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A night at the 'Opera'

Category: Phantom of the Opera News
Article Date: December 15, 2004 | Publication: USA Today | Author: Susan Wloszczyna
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Minnie Driver (news) isn't the type to go wild over every note that British tunesmith Andrew Lloyd Webber ever sent soaring into theater rafters like some runaway light fixture.
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Judging by her just-released debut album, Everything I've Got in My Pocket, the 34-year-old actress and singer is more likely to honor requests for Springsteen than Memory from Cats. "I've never been a great musical-theater person."

But now that Driver has surrendered to The Music of the Night as the diva-licious comic relief Carlotta in the long-awaited film version of The Phantom of the Opera, she at least understands why 80 million theatergoers since its London premiere in 1986 have swooned over the lavish gothic fantasy about obsessive love.


"It is so romantic," she fairly gushes about the story of a half-masked figure who haunts a cavernous opera house in 1870 Paris and holds sway over his songbird protégée, Christine. "The men are so handsome. Emmy (Rossum, the trilling teen who stars as Christine) is so lovely, the music is so moving. It is like opening up a gorgeous music box when you are 14."


In the ongoing campaign to revive the movie musical, Moulin Rouge was a manic pop valentine and Chicago was a tap-happy slap to the kisser. Both managed to catch Oscar's eye and grab the attention of the easily bored MTV generation. But the shamelessly sumptuous Phantom, which finally opens Dec. 22 after a 15-year journey to the screen, isn't about all that jazz.


Its weapon to trap resistant audiences? Old-fashioned passion with red roses, blazing candelabra that magically rise from the water and an ending worthy of an entire Kleenex box.


"It's a slightly schlocky story but a powerful one about unrequited love," says production designer Anthony Pratt, who reflected that power visually. "I wanted the theater to be sexy but suggest a foreboding."


From scary to seductive


In the 1925 silent horror classic with Lon Chaney, the most memorable of the Phantom's dozen or so previous incarnations on the big screen, the opera ghost is portrayed as a monstrous madman. But Webber, who calls Phantom the most personal of his 15 musicals after creating the part of Christine for then-wife Sarah Brightman (news), tossed out most of the boo baggage to concentrate on the woo.


Part Hunchback of Notre Dame, part Beauty and the Beast with a pinch of Svengali, the plot boils down to a tidy eternal love triangle: a disfigured musical genius (played by little-known Scottish actor Gerard Butler, 35) and a courtly gent (Broadway veteran Patrick Wilson, 31, as Raoul) vie for young Christine's affections.


The dueling sexual tension steams matters considerably. "Patrick is a wonderful lyric tenor and good-looking," Webber says. "Someone a mother would love. Gerry has a little rock 'n' roll edge. Someone who would make you want to lock up your daughter." The male leads were picked by director Joel Schumacher to deliberately skew younger and hunkier.


"The studio wanted a PG-13 and was worried about the scary parts," Webber adds. "I was more worried about The Point of No Return," the intense duet of fiery desire shared by Christine and the Phantom, who passes from doting father figure to potential seducer.


Though the narrative has been shifted with flashbacks added to flesh out motives, what will be unmasked at the multiplex is fairly faithful. Very little has been contemporized, save for a choreographed outburst that looks suspiciously like "vogueing" during the Masquerade number. The editing is considerably more leisurely than in other recent movie musicals.


"After one of the first screenings, I had a couple get up and say to me, 'Thank you so much for not making this a music video,' " says Schumacher, who won the job after Webber "felt goose bumps" while experiencing the mix of music and visuals in his 1987 vampire thriller The Lost Boys.


Like a tender lover, the director takes his time (143 minutes to be exact) to build a rapturous mood in Phantom. "If you are ashamed or shy or pull back from this romance, you do it a disservice. You have to submerge the audience."


Phantomaniacs likely would revolt if it were any other way. They raised a ruckus when the original masked man, Michael Crawford (news), now 62, grew too old for the much-delayed movie version. Webber, no fool, is heading off further protest by keeping Crawford employed on the London stage, as the star of his latest musical, The Woman in White.


Second only to Cats as Broadway's longest-running show, Phantom has played in 100-plus cities in 18 countries to the tune of $3.3 billion in tickets. Such mass exposure might suggest that audiences already have had their fill of the Phantom. But Webber believes the movie will reach beyond the loyal legions. "Many people can't afford to get to the theater," the composer says. "My parents were classical musicians, and there was not a vast amount of money at the time. The way I got to see musicals was through cinema."





Besides, Phantom "phans," as they often call themselves, are nothing if not repeat customers. Some have claimed to have seen the show at least 300 times. Many are counting the days until the film arrives. "My daughter and I can't wait to see the movie together," says Fiona Sutton, 32, of Virginia Beach, who has seen the show three times and is the mother of Eleni, 8. "We listen to Phantom whenever we get in the car and sing along. She started listening to Phantom when she was about 2, and she has always been fascinated by it. I hope the movie can capture the romance, and the power and passion in the music."

Making beautiful music together

If it doesn't, it's not for lack of trying on the part of Schumacher, 65, and Webber, 56, who became fast friends while waiting for the chance to become artistic collaborators. Webber, who sold the rights to Warner Bros. in 1989 before reclaiming them in 2000, attributes the holdup to concerns that a movie would put a crimp on ticket sales in countries where Phantom had yet to play. "They begged us to put it on ice," he says. The rancorous dissolution of his marriage to Brightman, who was to re-create her role, also contributed.

The bond between the two men, which grew over countless planning hours spent in restaurants and in planes, remains steadfast. While Warner Bros. holds the distribution rights, the pair basically raised the $75 million budget by themselves with near-billionaire Webber putting up $6 million of his own as seed money. "There was no one else to answer to at all, just us - Joel and me. We would see the dailies, cover everything we wanted and then move on."

Schumacher's theory of why they get along: "There's a mutual respect for our craft. I don't pretend to know about music, he doesn't pretend to know about movies. We can marry our appreciation of both without intellectualizing too much."

The two do share a certain dubious distinction: They both have the power to incite scathing reactions in critics with their often hugely popular output.

Schumacher, who gave the world St. Elmo's Fire and The Client, doesn't mince words. "There's this elitist snob thing. If the public loves something, it's not good. If it is some obscure thing the critic loves, that is good. It's very condescending and insulting. The most scathing critic in Britain wrote my favorite quote about Andrew. Something like, 'Let's face it. No one in the world loves Andrew Lloyd Webber but the public.' Like my godchild would say, 'Duh!' "

Phantom made its debut in England last week, and the bashing brigade is moving along briskly with poisoned pens in hand. Opined Peter Bradshaw of The Guardian: "The guignol is alchemised into syrup, creating a film so lifeless and soulless it's almost scary. "

The opulent film, which bagged three Golden Globe nominations, was tagged early as a potential best-picture candidate in the Academy Awards (news - web sites) race. Some still insist Phantom may have what it takes to bewitch voters. "I don't like Andrew Lloyd Webber particularly," says online columnist David Poland, whose Movie City News sponsored three Phantom screenings in L.A. for various guild groups. "But then I felt that opening organ rumble and thought, 'Man, oh, man.' It's good, old-fashioned Hollywood filmmaking. People are hungry for emotion, particularly the academy."

It is ironic given Driver's budding music career that she is the lone major player in Phantom who does not sing for herself. Instead, opera singer Margaret Preece hammers Carlotta's over-the-top high notes. But Driver did get a thank-you gift: A new Webber song, Learn to Be Lonely, that she performs over the end credits. "It was so lovely of him to ask me to do it," she says. "He could have asked any great singer in the world."

Who knows? If a hip chick such as Driver can be persuaded to warble Webber, maybe even skeptical moviegoers will go out of the theater humming, too.

 


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