“How could it happen?” asked some guy on Facebook, referring to Phantom of the Opera’s recent milestone, 10,000 performances on Broadway, as if it were some avoidable catastrophe. Tragedy or not, there is, somewhere in there, a question we should all be asking ourselves. What is it that has led Phantom of the Opera to be so phenomenally successful?
My last few posts, I’ve sounded like a nattering nabob of negativism. I could continue that this week, and point out Phantom’s flaws, but that’s picking low-lying fruit and besides, it’s Valentine’s Day as I write this. So, I’m going to take an uncharacteristically charitable view of a Eurotrash blockbuster, and focus on what it’s doing, not how well it’s doing it.
So let’s start with something obvious: Phantom of the Opera is a romantic musical. Love is central to the plot, with the concomitant jealousy and devotion front and center. It’s firmly part of a long-standing tradition in which outsized emotions are given full exploration and expression. Sweeping, passionate. Some look for this sort of feeling in the opera house; certainly, one finds it in operetta. And today…
Today, there’s certainly still a sizable segment of the ticket-buying public that wants to see a romantic musical, one that’s pretty in costumes, sets, performers’ looks, and, yes, music. One can argue about the quality of those melodies, but I, for one, thought these tunes were pretty back when I heard them in The Girl of the Golden West, The Pirates of Penzance and Threepenny Opera. Of course, they had far better lyrics, not to mention orchestrations, but I’ll go out on a limb and say that tunefulness is one of the principal virtues of this poperetta.
That Facebook fellow seems to view the five-digit quantity of performances Phantom of the Opera has racked up as some sort of a disaster. I feel the only fiasco here is that, during this long run, producers failed to wise up and put on similarly romantic/pretty shows to capture that audience. What else has there been?
Well, one might argue that two of the longest-running hits, Rent and Miss Saigon, have certain similarities. Both these shows are based on operas, and both put romance front and center. You get moments when characters are singing passionately to each other about the love-ly emotions they feel. I’m reminded of a show I enjoyed a whole lot more, Thoroughly Modern Millie: using a comic and light tone, the heart of the character is depicted in larger-than-life numbers like Gimme Gimme and Forget About the Boy.
On record, I quite enjoy Michel Legrand’s music for a little flop musical called Amour. But what leaps out at me, looking over the list of musicals that have opened since Phantom of the Opera, is how few shows amplify amour. It’s as if Broadway powers-that-be have become embarrassed by emotion. They’re poorer for it, and the not-quite-lovable and near-witless Phantom is laughing all the way to the bank.