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Stranger Than You Dreamt It

Category: Phantom of the Opera News
Article Date: November 23, 2004 | Publication: TheaterMania.Com | Author: Brooke Pierce

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It's a month until the opening of Joel Schumacher's film adaptation of Andrew Lloyd Webber's world-famous pop opera The Phantom of the Opera, yet Sony Classical has already released not one but two soundtrack albums. "The Original Motion Picture Soundtrack" is essentially a highlights disc, featuring all the hits -- "Music of the Night," "Think of Me," "All I Ask of You," the title song, etc. There's also a two-disc "Special Edition" that has a couple more songs, extended musical sequences, and loads of dialogue from the film. Either item may sound like a great stocking stuffer for the Phantom phanatic in your life, but be aware that there are problems.

Based on the Gaston Leroux novel about a disfigured outcast who haunts the Paris Opera, the Harold Prince-helmed Phantom, with lyrics by Charles Hart and Richard Stilgoe, was a smash in London and on Broadway in the mid-'80s and continues to run, winning over new audiences every day with its sweeping (and, some say, poached) Lloyd Webber melodies. Despite the popularity of the two-disc Original London Cast Recording, the truth is that there is an awful lot of filler on it, as the score contains only about 10 or so actual songs. Still, Phantom is an opera -- well, sort of -- so there's something to be said for hearing everything in context.

While the two-disc soundtrack set may be welcomed by hardcore fans who want every drop of music from the movie, the highlights edition doesn't quite fit the bill as a "Greatest Hits from Phantom" for the casual listener. Yes, it has all the show's major numbers, but why leave out the charming "Notes" sequence and the eerie "Stranger Than You Dreamt It" in favor of including an unedited 13-minute action sequence from the film that is as much dialogue as music? It would even have been better to include Lloyd Webber's middling attempts at opera ("Poor Fool, He Makes Me Laugh," "Don Juan") than all that shouting and sword fighting.

The fact that the deluxe edition includes that and many more passages of dialogue in between (and during) songs gives one pause. The inclusion of so many "scenes" does help the narrative flow of the material but makes for a frustrating aural experience; it's as if you're constantly straining to follow the plot of a movie playing in the next room. Better to have recorded a continuous tapestry of song and music than to allow all the underscoring to be trampled by poorly mixed dialogue and sound effects. (This is not to say that there isn't some pleasure in hearing great British thesps like Miranda Richardson and Simon Callow chewing on the scenery; still, a film's soundtrack probably ought to showcase its music.)

As the Phantom, Scottish actor Gerard Butler -- who, it's not shocking to learn, wasn't known as a singer prior to his casting in this film -- gives the character his own spin. Not quite a romantic hero or a deranged stalker, this Phantom sounds like an angry, wounded young man hiding behind the mask. When Butler sings "You will curse the day you did not do / All that the Phantom asked of you!" in one of the musical's most striking moments, there is an air of youthful petulance beneath the threat. While this take on the role is intriguing, it does eat away at some of the character's alluring mystique; Butler's singing of that line makes one long for the menacing and powerful delivery of Michael Crawford. On the other hand, those who have always found Sarah Brightman's piercing vibrato hard to listen to will be happy to hear Emmy Rossum's warmer, less earbleed-inducing, and slightly more articulate Christine. The rest of the cast members, including Patrick Wilson as Christine's suitor Raoul, provide able support -- though, to be honest, these performers don't show up the company of the London cast recording.

Both soundtracks offer one thing you can't get from that recording: the brand new Lloyd Webber/Charles Hart song "Learn to Be Lonely." Apparently another entry into the canon of obligatory "please nominate us for an Oscar" interpolations, it is sung by Minnie Driver, who plays the diva Carlotta in the film (but whose singing is otherwise dubbed by someone else). It's a decent enough closing-credits tune and Driver handles it well, but it sounds out of place with the rest of the songs. Lloyd Webber has written some new underscoring for the film, and David Cullen has done some re-orchestration of the music that's carried over from the stage production. It's all beautifully rendered by a large orchestra, with some help from the London Boys Choir. Even those who tend to dismiss Phantom as overblown pop schlock may find themselves caught up in the orchestral majesty of "Music of the Night," "Prima Donna," and "Masquerade" as heard here. As for the packaging, there are no lyrics or author's notes (aside from a few brief, bland quotes from Lloyd Webber and Schumacher) in the accompanying booklets but there are several attractive color production photos, and the deluxe edition has a short essay about the recording of the soundtrack.

The Phantom of the Opera soundtrack albums have virtues that, according to one's point of view, may or may not be overshadowed by their flaws. Perhaps seeing the movie will help us to put things in perspective, but for now it's probably better to stick with the original cast recording.


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