A quarter century running on Broadway. This impressive milestone was just reached by Phantom of the Opera. Last February, when this production played its ten-thousandth performance, I wrote a somewhat positive piece explaining its success. This winter, a great quantity of movie-goers are becoming aware of the witless sobfest that is Les Misérables. In the minds of many, these are the two pillars of the Eurotrash era, the best that genre has to offer. Ooh, here’s an honest confession: writing that last sentence, I made a Freudian typo, “the best the genre has to awful.”
It feels somewhat like jumping on a huge pile of linebackers who’ve already tackled the little-Phantom-that-could to mention some of the things that bother me about this show and Eurotrash musicals in general. So I’ll try to be brief and hopefully say a few things others haven’t.
The title tune was a late-era disco hit. And therein lies a problem. I can remember a disco version of Don’t Cry For Me Argentina earlier, but apparently Andrew Lloyd Webber had a yen to have a disco hit that was actually conceived of as disco music. Playing this thing on the piano is a real pain in the left hand. Every measure contains eight eighth notes in octaves (I can hear the non-musicians going “Huh?”) which is the sort of obstinate ostinato you’d hear nowhere else but the disco. Lloyd Webber’s girlfriend at the time, the annoyingly chirpy chipmunk Sarah Brightman, had – or powers-that-be thought she had – an impressively high soprano range. So, before there was any show to be produced, out came a disco single, and it charted.
So, next the creators were compelled to build a musical around that one hit. Did this mean that every song would be in proto-Goth disco style? Thankfully, no. In my favorite number from the score, Think Of Me, Lloyd Webber goes from the tonic to the dominant-over-a-tonic-bass. This might remind one of actual nineteenth century operas: the song successfully evokes time and place, and even manages to spoof the genre a little. As the play progresses, there are other musical moments that seem apt for the world of The Paris Opera. And then the Phantom takes the diva to the basement and all hell breaks lose.
Because, in order to justify the inclusion of that previously-created disco song, we have to step into an alternate reality. A boat is gliding along in the manner of those slow Disneyland rides that grandparents enjoy. A smoke machine is having a conniption. The lyric has so little to say, nobody listens to it. It’s as if all the good work Lloyd Webber has done setting up the time and place with purloined themes has gone out the window. And it’s one of those little windows, high on the wall, because we’re in the basement.
Or, considering there’s a raft down there, maybe it’s a sewer: another trope-in-common with CamMac’s Miserable musical.
Phantom of the Opera seems guided by the principle that an audience will accept a narrative detour as long as there are special effects involved. So, for no reason I could discern, our heroine visits the grave of her late father. After dark, of course, for that’s what people do. She sings a gloss on Gilbert and Sullivan’s Ah Leave Me Not To Pine with a title taken from Hallmark, Wishing You Were Somehow Here Again. Then we’re all startled when, out of nowhere, a laser show begins. Oddly, it’s less impressive than the light sculpture lampoon in Sunday In the Park With George. Hey: I came to see a falling chandelier, not Late Night At the Planetarium.
But I guess one can appreciate an unfettered willingness to do anything to entertain. But the issue becomes: what passes for entertainment? I think back, as I often do, to Oklahoma! –
Why should a woman who is healthy and strong
Blubber like a baby if her man goes away?
I could go on and on about how influential Oklahoma! was (at the drop of a ten-gallon hat). But here’s what’s germane: this character refuses to pity herself. And in musical theatre for the next twenty-five years or so, no character pitied herself. And why not? Because the great writers of the forties, fifties and sixties all believed self-pity was not the sort of emotion worthy of a place on the stage. More commonly, characters who felt bad struggled to persevere with some positive energy. This sort of thing can be thrilling.
What a horrifying reversal has beset us in the age of Phantom. In what surely would have disgusted the likes of Rodgers and Hammerstein, characters regularly pity themselves. The expression “I hate to see a grown man cry” applies: That Phantom is so upset his face is disfigured, so heartbroken that the ingenue doesn’t love him, he whines about it, at length. It motivates all sorts of creepy behavior.
But, somehow, the authors expect us to sympathize with him and his plight. I think of those after-school specials I saw as a kid: someone has a disability, schoolmates are cruel or standoffish, but he learns to rise above it and excels. Phantom, in a huge contrast, shows a scarred grown-up behaving badly. Had the creators never seen those specials?
It’s possible Lloyd Webber, born in 1948, was too old to have seen them. But his lyricist, Charles Hart, was a young man who’d done very little before and startlingly little since. Offhand, I can’t think of a more puerile set of lyrics for a successful score. The melodies, by comparison, have ample amounts of prettiness. But the texts of the songs are so dull and clichéd, I’m wholly unmoved. Phantom of the Opera is a love story with no real love in it, primarily because the sung material is so empty, devoid of feeling.
Frankly, I’d rather see a planetarium’s laser show. More impressive, special effects-wise, and, with the projected night sky, more romantic.