ANDREW LLOYD WEBBER: THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA (1987)
1) Prologue; 2) Overture; 3) Think Of Me; 4) Angel Of Music; 5) Little Lotte / The Mirror / Angel Of Music; 6) The Phantom Of The Opera; 7) The Music Of The Night; 8) I Remember / Stranger Than You Dreamt It; 9) Magical Lasso; 10) Notes / Prima Donna; 11) Poor Fool He Makes Me Laugh; 12) Why Have You Brought Me Here; 13) All I Ask Of You; 14) All I Ask Of You (reprise); 15) Entr'acte; 16) Masquerade / Why So Silent; 17) Notes... / Twisted Every Way...; 18) Wishing You Were Somehow Here Again; 19) Wandering Child... / Bravo, Monsieur; 20) The Point Of No Return; 21) Down Once More... / Track Down This Murderer.
Somewhere in the syrupy depths of ʽMusic Of The Nightʼ, there is something sung about how «silently the senses abandon their defenses», which is probably the cleverest line in the entire musical — this is exactly the effect that Sir Andrew was going for here, and I must say, it works. Perhaps my defenses are not as solid as those of the modern day Spartans who eat Henry Cow for breakfast, but why deal in extremes all the time?..
The Phantom Of The Opera was totally huge in its time and still remains one of the epitomes of hugeness. This alone would be sure to generate a big ball of hatred, but there's worse: it is also the epitome of kitsch, a sprawling, «tasteless» simplification of classical music values. In a way, it is the direct predecessor to these sorts of things — from Titanic to Harry Potter — that produce extremely mixed reactions in people: on one hand, they are not overtly «bad» (professional, carefully crafted, stimulating, exciting, etc.), on the other hand... oh, well. They also divide people like few other things can — provoking either fanatical adoration, or deep hatred; the latter can very easily spread from the «piece of art» onto the people who adore it, so be careful.
First, let us let out some demons. The story behind Phantom, no matter how already textbook-ish before Lloyd Webber decided to tackle it, is silly and fluffy. Gaston Leroux, who wrote the original novel, was no Edgar Poe and not even a Bram Stoker (actually, it only takes a quick browse through the titles of his numerous novels to realize that). It is, in fact, the silliest and fluffiest subject picked up by Sir Andrew up to that point — at least neither Cats nor Starlight Express pretended to adult-oriented seriousness, but Phantom does, and this is reflected in the arrangements, requiring a fully formed symphonic orchestra (which eventually had to be somewhat cut down from the original design for touring purposes).
Nor is the production free from the usual shortcomings of post-JC Lloyd Webber: big, clumsy hooks, simplistically adapted from the composer's musical experience, repeating themselves over and over again until one becomes unsure of the exact reason they stick in one's head — is it because they're so good, or just because you have heard them so many times already? Again, the man was accused of stealing from Puccini (ʽMusic Of The Nightʼ), and, more famously, from Pink Floyd: Roger Waters explicitly stated that Sir Andrew had expropriated one of the sub-melodies of ʽEchoesʼ for the main «Introducing The Phantom» theme of the musical. But why didn't he sue? "Life's too short to sue Andrew fuckin' Lloyd Webber", he is supposed to have said, while writing up the subpoenas for his own former band mates. Yet I have a sneaky suspicion that he might have really been afraid of Andrew fuckin' Lloyd Webber choosing a line of defence in which he would scoop up a half-dozen earlier musical scores which would all involve the same melody — it is, after all, a rather trivial chromatic run that anyone can incidentally or deliberately run across. You don't really have to be Andrew fuckin' Lloyd Webber to write the spooky «da-da-da-da-DAAA, do-do-do-do-DOO» bit in Phantom Of The Opera and make it one of the most instantly recognizable phrases of the century. Or, wait a moment — maybe you do.
If, on Starlight Express, the composer's point was to make a head-spinning mish-mash of all the possible «pop» styles, his task on Phantom was more complex — to make a similar mish-mash out of the different varieties of both «academic» and «pop-oriented» classical music. Hence, there is a little bit of everything here. Church organ with baroque flourishes; Viennese court music; light-headed, free-perching Mozartian opera themes; Neapolitan heart-on-the-sleeve pathos; and, of course, plenty of attempts at reincarnating the spirits of Gilbert & Sullivan. No Alban Berg influences, though, for reasons that are easy to understand.
Predictably, the result is a classical music lover's nightmare, but a paradise for supporters of healthy, wholesale «family entertainment». The «scary» elements of the story are reduced to a sparse minimum (so there's a chandelier crashing down and a guy with a partially disfigured face, big deal for an epoch in which Nightmare On Elm Street was already a couple years old), with the romantic parts occupying like 60% of the story and the «comical» parts taking care of most of the rest. Phantom Of The Opera is, indeed, the last step in the gradual transformation of Lloyd Webber from an ambitious musical rebel that used to have his own point of view on meaningful issues — into a calculated commercial hack thriving on the superficial.
But as long as we accept that, Phantom Of The Opera is, unquestionably, the master of its own domain. I mean, we can all live with a simple fairy tale, and this one has its own unique appeal. Even the singers sound like they come straight out of a fairy tale, particularly Sarah Brightman, with her voice of such otherworldly transparent clarity, it seems like they polished it with glass-dust for several years before letting her out to sing. (She does not have too much appeal beyond that clarity, but she is well chosen anyway, for a role that demands the character to be a living china doll and little else.) So is Michael Crawford in the title role, playing it so naturally as if he'd come straight off from playing heartbroken Disney villains for decades.
The thing is, there are some «cheap thrills» out there that do not work, and there are some that do. Lloyd Webber may have lost his credibility as a «serious» artist (although he himself would probably deny the existence of the huge gap that lies between JCS and Phantom), but I would be lying through my teeth if I denied the effectiveness of these hooks — the scary ones, the comic ones, the romantic ones. The Phantom-introducing theme may be trivial, or it may be stolen, but it still triggers a little heart-jump every time it appears out of nowhere. The title track, «decorated» with a steady electronic beat to give it extra hit-single power, has an unforgettable Gothic glow (which made it into a favorite for various aspiring poppy-Goth-and/or-art-metal bands). ʽMusic Of The Nightʼ and ʽPoint Of No Returnʼ are beauty-and-the-beast romance done as fine as the genre is capable of doing. The vaudevillian interludes during which the theater staff is reciting the Phantom's letters are genuinely funny (including the words of the letters themselves). And the idea of contrasting the «mannered», «wooden» way in which Carlotta begins to sing ʽThink Of Meʼ with Christine Sarah Brightman's fragility-itself performance is, as much as I hate to admit it, a touch of musical genius.
The unavoidable consequence of all this is, as we get to the finale and a devastated Phantom Of The Michael Crawford belting out "it's over now, the music of the night", the evil Sir Andrew will have succeeded where his character has not: make many a listener, including even some jaded ones, swoon under his spell, and maybe even shed a tear or two for the poor Phantom. On a purely intellectual basis, the musical deserves, at best, a condescending attitude, at worst, total despisal. But on a gut level, I have even known a couple of genuine classical music aficionados who confessed to having enjoyed Phantom, even as they were well aware of its utter fluffiness. And even from a purely reason-based standpoint, there is probably no better way to integrate the old school of opera, the newer school of operetta, and the modern school of Broadway musical together than the way it has been done by Webber. As for all the corn syrup... well, frankly speaking, there are quite a few remarks here that could be addressed at «serious» Italian opera itself.
Phantom Of The Opera is a landmark that certainly needs to be heard, preferably in the original London cast version (the show shared the usual A.Ll.W. curse of cheapening up with time, and, by all means, nobody really needs to see the Joel Schumacher movie). I doubt that it could ever function as a proper introduction into the «wonderful world of classical music» for «the people», no more so than Harry Potter could ever function as a useful tool for «introducing the young reader to the habit of reading books» (practice showing that it only served as a useful tool for introducing them to the habit of reading Harry Potter-type books). But it may serve as one of those bridges on which certain types of people, usually keeping far away from each other, may be ready to meet and discuss things together. Except the «cheap funny fluff» of one listener will be the «amazing, breathtaking musical journey» of another.
My compromise will look as follows: I give Phantom Of The Opera an unflinching thumbs up — and with this, make it my last review of an Andrew Lloyd Webber production. From the bits and pieces I have heard or read about, his subsequent immersion into the world of «show tunes», which I normally stay away from simply through lack of interest, was complete, yet none of his subsequent productions replicated even a tiny part of the brouhaha caused by Phantom. There may be occasional patches of populist greatness left in there, but it just makes no sense reviewing that kind of music instead of, say, Westside Story. On the other hand, the musical journey that began with Joseph and Jesus reaches quite a natural ending here — a thrilling journey, in itself, one that perhaps deserves being turned into its own musical (on the malicious effects of commercial success, entitled Phantom Of The Superstar). And who would be the composer and the librettist? That one's easy — Roger Waters, of course!
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