I recently saw a show that I have literally been avoiding for over 20 years. I’ve argued with friends, family and theatre colleagues about the merits of this show, and have refused to see it. They have deemed it a masterpiece, while I have deemed it a glorification of abuse and romanticizing the stalking of women with 1980s electronic music.
Can you guess which show I saw?
Nope, not Oklahoma! Try again.
Nah, Grease was just filled with innuendo and women giving up their personalities to please their men.
Was Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Phantom of the Opera your next guess? Because if it was, you would be totally right.
And you may be wondering, “If you hate Phantom so much, why did you go?” Partially because it was a part of my season package at the local theatre, and partially because the people I have argued with in the past had a point – I was very quick to judge, but I had never actually seen the musical all the way through. My experience with it was limited to being forced to sing Music of the Night with my high school choir and re-enacting Masquerade with my dance troupe in college. Masquerade I could deal with, Music of the Night made me want to scream.
So I went into the show deciding to give Phantom a chance. Perhaps I was wrong about this show. Surely it has to have some redeeming qualities – it’s been on Broadway for close to 30 years, there have been countless reviews about the love story between the Phantom and Christine, and the technical merits of the show have set precedents for future productions.
But much like coming home to find Ronald McDonald in lingerie in your bedroom, I found myself more horrified and disturbed by this show than I was before seeing it. At least without really seeing the full story, I could take other people’s accounts of the story as fact, which often painted the Phantom as a misunderstood, pitiful man who just needed someone to truly care about him.
Yeah…no. After seeing the show, I’m not buying any of that shit.
So please indulge me for my (finally) more well-informed rant about Phantom of the Opera that is over 20 years in the making.
Now it’s not all bad – the technical parts of the show (lighting, sound, costumes, sets) were amazing, and we can get into that later. But the story itself is worse than I imagined or read online. So…spoilers ahead if you haven’t seen Phantom -until recently, I thought I was only the person on the planet who hadn’t, but maybe there are others out there as well.
The show opened with an auction of items from the Paris Opera House in 1919; however, the dialogue at the beginning of this made it appear as if they were a theatre troupe rehearsing a play within a play. I think it was because the auctioneer announced that we were about to hear the tale of the Phantom of the Opera. Well, duh. Why the hell else were we there? Normal plays open to the action, rather than telling us what will happen, as that often will confuse the viewer (hint, hint, Webber…).
It wasn’t until they got to a music box that was to be auctioned off that I figured out it was an auction, and not some meta style rehearsal about the phantom who had terrorized the Paris opera house. An old man and woman bid against one another, and the old man wins the auction. We’ll later find out who these two are, but at this point, they’ve already moved on to Lot 666, the restored chandelier.
OK, how intentional do you think it was that this was Lot 666? Are they trying to make it super obvious from the start that the chandelier is cursed or demonic in nature? Or would it be the way the lights flickered ominously when they revealed it to the bidders? It was a beautiful set piece, incidentally. And then I wondered why the lights were flickering if we were hearing the tale years later. Was he still there? Were we going back to a flashback? What the hell was going on?
Ah, ok, I see, the large company of ballet dancers in harlequin style dresses, along with the prima donna singing in Italian that have now taken to the stage, with no transition, are apparently the indication that we are now back at the opera house in 1881 (and the Playbill helped). The choreography here was actually quite lovely, and the dancers were skilled in their craft.
(Credit: Phantom of the Opera US Tour)
New opera house managers Msrs. Firmin and Andre are introduced here, as well as Madame Giry, the ballet director. Her daughter Meg is a member of the ballet company, and Firmin, Andre and Giry reflect on the rehearsal until Carlotta, the Prima Donna, is scared off by the Phantom interrupting her performance.
So, of course, Christine, the shy ingénue ballet dancer and Meg’s best friend with the amazing voice, is tapped to replace Carlotta and sing the aria. After an amazing performance, and her return to her dressing room, she is reunited with her childhood friend, Raoul, the Vicomte de Chagny, who has come to see that evening’s performance. He’s also a bit controlling, telling Christine they are going to dinner after she is already dressed for bed. She claims that she cannot, because the Angel of Music forbids her from seeing others. She tells Raoul that the Angel was sent to her after her father died, and she needs to dedicate herself to music. Raoul understandably is a little wary of all this, considering he hasn’t seen her in years and she’s spouting off about an Angel of Music. He tells her he will be back in a few minutes to get her for dinner.
After Raoul leaves, a door opens at the top of the stairs and someone beckons her forward. Believing it is her angel, she willingly follows him.
Now, at this point, I started to internally scold myself. “You were wrong about this all this time. See, it’s a good thing you came to see the show, now you’ll understand what’s going on. She’s clearly just confused, she thinks he is the angel, and I could see how this could develop into a love story.”
But then the classic creepy synthesizers start and darkness falls across the stage with the main theme song of Phantom of the Opera. As they head down the stairs to his lair, she is literally singing about how he is the Phantom. So, she’s figured out he’s not the angel, and he’s holding onto her, but she doesn’t even make a move to go back.
(Credit: Phantom of the Opera US Tour)
Turn around. Seriously, just turn around. Clearly, Christine, this is not the angel you are looking for.
Instead, she follows him down to a gondola like boat, which he helps her into. The boat traveling across the stage was well done, although it was a very short trip because of the size of the theatre, and they got out of the wrong side of the boat, which kind of killed the illusion.
He then sings Music of the Night to her, quite possibly the rape-iest song ever in a musical. Weirdly, we had to sing this in choir in high school, despite some of us protesting, so I was never a huge fan. Now, within the context of the show, it made my skin crawl even more.
From a metaphorical standpoint, and if you look at it as if the Phantom’s only role was as a music mentor to Christine, it’s a beautiful song about letting go, tapping into your pain to create greater art, and recognizing that her incredible gift will bring life to music.
In this context, however, it comes across as Fifty Shades of Grey…with Music! And a confused and scared participant in Christine! My daughter and I did have one lovely juvenile moment, which annoyed the people next to us, because we both just started giggling uncontrollably. Seriously, with the weird sexual vibe to the song, how could one not laugh at:
Slowly, gently, night unfurls its splendor
Grasp it, sense it, tremulous and tender
particularly when then Phantom makes an air grasping gesture like he’s performing the most amazing musical version of onanism ever.
He blindfolds her at one point, I think to help her “feel” the music more, but her odd stumbling forward and him then carrying her, blindfolded, to his bed, definitely made me wonder if E.L. James was a fan of this show.
To his credit, he only puts her in the bed to sleep; he doesn’t really get abusive till the next morning. He’s playing the organ super loud and Christine doesn’t move. Then, however, a music box opens with the lightest of tunes (the same music box from the auction at the beginning) and Christine awakens. It made me think of that Family Guy episode(“Untitled Griffin Family History”) where they are recounting the history of Nate Griffin and Lois Laura Bush Lynne Cheney Pewterschmidt. Nate tries to wake her at her window by throwing rocks, but it doesn’t work. He then throws a horse through the window, to which she sits up and says “is someone there?” That’s how I felt with Christine. Apparently the organs don’t do it for her, but a tiny music box does.
She approaches the Phantom from behind, and he has not yet put on his mask. She gently tries to turn him to face her and all hell breaks loose.
Now, this guy professes that he loves her. And I get it. He has issues. Many, many issues. We find out later in the show that he was in a troop of conjurers and magicians as a child, and because of his facial deformity, his mother kept him in a cage. He clearly feels powerless, thus the need to terrorize the opera house.
However, we also learn from Madame Giry that he has lived beneath the opera house in his lair since he was younger and someone helped him escape the cage. She also delivers all of his messages when he has them for the managers of the opera house, and always seems to know when a tragedy is because of him. So he has had at least one woman show him kindness and tolerate his shitty antics around the opera house, or he’s able to dominate Madame Giry enough to do his bidding, to help him feel more powerful.
And seriously? Your student/favorite girl you love THINKS YOU ARE AN ANGEL. The Phantom isn’t stupid. He could have played up that whole angel thing – Christine would have done anything for him -s he probably would have even accepted his deformity because he’s an angel – who is she to judge?
So when Christine tries to turn him to face her without the mask, what happens next was more horrifying to me than anything I had visualized. Seriously, I had been able to sort of romanticize this show from what people had told me up to this point.
The Phantom literally throws her across the stage, yanks her up by her hair, and holds her head as if to break her neck. Then, realizing, hey perhaps I’ve gone too far, he tosses her again to the side and crawls away to try to cover his face.
He then calls to her, and I thought, “OK, he’s going to apologize. Not like it will make it much better, but progress.”
He instead says that she made him behave that way because of trying to see the monster.
Bravo, you bastard. Way to blame the victim.
Mr. Smarts finally realizes how shitty he has made the situation, as well as the fact that people might start wondering where Christine is, and takes her back up to her dressing room in the opera house.
At this point, the Phantom continues to terrorize the theatre employees, demanding that Christine be the star of the upcoming production. However, opera house managers Firmin and Andre finally each grow a pair and refuse to be intimidated, casting Christine in a secondary role.
To express his displeasure with this, the Phantom ruins Carlotta’s voice (the Prima Donna from the beginning), making her croak, rather than being able to sing. “OK,” I thought, “reasonable. He’s trying to piss off the audience so that ticket sales will go down because they have lost their star and Christine will have to take over.”
As the production tries to regroup from this brief interruption of the opera, Christine runs off in fear, since she knows who’s causing the problems. Raoul follows, and his vows of love and protection of course set off Mr. Possessive, who has of course also followed her. *cough* stalker *cough*
And what does he do to express his displeasure about this latest development in Christine’s life?
Kills a stage hand and attempts to kill members of the audience by dropping a chandelier on them.
That seems like a normal reaction. A loving one, even. I totally get why people say this is a love story.
And then I am left in stunned silence, listening to the people around me coo about how fabulous this show is until the start of Act 2.
So despite my desire to head out at intermission, I vow to stay to the end to see if and when this “love story” part is going to make an appearance. Maybe it is Christine and Raoul people are talking about?
This act opened with the beautifully staged Masquerade, and things started to look up. I will give Webber credit where credit is due; this is a beautifully scored song, and set against a ballroom with a mirrored background made it look as if the stage were filled with dancing couples, when there were only perhaps 10 sets in the production number. The costumes were gorgeous, and the masquerade masks were not so ostentatious as to be distracting. It is six months after the events of Act 1, and the employees, including Christine have not heard from the Phantom.
(Credit: Phantom of the Opera US Tour)
However, he makes his presence known by coming to the ball dressed as the Red Death and presenting Firmin and Andre with a copy of the opera he has written and wants produced.
And then I was back to being critical. Theoretically, there’s at least 40 people at this event, half of whom are men. Clearly, the Phantom was corporeal, since he handed a script to the managers. Why didn’t the 20 MEN STANDING AROUND stop him?
Maybe they were planning on stopping him-maybe there was this conversation going on while the Phantom was forcing his shitty opera on Firmin and Andre:
“Say, perhaps we can put this Phantom fellow into an eternity box if we all work together. Come, Henry, let’s bring down this scoundrel!”
“Why that’s just fizzing, Samuel! We’ll take him out with a floorer!”
“Why, do you not have your barker?”
“Alas, no, I’ve left it in my non-masquerade trousers. I do have this chiv, though.”
“Bully! Ah…oh no, no…we’ll have to hang up the fiddle, he’s gone. We’ve spent too much time planning in 19th century euphemisms.”
In any case, no one, men or women did anything. They just stood there while he demanded his opera be made.
However, Raoul, Firmin and Andre finally have an idea about how to defeat the Phantom. It’s a little convoluted, because, really Raoul is a Vicomte-at any point, he could have just called the police, gone down to the lair and had the Phantom arrested for stalking, but whatever – plot lines. They decide to produce the Phantom’s opera and use Christine in the starring role as bait to draw him out. Then, once he is on stage with Christine, the police can arrest him.
And once again, Christine is screwed. Raoul knows she’s freaked out by the Phantom (and rightfully so), he has promised to protect her, and now he tells her the only way to get rid of the Phantom is to put her in danger. Way to go, Raoul. You may not physically abuse her, but you’re certainly good at psychological abuse. Did you learn from a certain asshole in a white mask?
In any case, the super weird sexualized production of Don Juan that the Phantom wrote takes place, with Christine in the starring role. The Phantom joins her on stage, disguised as her co-star in a black hood and cape. The police, however, cannot arrest or shoot him, in case he is the original actor playing the role and not the Phantom. However, in Christine’s first real moment in power, she reveals the Phantom on stage, ripping off his mask, and traps him, before he chases her down to his lair.
He’s not about to let her get away with revealing his deformity, though, and Raoul isn’t about to let his love be killed by the Phantom. There’s finally some action! OK, there was some action when Christine went to her father’s grave earlier in the show, and of course Super Stalker was there too, and Raoul also stopped by, and the two of them finally got into it, but the stakes weren’t really significant – the Phantom just shot some fireballs at Raoul and the two of them just kept circling each other like they were in a Broadway Bro Down.
(Credit: Comedy Central)
But back to the lair-turns out the Phantom has Raoul in his “magic lasso,” a sensitively tied noose that he used to kill the stage hand back in Act 1. If Raoul moves the wrong way, he’s dead. The Phantom gives Christine a choice – either be with him forever, or he kills Raoul.
Well that’s not much of a choice, is it? If she chooses him, he can still kill Raoul and what could she really do about it. If she chooses Raoul, he kills Raoul, and she’s back where she was before.
After a few stanzas of lamenting between the two of them while poor Raoul tries not to choke and die, Christine kisses the Phantom after singing “poor pitiful creature!”
And this is where people start spouting about the “love story.” They say that the Phantom awakens in her a more mature love, that she recognizes that his pain is justified, that by loving him, she releases him from that pain.
Yeah, no. I don’t buy that. She loves Raoul. She may recognize that the Phantom’s pain is justified, but there is no love behind “poor, pitiful creature.” She kisses him in the desperate hope that it will free Raoul.
And it does. The Phantom, finally feeling loved, realizing that holding Christine against her will is wrong. He helps her and Raoul escape from the lair before the police and mob of people arrive, and escapes himself, leaving behind only his mask and the music box. Which years later gets auctioned off and bought by Raoul (the old woman competing with him in the auction was Madame Giry or her daughter Meg – age wise, it would make more sense if it was Meg) in memory of his recently passed wife Christine.
Soooo it took Christine just kissing the Phantom for him to realize “if you love something, set it free?”
“Why yes, Alize, of course,” you say, ” It’s a love story. She touched his heart. No one pays attention to that abuse stuff. The show wouldn’t have been on Broadway for 28 years if that’s the kind of thing people focused on.”
Oh nay, I say – people do pay attention to that sort of thing.
How do I know?
Because the Twitterverse erupted a few Sundays ago over the fact that the producers of Grease Live on Fox didn’t remove the line “Did she put up a fight?” from the song Summer Days for promoting rape culture.
Soooo…societal commentary is horrified by one line in a song that lasted literally 3 seconds, but a 2 and a half hour show about an obsessive stalker who deceives a woman about his intentions, throws her at several points, pulls her by her hair, says things like “you belong to me,” and murders and/or attempts to murder people she knows and loves in order to coerce her into being with him is all good?
Really? REALLY, society?
Argue with me if you must, but I will never respect this show. Particularly now that I’ve seen it all the way through.
I tried to trust you, Andrew Lloyd Webber, to savor each sensation, to let my darker side give in. But I just can’t when you’ve grossed $6 billion and shown 140 million people a romanticized vision of abuse. I can’t give in to the music of the night.