Since the early days of civilisation, societies have been structured around social classes.
Indeed, even in the supposedly classless society ideals espoused by Karl Marx and others, inevitably, some would rise above others, if only to oversee the equitability of the masses.
This social stratification is seen in all aspects of human life including entertainment.
Traditionally, the upper echelons treated themselves (are treated?) to refined pastimes – literature, equitation (to do with horses) and, of course, the opera.
Generally speaking, people considered the lower echelons had neither time nor money to sit around reading and they certainly had no means to afford the care and feeding of pleasure horses.
In a sense, this hypothesis drives home the irony of an erudite man from a well-positioned family taking a literary work and, through music, rendering it appealing to everyone.
The Phantom is not just a mysterious, disfigured, masked man with a passion for music.
He is the symbol of every muted voice that ever needed to be heard. He is mystery and romance; the universal hope that one redeeming quality can excuse the unmitigated horror of being and the struggle of rising above one’s lot in life.
He also underscores the fact that one needs friends – or, at least, willing conspirators. Whether they’re tricked into being willing is another story.
Baron Andrew Lloyd Webber, through his elegant, intricate musical phrasing, presents this phantom as a sympathetic, romantic yet ultimately dangerous character.
Hark! Do you hear the Music of the Night?
It is time to take off the masques, part the curtain and let our souls take flight.
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Summary of the Phantom of the Opera
The show opens by looking back.
It might seem incomprehensible, at first, why there is an auction of theatre props and fittings going on until spectators realise what is happening on stage; it is the broken chandelier that gives things away.
As soon as it is unveiled – dusty, derelict and forlorn, we intuit something big is about to happen and we are not disappointed. The chandelier is restored to glory as it rises to the ceiling.
Now, the show can begin.
Having travelled 30 years back in time, we arrive to find the new owners of the theatre inspecting their purchase.
Carlotta, the theatre company’s soprano and quite the prima donna, bursts into song – her way of signalling that she is the reason that people buy tickets to their shows.
Obviously, somebody is not pleased with her. A backdrop falls to the ground, making a loud clatter and raising a cloud of dust. Carlotta expresses her outrage – how dare anyone interfere with her performance! The chorus line trembles in fear.
The owners are nonplussed.
Why did that backdrop fall? Why are the chorus girls frightened? Is Carlotta so badly injured that she cannot perform on opening night?
That’s just what they need! With their mounting debt and expenses climbing ever higher… Quickly, they try to patch over the incident but Carlotta will have none of it. She is tired of these freak occurrences. She storms out, cloaked in righteous indignation.
Who, then, will step into her shoes?
Ingenue Christine Daaë acquits herself admirably. She is hastily sent for fittings and rehearses songs for the next show, hour after hour, alone in her chambers. Alone?
All is well up till now; from this point, the tale takes a darker turn.
Someone is lurking in the passages of the old opera house; someone who has an agenda. We don’t yet know what it is but we know for certain that Christine plays a role because of the voice whispering to her from beyond the walls of her room.
Orphaned at a young age, remembering the words of her beloved father, she is sure that it is the Angel of Music guiding her career, the angel that was promised to her.
Her fearlessness, indeed her acceptance of this supposed angel emboldens the ghost of the Paris Opera house. He grows bolder in his manifestations, eventually making contact.
From there, the show descends – into the bowels of Paris and into madness. Unlike the madness on display in the musical Chicago, this derangement is more subtle.
No other popular musical takes quite the dark turns that The Phantom does…
The Story Behind the Story
As with other shows Andrew Lloyd Webber collaborated on such as Jesus Christ Superstar and Cats, this one too has its roots in literature; specifically a book of the same name by French author Gaston Leroux.
Were that novel merely a work of fiction – like Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables, this segment would be very short and we could move on to other aspects of the show – how many awards it has won and the legion of devoted fans it has gained.
The remarkable backstory of The Phantom deserves its moment in the spotlight.
- There is indeed an opera house in Paris with a subterranean lake; it is called Palais Garnier
- French firefighters use this lake as a training ground still today
- This Palais is indeed said to have been haunted by a ghost named Erik
- Erik was presumably the son of a builder, born deformed. He travelled the world as a conjurer before establishing himself as a builder
- He built many of the secret passages that feature in the story (and the musical)
- Christine Daaë is based on a real singer named Christina Nilsson, an operatic soprano and rival to the era’s most famous diva, Adelina Patti
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The strangeness doesn’t end there.
The author, Mr Leroux, came from wealth but squandered his inheritance and was forced to seek employment.
As a reporter for a Paris daily, his assigned beat was the courts and the theatre. He travelled often for work but always returned to Paris. On the road for his various assignments, he indulged his passion for macabre and mystery by devouring the works of Poe and Arthur Conan Doyle.
He soon turned out a dramatic, mysterious work of his own that met with moderate success but it wasn’t until the story of the Opera Phantom that he gained notoriety.
By strange coincidence, Charles Dickens’ second novel, Oliver Twist, also published in instalments in a newspaper, was made into a musical…
Developing the Show: Baron Lloyd Webber’s Process
Hot off the West End smash hit Cats, Mr Lloyd Webber approached the producer of that show about mounting another production together, something more romantic. He thought The Phantom story could work but he needed to do more research.
Those two geniuses of musical theater sat through both film versions of the story, each of which left them wondering how to turn the story they’d seen into a stage musical. For a while, it seemed the project was doomed.
And then, Mr Lloyd Webber got his hands on a copy of the book. Suddenly, the way to make the show come together was clear.
Mr Lloyd Webber then suffered a series of setbacks worthy of the Phantom's meddling.
He approached American lyricist Jim Steinman but that prolific lyricist was working feverishly on Bonnie Tyler’s new album and couldn’t spare the time.
He then invited the legendary Alan Lerner (of the songwriting team Lerner and Loewe), another great name in musical theater circles. Mr Learner became gravely ill soon after signing on to the project and had to abandon it.
His work on the song Masquerade, virtually unchanged, is not credited on the playbill.
Finally, Richard Stilgoe, with whom Mr Lloyd Webber collaborated on the rock musical Starlight Express, joined in, writing most of the show’s lyrics. With some contributions by Charles Hart – who wrote Think of Me, the creative team finally put the show together.
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Opening Night: Get Your Phantom of the Opera Tickets!
After a trial run – just a run-through of the songs at Mr Lloyd Webber’s home, during which the songs were tweaked a bit, the show opened at Her Majesty’s Theatre in October 1986.
In fact, it is still playing there; The Phantom is the West End’s second-longest-running show.
Across the pond, on Broadway, The Phantom of the Opera previewed at the Majestic Theatre on the 18th of January 1988; it officially premiered on January 26th.
Phantom enthusiasts can buy tickets now; that production too is still running. In fact, The Phantom of the Opera is the longest-running show in Broadway history.
The show’s popularity compelled it to go on the road: not only was there a troupe that toured the UK but the American theatre company mounted a North American tour which included Canada.
Since its world premiere over 30 years ago, The Phantom has entertained audiences from Argentina to Korea and practically every place in between – it has graced stages in 28 countries and has been translated into multiple languages.
Some productions remain true to the original premise while others infuse the story with cultural elements specific to the country it plays in.
With all of that popularity, you would think there would be an award bestowed on it… has it garnered as many as The Lion King, do you think?
The original London production took every Olivier Award possible save for the Best Show Designer category, for which it was nominated. Two subsequent revivals took awards for Most Popular Show and Magic Radio Audience.
The original Broadway production… is so award-laden!
It took the Drama Desk Award in every category save Outstanding Musical and Outstanding Actress – possibly because Sarah Brightman, who played Christine, was not renowned at the time. Still, she was nominated for the award.
As for Tony Awards, it was nominated for Best Choreography, Best Book of a Musical and Best Score. Phantom won the Tony Award for every other category, from Best Musical to Best Lighting Design.
Even people not particularly warm on the idea of musical theatre love Phantom, especially now that it has been made into a film starring the luminous Emmy Rossum as Christine and the surprisingly credible Gerard Butler as The Phantom.
Is The Phantom a show for the ages?
In spite of its sinister undertones - stalking and obsession, it seems likely, judging by the ongoing audience response. For many, this masterpiece serves as their introduction to musical theatre – could there be a better show for that?
Maybe Hamilton, the latest Broadway musical by Lin-Manuel Miranda…