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Rise of the Phantom

Category: Phantom of the Opera News
Article Date: December 21, 2004 | Publication: Los Angeles Times | Author: David Gritten

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He's the most inconspicuous person on the entire set of The Phantom of the Opera, and you stumble upon him almost by accident. Andrew Lloyd Webber is not a tall man, and hunched down on one of several director's chairs stationed around a monitor in a gloomy little passageway, he's easy to overlook.

He's not doing much talking, either. The film's director, Joel Schumacher, is amiably discussing a point with a couple of producer types and two makeup women while Lloyd Webber just sits there, almost oblivious.

Is that the shadow of a smile playing across his features? In this half-light, it's hard to be certain. But if so, it's hardly surprising. It's been 15 years since the idea of turning Lloyd Webber's stage musical into a major movie was first bandied about. After a long journey, it arrives in theaters today.

Phantom remains a phenomenon; it is the highest-grossing stage or screen production in history. The musical has been staged in more than 100 cities in 17 countries around the world; some 70 million people have seen it, and its box-office receipts stand at around $3.3 billion. Its title song and such others as Music of the Night, All I Ask of You and Think of Me have achieved global popularity; versions of them can be heard in hotel lounges and cocktail bars almost anywhere in the world.

Lloyd Webber's stage production of the tale (first adapted for film in 1925 from the Gaston Leroux novel) opened at Her Majesty's Theatre in London in October 1986 and, after all this time, it still attracts crowds.

"There's been nothing like the Phantom in my career in the theater, and there never will be," Lloyd Webber said. "Joel and I first talked about making the film years ago. But a lot of pressure was put on us not to go ahead with it. And with hindsight, that was the right thing to do."

Today, the movie boasts a budget (of about $80 million) generous enough to convey some sense of the lushness of the Paris Opera House, where this gothic romance takes place.

"You can't do a cheap-looking Phantom," said Schumacher. "I'd like to say [the budget] is extravagant, but having worked in Hollywood for 30 years, the good news is it's all on the screen."

One set in particular bears this out. British set designers and builders have created a foyer for the opera house that nearly fills a large soundstage. It's a series of curved stairs rising to a main staircase, which seems to go up to the very heavens. And from this pinnacle the Phantom (played by Scottish actor Gerard Butler) descends to join the opulently dressed guests at a masked ball amid the swelling song Masquerade.

The subterranean lair

Lloyd Webber's musical, based on Leroux's story that was first published in 1910 in serial form and turned into a novel the following year, is essentially a love triangle.

The Phantom, a tormented, hideously disfigured man with brilliant musical gifts, hides his ugliness with a half-mask. He loves Christine (Emmy Rossum), a beautiful young opera singer, but so does the dashing nobleman Raoul (Patrick Wilson), her sweetheart from childhood who has recently reappeared in her life.

The phantom inhabits a subterranean lair beneath the opera house, where he seduces Christine with the brilliance of his music. But their affair falters when she learns of his disfigurement, and he swears terrible vengeance on the opera and its company, sabotaging its productions. One of the highlights of the movie comes when he releases a huge chandelier, which, when it crashes, starts a ruinous fire.

What was just a burst of light on stage can be much more dramatic on film.

"We've tweaked the story, because we can burn our opera house," said Austin Shaw, one of the film's executive producers. "Joel wanted heightened reality, and Phantom is a great gothic romantic story which deserves that heightened look. So the fire isn't a special effect. We crashed our chandelier and it set fire going up the drapes. We torched the opera house. It burns down. We had 40 stuntmen and three fire engines and ambulance crews, the full works."

That isn't all that's been tweaked.

Schumacher knows that to be successful as a film, Phantom needs to reach younger audiences. "I said to Andrew I'd only do it with young people in the lead," he recalls. "They could be unknown, I didn't care. But it's a very young love story, so the younger the characters, the more poignant and innocent the story would be."

The casting process began in New York; only singer-actresses under age 25 were even screen-tested. To complicate matters, Lloyd Webber was happy to go along with Schumacher's insistence on youth but had a demand of his own: "He said, `Make them unknowns, by all means, Joel, but they must be able to sing,'" Schumacher recalls.

They hit the jackpot with Rossum, then only 16; it turned out she had been trained at the Metropolitan Opera since age 7, and she had acting credits -- in Mystic River and The Day After Tomorrow.

She's enjoying her stint as Christine, except for the tight corset she must wear to accentuate her tiny waist, in the fashion of 1870 Paris. "It's hard to keep your voice in top shape when you're in a corset," said the actress, now all of 18. "You can't breathe properly. You take little breaths, one at a time."

Rossum's age affected the casting of her two male co-stars. "Our Christine was 16, so her lover Raoul has to be in his 20s, and the Phantom's got to be a guy who's about 30," said Shaw.

Enter Wilson (Broadway's The Full Monty, HBO's Angels in America), who was shooting The Alamo in Austin, Texas, when he met Schumacher. He was soon sent to Lloyd Webber's New York apartment: "I remembered auditioning for the chorus in summer stock, with people 40 foot away at a table, and they're very critical and you're nervous and sweating. Then, here I am up for one of the leads in a huge movie, and it's just a guy at a piano. It wasn't nerve-racking. It was a pretty simple process. I'd been singing for a long time, so it wasn't an issue for me."

So Wilson, now 31, became Raoul.

As for Butler, 35, he landed the role of the Phantom after Schumacher, with time on his hands in St. Louis, went to a multiplex where Dracula 2000 was the only film playing that he had not seen.

"I said to myself, who's this guy? He has amazing screen presence," Schumacher remembers.

When Butler heard Schumacher wanted to meet him to sound him out about the Phantom, Butler immediately found a voice coach in London and had had three or four sessions by the time they met. Butler had only sung previously in an informal pickup rock band and doubted his own ability.

So how was singing for Lloyd Webber? "I'm still convinced it wasn't very good," said Butler, shaking his head. "It's OK singing these songs now, but I've had to work hard at it. I still slip between `Wow, I'm going to knock them dead' and ... `I can't do this.' I love a challenge -- something that makes my legs shake when I contemplate it."

Other screen versions

Phantom has been filmed several times before. Lon Chaney starred in the 1925 version. ("That was one of the most successful silent films ever," noted Schumacher, "which is amazing, since it's about singing.") Claude Rains took the lead in the first Phantom talkie, in 1943, which won two Oscars. Two decades later came an unloved British version from the horror studio Hammer, with Herbert Lom in the title role. Subsequent stabs at the story in the 1980s featured Maximilian Schell, then Robert Englund (better known as Freddy Krueger of A Nightmare on Elm Street).

Schumacher thinks its strength resides in its story.

"I think people relate to the Phantom," he mused. "I do not think the majority of people identify with Christine, the object of desire. We identify with the person who feels rejected. His physical handicap is a kind of metaphor. Most people feel there are parts of them that are unlovable. When a character has survived so many incarnations and is still around, there's something pretty core in it."

That said, Lloyd Webber is making the Phantom's story more explicit for the film. He has written a new short song for Phantom with lyricist David Zippel (his collaborator on his new stage musical The Woman in White). "I felt that though the Phantom's presence is always felt, the amount of time he's onstage is very little," he explains. "We needed a song to open him up and say something particular about his loneliness."

Still, no one involved with the production expects today's movie audiences to sit still for a full-length sung-through musical.

"There isn't dialogue," said Lloyd Webber. "But we're voicing things half-sung, so [actors] aren't having to project in the way they have to do in the theater. Some of the lines at the moment are spoken, but in time with the music."

He feels he learned a lesson with the 1996 film of his musical Evita. "When I was finally involved with the [sound] mix, I suggested a lot of light and shade. I believe you can't listen to just music for two hours. For some reason it was all mixed at the same level, and unfortunately Evita lost an awful lot. You can't just keep hurling sound at people. More is less."

That maxim holds up equally well when one compares the cost of seeing a movie to a live musical.

"There are millions of people who could never afford a legitimate theater ticket," Schumacher said. "It's $100 on Broadway. Or they live in places where Phantom would never come, and they'd love to see a version of it. Think of how many people have seen Sound of Music, Chicago or West Side Story on film, compared to stage. And there's lots of people who'll go to the movie and take the kids."


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