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Category: Phantom of the Opera News
Article Date: December 12, 2004 | Publication: Evening Times | Author: Andy Dougan

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The Phantom of the Opera has become more than just a piece of musical theatre, it is a brand name in its own right.

The Andrew Lloyd Webber musical has turned into a multi-billion dollar industry since it was first performed in London in October 1986.

Since then it has generated a staggering $3billion in ticket sales and hundreds of millions more in soundtrack albums and merchandising. There are productions running all over the world and next year a custom built theatre is being opened in Las Vegas to host a special 90-minute version of the show six times a day.

And now comes the film version. You might think there is no mileage left in Lloyd Webber's extravaganza but according to director Joel Schumacher you would be wrong.

Schumacher and Lloyd Webber have been friends for years. When the idea for a film was first mooted back in 1988 it was to Schumacher that the composer went first to see if he wanted to direct it.

That version fell through for a number of reasons, not least because the studios were reluctant to commit to the expense.

Two years ago the project was revived and again Schumacher was at the heart of things. As the veteran director tells he was having dinner in London with Lloyd Webber when the subject of The Phantom came up.

"I told him he should do it again," says Schumacher. "Andrew had bought back the rights and now he owned the property and could do what he wanted."

The timing was perfect for the director. Feeling jaded after big budget extravaganzas such as Batman Forever and Batman and Robin he had recharged his batteries with a couple of experimental films - Tigerland and Phone Booth - that had proved very successful.

Now he was ready to tackle another big budget project.

"I did think of shooting it all gritty and on digital video," he jokes. "This is as far away as you can get from 12 days in a phone box," he laughs referring to his shooting schedule on Phone Booth.

In the end, Phantom was shot in the Czech Republic and at Pinewood studios with Schumacher, a former production designer, recreating the scenes that had been loved by theatre goers all over the world.

His biggest task was in assembling a cast. In this version Schumacher has tried to open up the musical and the romantic lead Raoul, the Vicomte de Chagny was expanded into a much more dashing character. Schumacher, a director famous for picking up-and-coming talent, had spotted Patrick Wilson in The Alamo and Angels in America and felt he would be the ideal Raoul.

The key casting was The Phantom himself, the disfigured genius who haunts the Paris Opera House and acts as mentor to the young ingenue Christine.

Again Schumacher had spotted another rising talent. He'd seen the young Glasgow actor Gerard Butler in his first major movie role, the ill-starred Dracula 2000, and the ITV drama series The Jury.

Schumacher wanted someone with a rock and roll sensibility for the role and Butler, who had sung in a rock band when he was younger, seemed ideal. But not before a nerve-racking audition in front of Schumacher, Lloyd Webber, and producer Austin Shaw with the young actor singing the Phantom's signature song, The Music of the Night.

"As I started singing, it was at the back of my mind that there was one note in the song that I just couldn't reach," recalls Butler. "I really went for it, but I didn't make it.

"At the end, Lloyd Webber came over and we all sat together. He talked for about 15 minutes, giving me a very in-depth critique of my voice."

Butler had it in his head that he had messed up but in fact the time Lloyd Webber spent with him was a good sign. Before too long he had the part.

Playing Phantom meant more than four hours in make-up every day to make the 34-year-old Butler appear as the hideously disfigured musical genius. It wasn't until the end of his first make-up session that he really understood the character.

"I was amazed and upset just by the looks I got walking around the studio," says Butler. "I kept wanting to say 'What's your problem? What are you staring at?' It illuminates the ugliness and beauty that exists within each of us and that's what this story represents to me."

Butler is still waiting for that one big hit that will put him firmly on the Hollywood radar. He has appeared in Dracula 2000, Reign of Fire, Tomb Raider 2, and Timeline, but this could be the film that will propel Butler to stardom. Schumacher is convinced that despite the huge success of the stage production there is a vast untapped audience for his film.

"There are millions of people who simply cannot afford to see Phantom in the legitimate theatre," he says. "They can't afford $40 or $50 a ticket. There are also those who live in areas where Phantom will never play."

Schumacher points to the example of other blockbuster musicals such as The Sound of Music, West Side Story and most recently Chicago, the film that ushered in the current musical revival.

"How many people have actually seen The Sound of Music on stage compared to the millions who saw it on film?" he asks.


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