The Phantom of the Opera (8/10)

by Tony Medley

Gaston Leroux was a portly French lawyer who realized there was more to his life than practicing law. After his father died leaving him a million Francs, he disdained law and lived the high life in Paris, going through the fortune in less than a year. Not wanting to return to the law, he became a crime reporter for L ‘Echo de Paris and, through stealth, stole into a prison and interviewed an unjustly accused man (unheard of under French law) and got the true story. The man was released and the authorities held accountable. Leroux’s reputation was made and he became a well known interviewer of famous people, sort of a Barbara Walters of the early 20h Century.

By 1907 he had tired of his life as an adventurer-writer and started writing novels, the first being The Mystery of the Yellow Room, which was an instant success. In all he wrote more than 60 novels, one of which was The Phantom of the Opera, which he wrote in three months in 1911, based on what was thought to be a true story. Contrary to what you might believe, it was ignored, going through a few serializations as well as a printing, and basically died a quiet death. But in the 1920s Carl Laemmle’s Universal Pictures were looking for a horror movie vehicle for Lon Chaney. An unknown researcher found a serialization of Phantom and Universal bought the rights. The result is one of the most famous horror movies in movie history (1925), which elevated the story to a classic. Unfortunately, Leroux died three years after the film came out. The story has been remade for the screen four times up to now, 1943, with Claude Raines as the Phantom, 1960, 1962, and 1974.

Despite its worldwide fame, very few people have read the book, which is a scary experience, indeed, but no less romantic. For my money the book is as good as any of the movies that have been made.

Andrew Lloyd Weber liked the story and wrote (with Richard Stilgoe, who co-authored the book, and Charles Hart, lyricist) a beautiful, romantic musical which made its debut in London’s West End at Her Majesty’s Theatre on October 9, 1986. It’s Broadway’s second longest running musical (behind Cats). I saw it three times in Los Angeles, twice with Michael Crawford as the Phantom.

Everyone who has dealt with it has softened and changed the story. It’s no longer scary. But it is poignant and terribly romantic. Because I feel the pain of  the lonely Phantom I can’t see it without tears streaming down my face (maybe it could even make Sean Penn shed real tears!). Everyone knows the story, so I won’t go into it here.

Hollywood has a decidedly mixed bag in its conversions of great Broadway musicals to the screen. On the negative side are the two worst, “South Pacific” (1958) and “Camelot” (1968). “South Pacific” was grossly miscast. Mitzi Gaynor wasn’t so bad, but Rosanno Brazzi, who couldn’t sing a note, taking the place of the great opera singer, Ezio Pinza, should have justified the death penalty for the executives at Fox responsible. And director Josh Logan’s direction was awful. He thought it was so clever to change the colors of the landscape in songs like Bali Ha’i. Instead it just ruined the landscape.

Camelot is the worst musical ever made for many reasons, but in large part due to the casting. Vanessa Redgrave is a wonderful actress, but she can’t sing and she’s not beautiful, which are the two main requirements for an actress to play Guinevere. And Richard Harris can’t sing (please don’t quote “McArthur Park” to me). To be fair, Richard Burton, who played the role on Broadway, can’t sing, either. But his voice was so magical, it was melodic. And don’t try to compare Harris to Burton if you want me to keep talking to you as someone who at least knows a little about talent. Not surprisingly, “Camelot” was also directed by Josh Logan, who apparently wanted to prove that ruining “South Pacific” was not a fluke.

Near the top are “Oklahoma!” (1955) and “Carousel” (1956), who cast real singers, the incomparable Gordon McRae along with Shirley Jones, in the parts. At the top is “The Sound of Music” (1965) with Julie Andrews. Even though Christopher Plummer was not a singer, he was delightful and his only real song is Edelweiss, a song with a meager seven note range, anyway.

In the middle are “My Fair Lady,” “The King and I,” and  “West Side Story,” all of which chickened out and hired actresses who couldn’t sing to play the leads, Audrey Hepburn, Deborah Kerr, and Natalie Wood respectively, all of whom lip synced to Marni Nixon’s excellent voice. The movies were diminished by the decisions.

So kudos to Lloyd Weber and Director-co writer (with Lloyd Weber) Joel Shumaker for at least casting real singers in the singing roles. Although nobody could replace Michael Crawford, Gerard Butler, who has a rock tenor’s voice, is adequate. But is that what you want in one of the world’s great musicals, adequacy? I want the best!

One main objection I had to Butler’s casting is that the Phantom should be substantially older than his unrequited lover, Christine Daae, and Butler looks like a contemporary. Although he is actually in his mid-30s, it is still not enough of an age difference for The Phantom to be the father figure he is for Christine. I don’t know why things fell through for Lloyd Weber to cast Crawford in the role, but the age difference would have been correct and Andrew will live to rue the day. Jack Warner did the world a disservice when he lost the opportunity to preserve the pairing of Rex Harrison and Julie Andrews in My Fair Lady for posterity and posterity is the worse for it. Lloyd Weber should have moved heaven and earth to secure Michael Crawford for the role so that all future generations could see the Master in the role he created.

For the role of Christine (I was always struck by the fact that the role was played on the stage in Los Angeles by Dale Kristien, almost an identical reversal of the character’s name, Christine Daae), Lloyd Webber picked Emmy Rossum, only 17 years old,  who started training with the Metropolitan Opera at the tender age of seven. She sings some terrific songs and she’s got a beautiful voice, but often she sings them languidly, as though she’s sleepwalking, not showing the tremendous emotion the songs evoke, and it depreciates the film substantially. Throughout the film I kept thinking that they must have had to assign an Assistant Director solely to the task of awakening the somnolent Rossum when she was through lip syncing (to her own voice) her songs. Although she’s attractive (but not the stunning beauty needed to captureThe Phantom’s heart), the role needs someone who can convey the intense feeling required to put the songs across. Imagine an impassive rendition of the beautiful duet “All I Ask of You” and you have a picture of Rossum. I would have preferred Kristien or Sarah Brightman, Lloyd Webber’s former wife, who was Christine on Broadway, in the role. Kristien was so often overshadowed by Michael Crawford on the stage. But when I saw her with someone else, Robert Guillaume, as the Phantom, she got a standing ovation. Even if she’s too old, she always captured the emotion of the songs on stage. Age didn’t matter in the casting of The Phantom; why should Lloyd Weber and Shumaker have let it stand in the way of casting Christine?

The one part of the stage play I didn’t like was the actor who played Raoul, Christine’s lover, in Los Angeles. I couldn’t imagine any woman forsaking Michael Crawford’s Phantom for this guy. But in the movie Raoul is played by Patrick Wilson, another real singer (Oklahoma!, among others), and a guy who can stand his own against the powerful, charismatic Phantom. However, again the ages are skewed. Wilson is over 30, near to Butler’s age, but he is represented as a contemporary of Christine.

The only actor who did not use her own voice was Minnie Driver, who plays the Diva, La Carlotta. Even though Driver is a singer, she lip synced to the voice of Margaret Preece, an opera singer who has performed the role onstage.

The best parts of the film for me, apart from the magnificent score, were the orchestration (Simon Lee), which is full and lush, and the sets. Lloyd Webber used the opportunity to write a new song (Learn to be Lonely, sung by Driver over the end credits; don’t leave when you think the film is over or you’ll miss it; it’s not terrific, but it is new) and several new sections of underscore. In all, Lloyd Webber added 15 minutes of new music.

Production Designer Anthony Pratt has brilliantly captured the era of 1879 and his opera house (based on the Opera Garnier in Paris). The sets, built on 8 stages in London’s Pinewood Studios, are simply spectacular.

So the upshot for me is that while Butler is acceptable as the Phantom, he’s not nearly as good as Michael Crawford. Rossum’s languorous presentation of her songs is the film’s major weakness. She has a beautiful voice but she doesn’t put the emotion into the songs that they require. Finally, Wilson is far superior to the Raoul that I saw on the stage. “Phantom” didn’t completely pass the watch test, either, as I looked at mine several times during the 2:20 running time, which is as long as the stage version, which ran 2:30 with one intermission. That said, this is a lush, evocative, romantic, tear-jerking interpretation of Leroux’s 1911 novel and Lloyd Weber’s 1986 stage adaptation that is replete with terrific sets and full of wonderful music.

December 22, 2004

The End