Friday, January 31, 2014

From The Appendices: "The Phantom of the Opera" Explained (Part 1/2)

Not pictured: any mask actually worn
by the Phantom at any point
Earlier in January, I watched a recording of Andrew Lloyd Webber's "The Phantom of the Opera" with a friend who had no great love for the musical. She knew the songs, but didn't understand the story. Naturally, it was my responsibility to ruin redeem it for her.

If you don't know POTO, dear reader, this post from the appendices is for you. And if you do know it... I'm sorry for what I'm about to do to this great classic.

For the record: I have indeed read the original book by Gaston Leroux, which is less about misunderstood serial killers and more about French detectives and Persian expats.) I'll eventually do a book grump for the 1990 novel Phantom by Susan Kay. I've memorized the recording from the original Broadway cast, starring Sarah "Dating The Composer" Brightman and Michael "I Was Actually A Comedian Before This" Crawford. I've seen an off-Broadway performance in D.C., as well as the 2004 film starring Gerard Butler (a handsome albeit tone-deaf actor, perfectly suited to play the role of a hypnotically entrancing singer with a face like a partially decayed eggplant)

The specific performance which sparked this irreverent summary is the 2011 show recorded at the Royal Albert Hall. It's a beautiful performance that is remarkably well filmed, by the way, and I highly recommend watching it at the link.

Please note: the following summary is written purely from memory, and may be entirely inaccurate. Students writing papers on the book should not consider this a valid source of information, especially since it is not the book but the musical being discussed.


CLACK! goes the auctioneer's gavel, auctioning off various relics of the glory days of opera. Chief among them is a dusty old chandelier, which has some vague hints of a ghost story attached to it. Don't worry if you miss the details; we're about to get all of them. The fact that it is Lot Number 666 is entirely coincidental. Don't think about it too hard, because when the lights come on, it's time to do the time warp!

It's Paris, 1881, and we're about to enter the fabulous world of the opera house (because it's actually New York, 1986, and we are all about fabulous.) After one too many incidents, the owner of the Paris Opera House Opera Populaire is selling it off. From now on, the usual problems of showbiz (flouncing divas, dwindling attendance, dead bodies falling onto the stage) belong to Mssrs. Firmin and Andre.

(Wait, what was that last part?)

At the request of her new employers, Carlotta, the headliner soprano, attempts to perform an aria from that night's performance. "Attempts" is the operative word here, because she gets through less than a verse before a set piece pretty much falls on her head. The cast informs Mssrs. F&A that this happens all the time. Opera Ghost, you know. Cranky fellow. Carlotta takes a rain check for her own safety, leaving the opera without a leading lady that night.

Fortunately, one of the chorus girls, Christine, has been taking voice lessons! Her tutor is an invisible angel who sings to her in her dressing room when no one is around (don't make this weird, Christine.) This is probably not related to the set-dropping ghost. Living the dream of every understudy ever, Christine performs Carlotta's role to resounding applause and an unprecedented lack of falling fixtures ["Think Of Me"].

Mme. Giry, the dancing instructor, tells Christine that He will be pleased. Her daughter Meg, Christine's BFF, asks Christine who exactly is giving her lessons. Christine explains about the Angel, who's been sent by her dead father ["Angel of Music"]. This is totes legit.

Meanwhile, out in the audience, the Vicomte Raoul de Chagny--take a moment to really let that name roll around your tongue--has recognized the shiny new diva as Jenny From The Block, and runs to her dressing room to find her.

Now, it's important here to remember that by and large, female performers did not have a great reputation at this time. The leading diva, Carlotta, got to where she was partly by being a great soprano and partly through the "patronage" of various wealthy opera-going gentlemen. So when young Raoul goes dashing off to find Christine, his friends are all wink-wink, nudge-nudge, Raoul's gonna bang the soprano.

But no! After some reminiscing about when they were kids together, when Christine's dad was a famous violinist ["Little Lotte" and half-forgotten plot point sighting #1!], Christine tells Raoul that she can't go out on the town with him. Her invisible angel tutor is super cranky about curfew. Not that this is weird or anything. It's just to keep her voice in shape. Yeah. That's it.

Pictured: the lake at the bottom
of the actual Paris Opera House.
Not pictured: loveshack.
As soon as Christine's alone, the angel-who-is-definitely-not-the-opera-ghost makes himself heard. He chews her out for Talking To Boys, because he's a very prudish angel (not that this is weird!) Christine begs her incorporeal buddy not to be mad, it won't happen again, and can she have her music lesson now? ["Angel of Music (Reprise)"]

The Angel says yes, but how about at his place this time--in the creepy flooded basement of the Opera House where no one ever goes. He reveals the mirror in Christine's dressing room to be his secret stalker entrance, reveals himself to be a very corporeal dude in a mask, and whisks Christine off to his loveshack lair on a swelling tide of organ music ["The Phantom of the Opera"].

Not pictured: someone
cast for his singing voice.
Just as Christine starts to wonder what kind of angel lives underground in a black pit, the wooing begins! The masked Phantom seduces her with song, persuading her about the awesomeness of music when you can't be distracted by silly things like your eyesight ["Music of the Night"]. He has brought her here to be the voice for all the music he composes. This is a purely hands-off seduction, by the by; for all that the Phantom is undressing her with his voice, every attempt Christine makes to establish physical contact with her mysterious kidnapper is firmly rebuffed. Most importantly, the mask stays on.

The music alone is still enough for Christine to fall into a dead swoon upon the climax. The Phantom gallantly tosses her into the honeymoon suite he's prepared for her and goes to practices on his organ.

(I'll wait.)

Christine wakes up, probably thinking this has all been a really bad trip. She's surprised, to say the least, to find herself in an actual underground lair with an actual masked man. Still, he seems cool even if he's no Angel, so she goes to get a real look at him. While his attention is elsewhere, she yoinks his mask.

And promptly regrets it, because there is something horrifyingly wrong with his face! He covers it with his hand, but whatever Christine sees (we, the audience, have to wait for Act 2 to find out) is so hideous that she screams and cowers.

The alluring Angel of the previous night throws a terrifying tantrum at her ["I Remember There Was Mist/Stranger Than You Dreamt It"]. Just when Christine is sure this disfigured maniac is going to murder her and toss her body in the underground lake, he snaps back into wooing mode. He assures Christine that she'll learn to love him. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, right? Christine is happy to agree to anything as long as he puts his mask back on, because she's about to throw up or faint at the sight of him. He does so, remembers that she has rehearsal, and whisks her back to the world above.

On the way, the plot pauses for Mme. Giry and the stage manager to explain about the Opera Ghost's favorite killing method--strangulation ["Magical Lasso," and half-forgotten plot sighting #2].

Pictured: the face of dark
musical romance.
Not pictured: fangirls swooning.
The new managers of the Opera Populaire--remember them?--are having a crisis. Their new star, Christine, has vanished from her dressing room; their usual diva, Carlotta, is in a snit about being replaced; Raoul, the Vicomte de Chagny, accuses them of hiding his shiny new girlfriend; and Mme. Giry delivers a pack of letters from the Opera Ghost!

The Opera Ghost, a.k.a. the Angel of Music, a.k.a. the Phantom announces that he has dibs on Christine, and also, he wants her playing the lead in the next show. As for Carlotta, as far as he's concerned, she can be sacked. And he wants his usual monthly stipend, which is something the previous owner of the Opera Populaire neglected to mention was a thing ["Notes"].

Understandably, these decrees please no one. Carlotta demonstrates her prowess as Queen of the Hissy Fit. To placate her, Mssrs. F&A agree that she'll have the lead as usual, with Christine cast as a mute crossdresser ["Prima Donna"]. Raoul wonders why Christine stood him up. No one takes the Opera Ghost's notes seriously, or asks Mme. Giry why she's his mailman.

Fast forward to the night of the opera. It's a silly farce about a noblewoman who hooks up with a younger man on the sly while her husband is away, which becomes really interesting on the fifth or sixth viewing when you realize that the lyrics are actually a reference to the fatal love triangle forming between Christine, handsome Raoul, and the jealous Phantom ["Poor Fool, He Makes Me Laugh")].

The Phantom is displeased to find that his orders re: the casting have been disobeyed. This time, he doesn't drop scenery on Carlotta's head--instead, he shows off his hitherto unsuspected skill as a ventriloquist by making her appear to sing like a bullfrog. That's a career-killer right there. Hastily Mssrs. F&A reassign Christine to play the lead for the rest of the show, but it's too little, too late. The Phantom continues the shenanigans by tossing the stage manager into the middle of the ballet--strangled to death. This was the recognized period equivalent to dropping the mic and walking off stage. Your move, Mssrs.!

Pictured: a rug burn so bad,
he was forced to shun human
society (and murder people)
Afraid of what else the Phantom has up his sleeve, Christine bolts to the roof, as far from her "Angel" and his lair as possible. Raoul is hot on her heels, demanding to know what she's so afraid of, because apparently he was taking a bathroom break during the whole frog-voice and murdered-dude bit. Christine tries to explain that no seriously, the Opera Ghost is very real and very dangerous, but in the telling, she remembers the hypnotic quality of his voice and begins to fall back under his spell right then and there ["Why Have You Brought Me Here/Raoul, I've Been There"].

At last Raoul recognizes that Christine is in serious trouble, and he steps up to the plate and takes a swing at heroism. He assures Christine that he'll protect her and that they can keep the lights on, always ["All I Ask Of You"]. Thus reassured, Christine pulls herself together enough to go back downstairs and finish the catastrophe of an opera, because kidnappings and murder are one thing, but professional integrity is totes important.

This is a mistake. The Phantom (of course) has heard every word she said to Raoul. He wails a bit about the faithlessness of the woman he hypnotized, kidnapped, and musically deflowered ["All I Ask Of You (Reprise)"] then drops the Opera chandelier at her feet, because bouquets are for chumps.

End of Act 1!

1 comment:

  1. Really a nice article, thank you. Many details i don't know till now. I read the book from Susan Kay and liked it a lot. Now i should read the one from Gaston Leroux. Regards!