(Halt ye internet dweller: there be spoilers ahead for The Phantom of the Opera (1986) and The Phantom of the Opera 25th Anniversary: Live at the Royal Albert Hall)
Where do I begin?
For most of my life, The Phantom of the Opera was this huge intellectual property that I just didn’t have any interest in. It was merely a thing that existed to me. The only The Phantom of the Opera anything that I had even the slightest inclination to seek out was the Lon Chaney movie from 1925, which I still haven’t watched (yet), and that was driven mainly by my love of Universal Monster Movies. I knew the Andrew Lloyd Webber musical existed, but it wasn’t on my radar at all.
That all changed in March when I watched a pair of videos by one of my favourite critics on the internet that focused on, you guessed it, The Phantom of the Opera. I encourage you to watch both of them as they’re incredibly good (links here and here) and what they did, in essence, was basically give me a roadmap to The Phantom of the Opera as a property. I suddenly had all of these things to check out or avoid, but the one that stuck out to me the most was Webber’s musical. And it wasn’t an immediate thing, but as I kept rewatching them, my curiosity to check it out grew larger and larger. Finding out that it was on Spotify gave me the final kick in the butt that I needed and early last month I checked out the original cast recording.
And I really, really liked it! Michael Crawford and Sarah Brightman were great, the story was stellar and the music reminding me of Jeff Wayne’s War of the Worlds definitely helped, but it didn’t quite grab my heart. There was something, or rather someone, missing. Enter: Ramin Karimloo.
I didn’t really plan on this at all, but I’ve kinda become obsessed with Ramin Karimloo recently. And why not? He’s an insanely good singer and actor, both in this and in Les Misérables in Concert: The 25th Anniversary, and he brings the one thing Crawford didn’t to the role of The Phantom: feelings. Crawford’s singing is really good, but his Phantom is too composed. He doesn’t ping pong between emotions as much as a character like The Phantom should. He’s been living under an Opera House for three years and was in a freak show before that. Suffice to say, he isn’t a very stable presence within the story. Crawford doesn’t really convey that vocally unfortunately. Karimloo on the other hand? Oh yeah.
I knew Karimloo and Sierra Boggess played The Phantom and Christine respectively in The Royal Albert Hall version of Phantom, but I didn’t immediately listen to that because I wanted to listen to the original cast first. Mainly because I’m a sucker for doing things in chronological order when I can, especially when it comes to things like this. So the day after I listened to the ’86 original, I listened to the Royal Albert Hall version…and everything just clicked with me. I knew it would to some extent, but I didn’t expect to become obsessed with it to the point that I spent the rest of April listening to it on an endless loop. I’m still listening to it right now as I write this, and I honestly don’t have a problem with that.
But with the constant desire to listen to it came the desire to write about it, which brought up an interesting problem for me: I hadn’t seen it, so I had no idea how it was performed in real life. All I had was my imagination, which was fine, but I didn’t feel comfortable critiquing the story based on that, because for all I knew my imaginings were incredibly off base. So began a quest to buy it which thankfully proved fruitful, and The Phantom of the Opera 25th Anniversary: Live at the Royal Albert Hall finally arrived on Friday a little over a week ago. I didn’t initially have time to watch it because of university, but I finally got around to watching it last week…and it was even better than I thought it would be.
It was so good that I watched it three times within the space of forty eight hours and the only reason I’m not watching it right now is because I’m writing the review. Just seeing how it was performed and staged after listening to the soundtrack for so long was enormously gratifying and, in a lot of ways, vindicated a lot of my imagination for me. You see, listening to the soundtrack, I really liked the idea of viewing The Phantom as a supernatural character based off his actions throughout the musical.
He burns down a cemetery with fire that appears out of nowhere, he travels throughout The Opera House sight unseen and only appearing when he wants to, he kills people with a magical lasso, he disappears in fire, his words have a entrancing effect on Christine, things like that. It wasn’t solely from a perspective of that being insanely cool to me either, rather it was driven more by the idea that despite all his powers and abilities; he was still only a man with a human heart. Because at the end of the day, that heart and it’s inability to cope with all the hideous things he has done is what proves to be his undoing.
Finally watching the musical and seeing all of those things that I imagined actually happen was the best feeling in the world, as it meant I wasn’t ascribing things to it that weren’t there at all. The staging of the cemetery scene in particular was fantastic, as it does a lot to add to the stakes and make Raoul’s (who I’ll get to later) journey to free Christine from The Phantom’s clutches that much more perilous. It would’ve been so easy to cop out and explain away everything that The Phantom does as being “tricks” or him having built hidden passageways throughout the walls of The Opera House, which allow him to travel freely without ever being seen (which would have been ridiculously immersion breaking and lame), but they never do. The Phantom is merely The Phantom and I really appreciated that.
Apart from offering vindication, seeing the musical also allowed me to replace my imagination of how I thought characters looked with what they actually looked like, which was really enlightening for some of them. For instance, I imagined Carlotta to be thinner than she ended up being in the show, partly due to seeing clips of Minnie Driver from the movie (which I shall watch and review at some point), but I honestly preferred how she looked in the show. Wendy Ferguson killed it, especially with some of her facial gestures and little acting subtleties. There’s this face she makes at the end of “Prima Donna”, after The Phantom declares war on them for disobeying his instructions to cast Christine in the lead for “Il Muto”, that is best thing ever as it just communicates her complete and utter resolve to not let herself get pushed aside by some guy.
In regards to staging, there was so much that I missed out on just listening to the soundtrack. Probably the best thing was at the end of “All I Ask of You (Reprise)”, where The Phantom, having witnessed Raoul and Christine declare their love for each other, gets really depressed for a second about being rejected before blowing up the chandelier. I knew all of that already from the soundtrack, but what I didn’t know was that The Phantom actually covers his ears when their song starts to reverberate inside his head, which is such a small detail but just adds so much to the scene and makes his pain that much more visceral.
While I’m still talking exclusively about The Phantom, it’s probably a good time to show my love for his Red Death outfit during “The Masquerade” scene. Or, what I like to call his Aristocratic Skeletor outfit, because look at this majestic thing.
Words cannot express how much I love this get-up. It just strikes the right balance between menacing and styling.
Really the best thing about watching it was being able to pick up on the all the little subtleties that I might have missed, like Andre the Manager getting puffed out from running down to the stage after Carlotta can’t sing and then subsequently getting stuck on the stage during the start of the ballet. Or the piano starting to play on it’s own during the audition for “Don Juan Triumphant”, further adding to The Phantom’s magical feats. And so many other things that I could just waffle on about endlessly, but I want to dig into the meat of this thing finally: what makes me love it so much.
What makes The Phantom of the Opera work for me is that, at its heart, it is a love story revolving around a love triangle. Throughout it, Christine is torn between Raoul, her childhood best friend who comes back into her life unexpectedly at the start of the musical, and The Phantom, who also taught her to sing. She initially is drawn towards The Phantom, especially during “Music of the Night” (which is the equal third best song with “Point of No Return” and “Down Once More”), but what ruins his chances is his self-consciousness in regards to his facial deformity. Which in a way is justified, because of how people have mistreated him for it in the past, but it negatively affects his ability to form meaningful relationships with people, especially with Christine, who he curses out for ripping his mask off while he wasn’t paying attention. He forgives her, but he further does himself no favours by murdering a stage hand, which forces Christine into Raoul’s arms.
Eventually this all culminates in “Down Once More”, where after his last ditch attempt to win Christine’s heart fails during “Point of No Return”, The Phantom drags her down into his lair once again and plans to make her his bride. Raoul follows them, but he gets caught in The Phantom’s lasso and hoisted up, barely keeping himself from suffocating. The Phantom then forces Christine to choose: choose him and Raoul lives or leave and send Raoul to his grave. What follows is probably the highlight of the entire show, with The Phantom and Christine singing at each other while Raoul hangs in the noose, powerless to do anything.
In an attempt to show him that he is “not alone”, Christine kisses The Phantom, so powerfully that it makes Raoul look away in horror. And then…everything stops. Despite getting what he wanted this entire time, all of the things that he’s done up to that point just hit him like a freight train and he realises something: that in spite of how much he loves her and how much she clearly loves him, he can’t let Christine stay with him.
He does the only thing he can and lets her and Raoul go, knowing that he’ll be able to give her the life she deserves. Making that choice completely destroys him, but it’s done out of love. But then she comes back and they say goodbye to each other and I-I-*cries*
That ending is what makes the love story work, as it serves as The Phantom’s maturation from who he had been the entire show: a self entitled asshole who, sure, loved Christine, but his way of showing her that was problematic at best. He thought he was damned, an “angel in hell”, and through her love and sympathy for him, he learned that he wasn’t and became a better person who, in a better life, would’ve lived happily ever after with Christine. But unfortunately, that’s not the world they lived in and he finally realised that; releasing his hold over her and letting her be loved by another. It is the perfect ending and has made me cry pretty much every time.
But before I wrap this up, I need to talk about Raoul: the “other man” and the only real problem I have with the musical. And I want to preface this by saying that I don’t blame Hadley Fraser for any of this (or Steve Barton in the original cast recording for that matter), as all of my problems stem from how the character was written and I seriously don’t think they really had control over any of that. That being said, Raoul is inconsistent at best and awful at worst.
My problems with him as a character start at his introduction and just get worse from there. During “Think of Me”, he sees Christine singing and instantly recognises her from their childhood together, declaring that “she may not remember me, but I remember her”. Which is fine, but it’s when he goes to her dressing room after the performance and basically forces himself back into her life that I start to take issue. They never explicitly state how long it’s been since they saw her each other, but it’s easy to infer that it’s been a while and that they haven’t really kept in contact. So him acting so arrogant and immediately arranging for them to have dinner that night, despite her protests that “things have changed”, really irks me to no end. Like what was your big plan if she legitimately didn’t remember you, guy? Continue to send her cryptic letters describing events from your shared past? Bleh.
Oh, but it gets better. After The Phantom hangs a stage hand, Christine runs onto the roof to get some air and to try and get away from horror she had just witnessed. Raoul follows her out and then proceeds to basically completely dismiss all of her fears and concerns about The Phantom, including the fact that she’s seen him, in the most dickish way possible. They end up confessing their love for each other, but it doesn’t really make up for the way he treats her just two seconds earlier. He then tops himself by proposing that they use Christine as bait to lure The Phantom into a trap, something she desperately doesn’t want to do. I’m not saying someone shouldn’t have that plan or anything, it just shouldn’t be the guy who she’s engaged to at this point and who not twenty seconds earlier was telling her that “they can’t make you” perform in the lead role of The Phantom’s “Don Juan Triumphant”.
When he’s not pulling garbage like that, he’s acting completely oblivious to everything going on, like in “Wandering Child” when he tells Christine that The Phantom is “not your father”…which comes out of nowhere, cause at no point during the song does she suggest that she thinks that. Or during “Down Once More”, when he says “why make her lie to you to save me”, which bothers me way more than it probably should and links into a bigger problem I have with Raoul: he doesn’t know that he’s in a love triangle. Love triangles work when all three parties know that they’re in and it helps to develop all of them; helping to avoid the idea that one of the choices is simply “the other man” or “other woman”. Christine and The Phantom both know what’s going, as it’s why he slips the lasso around Raoul’s neck and forces Christine to choose in the first place. Raoul is the only one who doesn’t and it really hinders his character.
Raoul being so inconsistent bothers me because he’s meant to be everything The Phantom wishes he could be and The Phantom always acts in reaction to Raoul. He reveals himself to Christine and brings her down to his lair for the first time after Raoul re-enters her life, he destroys the chandelier after Raoul and Christine declare their love for each other, he reappears during “The Masquerade” after Raoul and Christine return, he burns down the cemetery after Raoul prevents him from entrancing Christine again, and he forces Christine to choose after Raoul follows them down. Raoul is still a better person, sure, but only because The Phantom is a murderer and kidnapper, and it honestly shouldn’t be like that and in any other musical: he would bring it down.
Thankfully this isn’t any musical, so Raoul isn’t enough to detract from my overall enjoyment. The Phantom of the Opera is an insanely amazing musical that I’ll continue to be obsessed with for many years to come. I strongly urge you to check it out, especially The Royal Albert Hall version, as I don’t think my words do it justice. May it make your song take flight as much it did mine.