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The Phantom cometh

Category: Phantom of the Opera News
Article Date: December 19, 2004 | Publication: | Author: Glenn Whipp

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Music of the night finally has its day on film

Thirteen years ago, Joel Schumacher was ready to hop a plane to London to begin filming the movie version of Andrew Lloyd Webber's smash musical "The Phantom of the Opera." The entire film, every shot, had been story-boarded, the models of the sets had been built, the costume designs had been painted. Everything was set.
Then Schumacher got The Call from Lloyd Webber.

"He told me it was off," Schumacher recalls. "He was getting divorced from Sarah Brightman (the star of the musical who was also set to play ingenue Christine in the movie), and there were other reasons, financial considerations - and that was it. It felt a little like being left at the altar."

As you may already know, the marriage is back on.

When "Phantom" finally arrives in theaters Wednesday, you won't see Brightman or Michael Crawford, the Phantom of choice for the musical's obsessive fanatics (and there are many), in the lead roles. Both were casualties of the passage of time.

Schumacher, though, hung in there and - 14 movies later - has finally made the one that got away.

Since its October 1986 premiere on London's West End, Lloyd Webber's bombastic, insanely melodic (just try getting one of these songs out of your head) pop opera has been performed more than 65,000 times in 18 different countries, selling an estimated 80 million tickets (with repeat customers accounting for a good chunk of the business). The musical's original cast recording, released in 1987, is the biggest-selling cast album of all time, moving more than 40 million copies.

On Broadway, "Phantom" is the second-longest-running musical, trailing only Lloyd Webber's "Cats." The theatrical gross totals more than $3.3 billion. Las Vegas' Venetian Hotel is spending $25 million to build a theater specifically designed for "Phantom," complete with plunging chandelier, opulent opera house, gondola grotto - the whole nine yards.

"It's extraordinary," Lloyd Webber says of the show he once described to interviewer Charlie Rose as "really a bit of hokum, quite honestly."

"People never seem to get tired of it. I guess, at the end of the day, it's the classic love triangle that's behind the appeal. Really, if I knew the answer, I'd write another one."

Failing that, Lloyd Webber did the next best thing, reclaiming the movie rights to "Phantom" from Warner Bros. four years ago, putting up $6 million of his own money and, along with Schumacher, going door to door to foreign investors to raise the film's $75 million budget.

"The timing is better now," Lloyd Webber says. "When we were originally considering doing the movie, all my collaborators thought it would hurt the show's profitability. It hadn't opened in a lot of countries, and there were a number of touring productions running. The feeling was it would cut into ticket sales. Personally, I don't feel that would have happened."

What did happen, though, was that when Lloyd Webber pulled the plug, the years passed and Broadway leads Crawford and Brightman (who are now 62 and 44 years old, respectively), originally slated to reprise their roles on screen, were too old to be considered as commercially viable choices for the film.

Ultimately, Schumacher and Lloyd Webber elected to go with a trio of young unknowns - Emmy Rossum, Gerard Butler and Patrick Wilson - to play the members of story's passionate love triangle.

The youth movement is fitting, given that when Lloyd Webber wrote the musical with lyricist Charles Hart, the idea was to turn the horror of Gaston Leroux's 1910 novel into a sexy love story about a lonely, charismatic rock 'n' roll geek (yes, Lloyd Webber is aware of the character's many contradictions) who's in love with Christine, his beautiful singing protege.

Forget frightening Lon Chaney, the star of the 1925 silent "Phantom" film. Lloyd Webber's Phantom was a lover and a fighter.

To realize that vision a step further on film, Schumacher and Lloyd Webber cast Scottish actor Butler, 35, in the lead role. Butler's singing background came with a rock band, Speed, which Lloyd Webber says, "fits my idea of the Phantom as somebody with an edge, the sort of dangerous man that has a rough, rock 'n' roll sensibility."

Since Lloyd Webber insisted each of the three leads do their own singing, Butler was quickly dispatched to a vocal coach. Not so with Rossum - 16 when she won the role - who has been singing with New York's Metropolitan Opera since she was 7, or Wilson, a Broadway veteran possessing a resume that includes the leads in "Oklahoma!" and "The Full Monty."

Lloyd Webber calls the young Rossum "the great revelation of the film." For Schumacher, casting a teen actress turned "Phantom" into more of a story of a young girl's sexual awakening, which explains Rossum's wardrobe, some of which appears to have been procured from Frederick's of Hollywood.

"She has to choose between a stud muffin (Wilson's swashbuckling Raoul) and this insane, charismatic madman who has this incredible sexual pull on her," Schumacher says. "It's a good thing her father isn't around - it's every dad's nightmare come true."

Minnie Driver, who plays the show's opera house diva, believes the choice for Christine is simple.

"She should ditch them both and go get an education," Driver says, laughing. "She has her whole life ahead of her. Why get tied down?"

Of course that would produce a different type of outcome for the story, one not entirely in line with Lloyd Webber's sense of melodrama. And besides, no one, male or female, leaves the show remembering much about Christine or Raoul or anybody else. It's all about the Phantom.

"People identify with his pain and his feelings of being an outsider," Butler says. "We all have those dark feelings inside of us, baggage that we don't let people know about because we 7don't want to feel rejected. With the Phantom, it's even worse because of the purity of his love for Christine."

"Then again," Butler muses, "the man does go around killing people - and that love he has for Christine is more than a little dysfunctional, wouldn't you say? There are some women who like that, though. The Phantom is the dangerous one. And there's nothing like a badass to make a girl's heart beat faster."

Stage vs. screen

Die-hard fans of "The Phantom of the Opera" tend to be as possessive of the show as the Phantom is of his beloved protege, Christine, so it's not surprising that composer Andrew Lloyd Webber and director Joel Schumacher don't stray from the stage musical in their film adaptation.

Still, there are a few significant changes:

• The movie has a flashback structure, opening in 1919 with Raoul, Christine's earnest suitor, paying a visit to the now-decayed opera house. The film then goes back in time to show the Phantom's shenanigans and the tragic love triangle between the Phantom, Christine and Raoul.

• We learn about the Phantom's childhood. Unlike the musical, where it's mentioned that the Phantom was architect to the Shah of Persia, the film opts for a more tortured past, making him a mistreated circus sideshow freak, a la the "Elephant Man."

• Lloyd Webber and lyricist Charles Hart wrote one new song, "Learn to Be Lonely." The ballad was originally included in the film, sung by the Phantom after the masquerade ball. Schumacher cut it from the movie, saying it slowed the action.

"He's lonely, he loves Christine, we get it," Schumacher says. "It just restated everything we already knew."

The song can still be heard over the closing credits, sung by Minnie Driver, who, ironically, is the one principal cast member who did not do her own singing in the film.

• Christine is now a girl of 16, which has the domino effect of making Raoul and the Phantom younger as well.

"If you analyze the story, the girl has to be very young," Schumacher says. "Her innocence and naivete are the keys to her character."

!bbox!‚The opera house's magnificent chandelier now crashes during the finale. In the musical, it dropped just before intermission.

• Christine's relationship with her late father is explained in more detail and is tied in to how she came to live at the opera house. We also learn more about the pasts of other characters, including Raoul and Madame Giry, who, as a child, brings the Phantom to the opera house.


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