The Lloyd Webber blockbuster musical turns 30 today. But is it a timeless beauty or decaying old corpse? Sooz Kempner decides so you don’t have to.
What and why: Andrew Lloyd Webber’s The Phantom of the Opera is currently the West End’s second longest-running musical (right behind Les Miserables) and plays to packed houses eight times a week.
I’m a real musicals guy. I trained in musical theatre and if I was asked what makes for a great musical I’d say the score, book (script) and lyrics need to be equally strong. There are plenty of musicals with a gorgeous score but if it has shoddy lyrics and a mediocre book it’s a crappy show.
A frequent criticism thrown at musical theatre is that everyone is always bursting into song for no reason. Well, that’s true of crummy musicals but a good show will integrate its songs seamlessly with the spoken dialogue. Ever since Show Boat in 1927, the songs in a musical have been used to drive the plot rather than just stop the action for a bit of a sing. Phantom certainly does this. Every song is there for a reason.
The lead is Christine, a beauty in an opera’s chorus. In her dreams she’s been visited by the eponymous Phantom who’s been giving her singing lessons. Bear with me. When a bit of set comes crashing down at the opera house the diva Carlotta (our comic relief) refuses to go on stage so Christine steps in, ‘cos apparently the only singers in the entire opera company are Carlotta and a chorus girl.
Christine’s debut is a triumph and she falls in love with a gent called Raoul. A bit later the Phantom appears in a mirror and takes Christine to an underground lair. There’s a whole bunch of crazy crap that happens for the next two hours but I can’t be bothered to fill you in.
Basically the Phantom is in love with Christine, Raoul is in love with Christine and Christine swears her love to Raoul but also wants to bonezone with the Phantom, whom she’s kind of shit-scared of. The Phantom writes an opera, drops a chandelier on the stage and learns you cannot force someone to love you. Even though Christine kind of does.
“The Phantom is written as this whiny, ranting brat. He’s the original Internet Nice Guy.”
A great musical needs a great book, lyrics and score with no weak link. Phantom is Lloyd Webber’s most famous score and I’m due a lynching so it may as well be for this: the music is hideously dated. This is supposed to be a rock musical and I can’t believe the grit-free electric guitar riffing didn’t sound five years out of date even in 1986.
When brilliantly sung (as it tends to be because West End Phantoms are incredible) Music of the Night can’t fail to stir, but every time that guitar starts screeching I long for another chandelier to take a tumble. The standout moment for me musically is The Point of No Return, a duet between Christine and the Phantom towards the end of Act II. It’s intense, multi-layered, gripping and doesn’t sound like dad rock. I give a shit during The Point of No Return.
The Phantom of the Opera’s book and lyrics are… fine, I guess. Look, I’m in the minority, I know this, but I couldn’t give a shit what happens to any of these characters. I don’t want Christine and Raoul to die and if I’m being generous I’d say I’d like to them to end up together. But that’s for one reason: the Phantom is written as this whiny, ranting brat. He’s the original Internet Nice Guy.
If the show took place in modern day cyberland instead of 19th-century Paris he’d be on men’s rights message boards whinging about how chicks overlook him because they’re not interested in an artistic nice guy, they’re just fucking bitches who only want bad-boy hot guys. He’d post moody selfies in his mask.
At the end of the show Christine, held hostage, tells him it’s not his scarred face that puts people off, it’s his shitty attitude and, to be fair, he does let her go, but fuck that guy. You hear that, Phantom? Fuck you. His emo-complaining throughout the show creates a truly unpleasant titular character.
Rated or dated: Ugh, so I have to say whether Phantom is rated or dated. My feelings on the musical are complicated. I find it almost entirely unmoving and that’s a problem because even Les Mis, as dated as it is, still has the power to transport me and even make me tear up a little. The pure spectacle of the show is still impressive but it pales in comparison to newer shows such as Wicked. Phantom showed us how sumptuous a show could be but everybody’s doing it now and often bigger and better.
But I have to respect Phantom’s legacy. To still have audiences flocking after 30 years is amazing. As much as the sequel, Love Never Dies, is considered a bit of a bomb, it’s testament to Phantom’s enduring popularity that there was demand for a sequel at all. And there’s a movie. Only a handful of modern musicals make it to the big screen and Phantom is one of them. The film is a pure clusterfuck but it still happened.
Phantom is DATED. It’s… really dated and, for me, it’s a mediocre musical, far from Lloyd Webber’s best (either Jesus Christ Superstar or Evita) and extremely far from a classic show if quality is the only barometer.
I can’t ignore the legacy, though, so I guess I have to say, “Keep on rockin’ Phantom.” I don’t particularly like you but I’m pretty much the only one and so I’ll respectfully salute you. And buy tickets for something else.
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