
A great deal of publicity surrounded the casting of Lloyd Webber's then-wife Sarah Brightman
in the lead female role of Christine, with Actors Equity originally not allowing her to perform until
the composer threatened to pull the plug on the whole venture. The union relented, Brightman
appeared in the part, and the musical went on to entertain countless audiences. I was more
interested in seeing Ms. Brightman's alternate – because of the vocal demands, she only played
six performances a week – so during its initial run in 1988, I managed to snag standing room for
a Thursday evening performance so I could see Patti Cohenour as Christine. The production
was certainly lavish and the two leads were sublime, but I came away less than impressed.
Perhaps it's because I'm not a big fan of opera or maybe it's because the score only has a
couple of really memorable numbers.
Of course, there were rumors over the years that a film version was to be made, including
one with Crawford and Brightman reprising their stage roles. At that time, though, the movie
musical as a genre was pretty much dead. Thanks in part to Baz Luhrman's MOULIN ROUGE!
and the Oscar-winning CHICAGO, musicals have come back in vogue, so Lloyd Webber and
director Joel Schumacher have pushed forward with bringing THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA
to the big screen.
Schumacher is an interesting choice as director. One of his earliest movies was
SPARKLE, a better-than-average film about a rising singer. Over the years, however, he
has had a spotty record. He's a workmanlike director who enjoyed success with a couple of
John Grisham adaptations (THE CLIENT and A TIME TO KILL) but who also singlehandedly
destroyed the Batman franchise. Many of his films are triumphs of style over substance, not
necessarily a bad thing and certainly a direct outgrowth of the director's early work as a
department store window dresser and later as an movie art director and costume designer.
Together with Andrew Lloyd Webber, Schumacher wrote the screen adaptation of the
musical, and opted to cast the lead roles with relative newcomers. The result is an adequate,
fairly faithful adaptation of a successful stage venture. How one reacts to the film will probably
depend on one's familiarity with the musical. Purists may quibble over some of the changes
and casting choices; others may just enjoy the piece for its theatricality and love story. While
no version has yet managed to convey this variation on the beauty and the beast tale as well
as the 1925 silent version starring Lon Chaney and Mary Philbin.
For me, this version is only moderately successful. I liked the framing device, shot in
black and white that slowly dissolves into color as the main story unfolds (a technique borrowed
in part from James Cameron and TITANIC). The movie is quite lush and spectacular,
so kudos must be given to production designer Anthony Pratt, costume designer Alexandra
Byrne, and cinematographer John Matheson.
The performances are a mixed bag. As with the stage show, the Diva La Carlotta is
there to provide comic relief and Minnie Driver pitches her performance at full throttle,
although she is the only performer whose vocals are dubbed. While Ms. Driver is a singer,
she apparently doesn't have the range to handle the operatic moments composed by
Lloyd Webber. Her character is basically a plot device anyway; the impediment for Christine
to overcome so she can go out and become an overnight sensation. The role of Christine is
problematic. On stage, Ms. Brightman was faulted for lack as an actress, but as written,
the part is something of a cipher. She's a young girl on the verge of womanhood who believes
that her father's ghost has been training her singing voice (when in reality it was the Phantom).
The role really doesn't call for much histrionics, just a clear, pretty voice, and Emmy Rossum
more than fits the bill. Her bell-like tones have been on display on film before in diverse efforts
like SONGCATCHER and NOLA, but those can be seen as preludes to this role.
Starring opposite Ms. Rossum are Patrick Wilson as her dashing suitor Raoul and
Gerard Butler as the Phantom. Wilson has enjoyed a successful career on Broadway and
recently has begun to expand his range with roles in THE ALAMO and, more importantly,
the TV adaptation of ANGELS IN AMERICA. In THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA, though,
he is somewhat bland. He sings the role appropriately, but there's something missing in
his scenes with Ms. Rossum. The lack of chemistry hurts the crux of the tale: if one cannot
believe the love triangle, then the piece doesn't gel. Butler cuts a sexy and slightly ominous
figure as the Phantom, but he is no singer. His version of the show's best known number
"The Music of the Night" is painful to hear as he struggles to hit the notes. The song is meant
to be a sung seduction, but in Butler's version one doesn't want to give in to the Phantom but
run from him. And fault has to lie with makeup designer Jenny Shircore and costumer Byrne
who claims in the production notes that "we didn't want his disfigurement to be horribly
grotesque." That right there is all that is wrong with the film; the Phantom should be so
ugly that one cannot look away. The unmasking scene in the film is downplayed so that when
he finally reveals his deformity, it doesn't have the desired effect.
In supporting roles, the redoubtable Miranda Richardson (the only actor who employs
a French accent it might be noted) is superb as the ballet mistress who knows the secret of
the Phantom. Simon Callow and Ciarin Hinds also deliver excellent work as the new owners
of the Opera House.
While THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA doesn't break any new ground, it does manage
to provide audiences exposure to one of the most popular stage musicals of the last 20 years.
As with the movie version of Lloyd Webber's EVITA and the exacrable film adaptation of
A CHORUS LINE, THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA captures the essence of the piece,
but it fails to lift the material to another level. It's adequate and respectful, at best.
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for brief violent images
Running time: 143 mins.
Viewed at the Warner Bros. Screening Room
|© 2005 by C.E. Murphy. All Right Reserved.