Stranger Than You Dreamt It

I’ve never tried writing about The Phantom of the Opera ever before. Wait, that’s not true: in OAC Writer’s Craft I reviewed it as part of my independent study. But never before have I tried to explain what this show means to me–and frankly, I don’t think I’m up to the task.

As some of you are aware, I’ve seen the stage version of Phantom an inordinate number of times. How many? I respond in haiku:

If you write down four
And then another thirteen
You’ll have your answer

Like, a lot. It’s almost too embarassing to admit to. Moreover, if pressed, I can reel off a staggering amount of useless minutae about the show and my experiences seeing it live…like who was the last Don Atillo in Toronto (Scott Watanabe…that isn’t a major role, by the way), the seats I sat in my eleventh time seeing it at the Pantages Theatre (Orchestra row O, seat 44), who wrote the additional lyrics to the title song (Mike Batt)–I could go on and on and on. But my love for Phantom goes way beyond my obsessive penchant for remembering dates, actors and seat numbers. It’s hard for me to pinpoint how I grew to love the show so much. But if you knew me during elementary school and even during early parts of my high school career, you’ll know it’s all I ever talked about.

(I LOVE ADAM SAY! I LOVE ADAM SAY! I LOVE ADAM SAY!)

I mean…I can’t even begin to explain it. Objectively, it probably isn’t even that good; subjectively, I can name at least eight shows I consider to be “better”. But the fact remains that Phantom occupies a very, very special place in my heart–and for that reason, writing a rational review of its movie adaptation, for which Joel “I Destroyed the Batman Franchise” Schumacher was strangely chosen as director, is damn near impossible. When I saw it I hated it, for the simple reason that it wasn’t the stage show. Now that I’ve put a few days between me and the movie, I think I can admit that it does have some merit–even if that merit is limited to hearing Llord Lloyd-Webber’s score blasted through a Dolby Digital sound system.

I guess that makes the answer to the “did you like it?” question a half-assed, cop-out sort of reply–but truthfully, I just don’t know if I did or not. It wasn’t what I was expecting, that’s for sure. Or what I wanted, which was nothing less than a word-for-word, action-for-action reproduction of the stage show. What I wanted, in essence, was a live DVD of Phantom, even though logically I knew it would never happen. That didn’t stop me, however, from trying to compare the Phantom movie frame-for-frame to the stage version–and when I found the former wanting, I quickly dismissed its merits. The thrust of the story is intact, despite some scenes being rearranged, spliced together or–as in the case of the Act II rehearsal for Don Juan Triumphant–completely excised. The songs are all present and accounted for, with precious little alteration (a verse is missing from the title song, the second half “Notes/Twisted Every Way” has been distributed throughout the second part of the movie). It still ends with the Phantom’s final epic line, him disappearing and Meg Giry discovering the mask (and if you haven’t seen the show, I’m not exactly giving the ending away). Yet to say the movie isn’t nearly as good as the show itself would constitute an understatement as epic as…well, as epic as The Phantom itself.

The reason is simple: the stage version of Phantom succeeded because it was so inherently theatrical. It’s a show that thrives on atmosphere, on mood, on director Harold Prince’s peerless ability to build and sustain tension, to the late Maria Bjornson’s costumes and sets, to Andrew Bridge’s lighting…I mean, this is a show that needs to be seen live. Some musicals succeed as movies because, well, they don’t; Chicago, clearly, is an example of a musical which can be appreciated in celluloid as much as it can be on stage (and I’ve seen it live twice, so I feel capable of making this statement). But in Phantom‘s case, its journey from stage to screen has robbed it of any real theatricality. This isn’t a criticism of Joel Schumacher, whose work here is actually pretty good. It’s just the nature of the beast. Phantom owes a great deal of its success to the live experience, which is part of the reason the show needs to be seen in an old, turn-of-the-century playhouse (like the Pantages, or New York’s Majestic) to be truly appreciated. Without this swirling, grandiose, almost overbearing atmosphere, Phantom just cannot have the same impact.

Moreover, getting caught up in the atmosphere, in the mood, in the experience of seeing Phantom live on stage, it becomes easier to overlook the musical’s shortcomings. I’m a goner as soon as the Overture starts–and I don’t think that’s a unique reaction. On screen, however, the flaws are much easier to spot, the earnest cheeze far easier to detect, the characters’ motives less clear, the gaps in logic almost disconcerting. On stage, these problems are a lot easier to overlook; in the movie, however, when the atmosphere was limited to a guy in a Joey Harrington jersey singing “All I Ask of You” to his girlfriend, it’s all painfully obvious. That, I think, is the reason the movie hasn’t been more of a success: it cannot come close to duplicating the live experience.

Of course, I’m not pretending to be objective here–I’ve seen Phantom waaaaay too many times for that. I’m stunned by just how well I know the show…I mean, I was even reciting parts that aren’t on either of the English-language cast recordings. That, however, was both a blessing and a curse when dealing with the movie. When we were driving away from the Paramount, my mom (who’s seen Phantom nine times) was saying how impossible it was for her to separate the movie from the musical–and that’s exactly how I feel. I guess, objectively, it’s okay: the direction is assured, the casting decent (although Gerard Butler is barely passable in the title role), the scenery sumptuous–and the music sounds great. In the end, however, it’s an imperfect substitute, like margarine is for better, or masturbation for sex. In retrospect, I think I liked this movie. But I’m also thankful it hasn’t affected my appreciation for The Phantom of the Opera, the musical. I still can’t explain its effect on me, and don’t think I’ve even come close to succeeding here. In that sense, I guess I’m like Christine Daae: I know because I know, and for me, that’s good enough.

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