2018 marks the 30th anniversary of the Broadway (as opposed to 1986 West End premiere) debut of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s gothic romance, “The Phantom of the Opera,” based on the eponymous novel by Gaston Leroux. It follows orphan Christine Daaé, who rises as a star singer of the Opera Populaire under the tutelage of a mysterious “Angel of Music.” This Angel, also known as the Phantom, is an incredibly gifted musician equally cursed with deformity. In the gothic tradition of “The Hunchback of Notre Dame,” the Phantom seeks redemption through Christine, who becomes torn between her shadowy benefactor and her handsome lover Raoul.
Before Webber even conceived of the story as a musical, others retold the “The Phantom of the Opera” numerous times through film, theater production, and television. Yet of all the images of the ghostly mentor presented throughout the past century, the incarnation we remember most vividly is the half-masked, sensuous, embittered Michael Crawford, the original West End and Broadway actor. But what sets Crawford and Webber’s creation apart from any other antihero?
Despite its melodramatic tropes—the subterranean chambers, the masquerade ball, and the infamous chandelier—“Phantom” engenders a bevy of emotions that captivates and intrigues the audience. The songs may suffer from trite expressions, like “Say the word and I will follow you,” yet the music uses these superfluities to emotionally affect the listener. Though the title character is a monster of depravity, we love him and sympathize with his struggles for acceptance. When he sings, “Close your eyes, and let music set you free,” we can feel his longing to escape the cruelty and bigotry of those who look down on him. Likewise, when Christine sings “Wishing You Were Somehow Here Again,” she evokes mourning not only for her father, but also for innocence and naiveté.
To the casual viewer, Christine Daaé appears like the stock damsel in distress. She does not fight and does not challenge the stereotypes of her gender or her station, nor is her rise to fame accomplished through any initiative of her own. Her relationships with men define her. Having said this, it is within this frame of apparent weakness that Christine’s greatest strengths shine through. She reaches out to others, because she knows the pain of isolation.
The Phantom seeks redemption through power and secrecy, but his desire for acknowledgement causes the loss of his humanity. His thirst for revenge and his own artistic genius conflict and converge onto Christine, desiring both her love and her voice. During the climax, the Phantom holds Raoul hostage in exchange for Christine’s eternal servitude. She does not refuse nor does she scorn the hideous man. She sees through the Phantom’s games and gives him the compassion that he has sought all along. Confronted with his own vulnerability, the Angel suddenly releases the couple and withdraws. Music does not conquer and the Phantom remains a shadow, while Christine and Raoul return to their happy lives above. Realism trumps fantasy.
In 2006, Webber decided that this ending was unsatisfactory, and so he penned a sequel, “Love Never Dies,” a version in which Christine realizes that the real world is unfulfilling and reconciles once again with the Phantom. While certainly deserving of merit, “Love Never Dies” overturns a fundamental truth of Webber’s original gothic vision: The most beautiful dreams are transient by necessity. The man most deserving of praise must also be the most despicable, and the woman who has so much to give must have so much of her own taken away.
The truth may not be what we want to hear, but the “Music of the Night” is strictly forbidden.
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