Steppin' Out

UNMASKED. Phantom of the Opera: What's the big deal?

hen I was a bright-eyed and idealistic young student studying theatre, we had a special way of letting our peers know when their work was laden with glitter and short on substance. "When does the chandelier fall?" we would ask. Andrew Lloyd Webber's Phantom of the Opera was still fairly new then, and none of us had seen it yet, but we had read all about it, and although the voice majors were busy learning songs from its soundtrack, we, the "artists," donned our finest sackcloth and wailed, "The end is near!" Sure, we were all closet Jesus Christ Superstar fans (who isn't, right?) but after ALW's Cats left the world mouthing the eerily Stepfordian chant, "I want to see it again and again" beneath the "ching-ching" vamp of merchandising mania, the line was drawn. If the theatre was going to survive in this country as anything more than an e-ticket ride in Mousetown, Webber had to be stopped. Nine years, and God (read: box-office receipts) only knows how many fallen chandeliers later, Phantom of the Opera still packs the house at Broadway's Majestic Theatre, and on the eve of its touring company's Memphis debut, I have gone to New York to find out why this show is such a big damn deal.

The Majestic Theatre is remarkably like The Orpheum (newly renovated to accommodate the monster sets of shows like Phantom), though in many ways less grand. It lacks The Orpheum's gilded detail, and the area surrounding its proscenium has been painted flat black. The set looks like it might have been designed by Cristo, with its large wrapped objects and draped curtains. Even the proscenium is wrapped haphazardly in gray cloth. The only clue as to what might lie beyond the fabric is one word stenciled on the large covered object down center "Chandelier." What ever could this dangling signifier mean?

Minutes into the first act, there is a flash of light, a puff of smoke, and the draperies fall away, revealing golden angels and demons intertwined about the proscenium, while the much-vaunted chandelier (looking for all the world like a giant, beaded gravy boat) is hoisted into place. Let the cheap theatrics begin! In the post Star Wars: The Director's Cut world, the effects in Phantom seem weak, laughable even. We look for David Copperfield to run a steel ring around the levitating lion, and defy us to guess how he did it, but David is not there, and without the magician's challenge there is little if any magic. Even as I wince from the searing heat of the flames that burst from the stage near the show's climax, there is less wonder than concern for those singed unfortunates with pockets deep enough to drop more than $75 on a seat.

Webber's Phantom is but one of the story's many stage and film avatars. The plot is ingrained in our cultural consciousness, and Webber and Co. bank on this. Grand set changes replace logical transitions, and the relationships between the characters are so thinly drawn that there is no tension save that created by the luminous object suspended above our heads that flashes and strobes to inform us when something dastardly is about to happen. The text, which is mostly sung, becomes an unfathomable morass of high notes and garbled syllables whenever more than one idea is being expressed at a time. This lack of finesse is like something right out of Waiting For Guffman (The Bad News Bears do theatre?) and might be expected from a community playhouse, but in the cradle of excellence for American theatre, it is embarrassing. Much of the blame can be placed on the text, which encourages mugging as well as stereotyped performances, and moves in a series of lyrical expositions where the characters tell us what they think and feel rather than allowing the satisfaction of revelation through their interaction. The Phantom pleads for us to look at the dark side of life as he rows across the foggy candle-strewn river to his lair, but this only shows us the beauty around -- not within the malicious beast. When near the end (and I don't think I am giving anything away here) the deformed monster declares that his murderous actions stem from a lack of maternal love accompanied by unrequited adolescent yearnings, it is too little too late; and the vacillating affections of the lovely ingenue Christine between the Phantom and the handsome (and extremely tall) hero, Raoul, smacks more of somnambulism than confusion or enchantment. In fact all the performers, and most disconcertingly the dancers move with the lumbering gate of zombies and robots. This is most likely due to nearly a decade's worth of cast changes plugged into director Harold Prince's original staging. Even when the chandelier makes its fabled descent to earth at the end of the first act, it falls in jerky slow motion with all its rigging visible, while the actors run about the stage screaming in real time. What a letdown.

The utter lack of precision and framing keeps this Phantom earthbound. No isolated moment seems more or less important than the moment before, eliminating the possibility of surprise or insight into the characters' motivations. Even in the frothiest of musicals (especially in the frothiest of musicals) attention must be paid to pacing and structure for the audience to suspend its disbelief and be swept into its fanciful world. It would be easy to blame the lack of oomph on the director, but Prince has proved himself a master of the dark side of the musical spectrum with his spine-chilling production of Sondheim's devilishly clever romp into Brechtian turf, Sweeney Todd.

Certainly there was laughter and applause, but it was by no means universal. Nary a titter or clap escaped the French-speaking couple in front of me, and although I could not understand their words, the Japanese tourists who left at intermission holding their noses made their point accessible. A rotund lady draped in rhinestones nasally declared, "Well, that really stunk" to her companion who was hailing a cab. So what is the big damn deal? It is hard to say. Since Cats appeared in the early '80s, the trend toward musical juggernauts blending extravagant spectacle with insipid plot has been the norm. The helicopter landing in Miss Saigon topped the overrated plummet of Phantom's gleaming gravy boat, and the massive mechanical sets of Les Miserables were more than enough to bring audiences to their feet. As a result of this gaudy and expensive one-upmanship, the Broadway stage is no longer a place for native New Yorkers and theatre lovers world-round to go and enjoy exciting, important new works. At best it is a bizarre museum, and at worse, as signaled by Cats and sealed by the appearance of Disney animations Beauty and the Beast and The Lion King brought to life, a terrifying vision of hyper-reality.

Phantom of the Opera

The Orpheum (525-3000)
November 12th - December 13th
$17.50 - $65


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