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In the 'Phantom' Movie, Over-the-Top Goes Higher

Category: Phantom of the Opera News
Article Date: December 24, 2004 | Publication: New York Times | Author: PHOEBE HOBAN

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Andrew Lloyd Webber's Broadway musical "Phantom of the Opera" is a chestnut, Joel Schumacher's new film is a chestnut flamboyantly roasting on a backlot fire. (Actually eight separate stages at the famous Pinewood Studios, outside London.)

Depending on one's Lloyd Webber tolerance level, and there are legions of diehard "phans," the lavish-looking movie will either feel like a gaudily wrapped Christmas present or evince Grinch-like disdain. (Of course the phans have their own agenda, and while some are enthusiastic about the new-fangled "Phantom," other purists are still outraged that Michael Crawford, the star of the original Broadway production and now 62, does not play the lead.)

Everything about the Broadway musical, which has run since 1988 (second only to "Cats"), has literally set the standard for over-the-top. Not surprisingly, Mr. Schumacher, whose films have ranged from the much-reviled "Batman and Robin" and "Batman Forever" to well-rendered Grisham adaptations ("The Client," "A Time to Kill"), has made every effort to ensure that the "Phantom" phenomenon's uber-kitsch remains shamelessly intact.

In the film, the Paris Opera house has become the "Opéra Populaire," which is the perfect label for Lord Lloyd Webber's "Phantom" in both its stage and celluloid incarnations. Lord Lloyd Webber and Mr. Schumacher are unabashed about pushing the popular cultural envelope past the point of no return (to borrow the title of one well-known "Phantom" tune), producing work that critics loyally love to hate (so far the reviews for this film have ranged from vicious to mixed) and the public just as loyally loves to love. The fact that Bloomingdale's has turned its Lexington Avenue Christmas windows into eight "Phantom" tableaus is spot on: the "Phantom" franchise is, above all, about mass commercial appeal.

In "Phantom," the movie, Mr. Schumacher, who has a flair for fabulous window dressing and finding pretty young talent, has cannily upped the ante. He has ratcheted up the romance, sex and schmaltz of the original "Phantom" a number of notches by adding a nubile cast, larger-than-life sets and a vertiginously swooping camera. As much as anything else, the film is a launching pad for its 18-year-old star, Emmy Rossum ("Songcatcher," "Mystic River," "The Day After Tomorrow"), this month's cover girl on several fashion magazines. "Finding her was a miracle," Mr. Schumacher said in a recent telephone interview. "She came in at the 11th hour. She was 16 years old, and had trained at the Metropolitan Opera when she was 7."

Gerard Butler ("Lara Croft Tomb Raider: The Cradle of Life") plays the man in the mask with a rock star-like swagger and cape-swirling flourishes. Patrick Wilson (Broadway's "Oklahoma!," HBO's "Angels in America"), as the Vicomte Raoul de Chagny, gets to ride a white horse and brandish a sword. Miranda Richardson sweetens the role of the sinister ballet mistress, Mme. Giry (even if she does have an odd French accent), and Simon Callow and Ciaran Hinds have a ball with their duets. Last but not least, Minnie Driver (the only actress not to actually sing her role) delivers a comic turn as scenery-chewing diva.

"It was quite a challenge wearing those 50-pound dresses and 30-pound wigs," said Ms. Driver, who during her cameos looks as much like a confection as a character.

"The movie could have looked like a Meatloaf video, but it's divinely ornate," she said.

Ornate is an understatement. On the stage, the director Harold Prince and the set designer Maria Bjornsson created authentic theater magic - a jaw-dropping grotto, complete with lake, mist, gondola and mysteriously rising candelabras. On screen the show-stopping effects have been replaced by all the elaborate movie sets that a reported $70 million (raised by Lord Lloyd Webber and his company) could muster, and enough lingeringly glamorous close-ups of the glowing young stars to fill a two-and-a-half-hour Calvin Klein perfume ad. (Think Obsession or better yet, Eternity Moment, which is how the film sometimes feels.)

"There is nothing a film can do that can compete with a live performance," Mr. Schumacher acknowledged. "You have to put the success of the show aside, but keep its essence, and you have to give people who may have seen the show a lot of new surprises."

At times, the movie has the dewy romance and passion of Zeffirelli's "Romeo and Juliet." And if Mr. Butler's Phantom lacks the masterly full-throated ghoulishness of the Broadway interpretation (particularly that of Mr. Crawford), he makes up for it in matinee-idol sex appeal; this is the Phantom as Heathcliff, complete with a tragic childhood. (And black leather Michael Jackson-like gloves.)

Mr. Butler's Phantom oozes sexuality. In a telephone interview, he said: "A direction I would often hear from Joel was, 'Sexy.' and my answer often was, 'But it's so sad.' "
"It's like the song 'The Point of No Return,' " he added. "It is very sexy and incredibly sad and they are both going on at the same time."

In the movie, for which Lord Lloyd Webber has composed 15 minutes of new music, several back stories have been added, including the Phantom's childhood as a sideshow freak, and a final black-and-white coda, which embroiders the musical's more abrupt ending, neatly tying the story up. There's also an extended cemetery scene with a bonus swordfight. "We tried to give the characters more motivation and to dot some i's and cross some t's," Mr. Shumacher said.

The "Phantom" movie has its own back story. Lord Lloyd Webber first approached Mr. Schumacher as a collaborator 15 years ago, after being impressed by his use of music in "The Lost Boys." At the time, though, several key factors converged to postpone the film: the musical quickly proved to be such a success there were concerns that a movie might erode its audience, and perhaps more to the point, Lord Lloyd Webber and Sarah Brightman, who played Christine in the original production, divorced. The plans for Mr. Crawford and Ms. Brightman as stars in the film, to be shot in Prague, were scrapped.

It wasn't until 2002, when Lord Lloyd Webber and Mr. Schumacher, who over the years had become friends, met for dinner, that the idea of the film was seriously revived.

Lord Lloyd Webber, who invested $6 million of his own money, insisted that the actors do their own singing, but otherwise left casting up to Mr. Schumacher, who had two caveats: the stars had to be sexy and they had to be young.

"In the past, the Phantom was always a ghoul and Christine was always a damsel in distress, like Fay Wray," Mr. Schumacher said. "I really wanted the Phantom to be more sexy, and Christine to be more formidable. Andrew doesn't pretend to know about movies, and the music is his world. So I made the movie and he reorchestrated the music and worked with the symphony. I wanted to make it part gothic horror, part romance and part action adventure, but I also didn't want to make it too gimmicky. You have to not be embarrassed or shy or cynical and just throw yourself into the romance and embrace it."

Thus the Phantom, whose face when unmasked onstage sports a seriously nasty right side, on screen looks downright handsome, and even when unmasked is hardly hideous. "It would have been insulting to the audience in a romantic drama to have a huge plastic prosthetic glued to Gerry's face," Mr. Schumacher said. "We didn't want to give you 'Friday the 13th.' We wanted to make it more human scale, make it real people in real places."

And sexier people in sexier places. Ms. Rossum descends into the Phantom's grotto wearing a negligee and flashing some garter and thigh. "As she becomes a woman and the Phantom empowers her voice, there is something very sexy and darkly sensual about the relationship," Ms. Rossum said in a telephone interview. She said she used the relationship between Suzanne Farrell and George Balanchine as a model.

Lord Lloyd Webber had certain vocal requirements for his leading man. "Because there's a younger, sexier cast, we wanted the Phantom to have a tiny bit of rock 'n' roll edge in his voice," he said. "When we were discussing the movie's rating, I was concerned we wouldn't get a PG-13 because of the sexuality of 'The Point of No Return.' "

A vivid example of the best use of movie magic to emulate theater magic occurs during the opening of the film, set in the dilapidated ruins of the opera house, when the chandelier, in a reprise of that breathtaking theater moment when it swings toward the audience, moves forward, transforming the Opéra Populaire into its full-color, Belle Époque prime. (The 2.2-ton chandelier, as much a character in the movie as in the musical, had a stunt double; the actual $1.3 million lamp was provided by Swarovski, which gets a plug in the film.)

Mr. Schumacher steals some catchy details from Jean Cocteau's "Beauty and the Beast," and his set designer, Anthony Pratt, has found influences in Degas, John Singer Sargent and Caillebotte, as well as the pre-Raphaelites; Ms. Rossum is shot to look as if she has stepped out of a Dante Gabriel Rossetti painting. Mr. Pratt said in a telephone interview that he wanted the lush sets to look "ominous, eerie, macabre and foreboding."

"And Joel wanted it to look," he added - what else? - "sexy." (Picture a Grand Guignol Bat-cave by way of Hugh Hefner, complete with a pink seashell-motif bed.)

Although Mr. Schumacher emphasizes that on the film's relatively small budget there were no major special effects, nothing was spared in orchestrating the score. Lord Lloyd Webber's new music includes the song "Learn to Be Lonely," sung over the end titles by Ms. Driver. "This is one of the very first films where prerecording did not take place," Lord Lloyd Webber said. "We had the ability through technology to keep recording it while they were doing it, and then go back over it and repair things. So the actors sang to their final takes, but we were able to keep all the elements of their performances." The music is played by a 105-piece orchestra, conducted by Simon Lee.

"The Phantom of the Opera," originally a 1910 novel by Gaston Leroux, has been turned into some half-dozen movies, beginning with the 1925 silent classic with Lon Chaney as a truly frightening monster. Perhaps now, with Mr. Schumacher's full-blown spectacle, the story has finally come full cycle. But like an Andrew Lloyd Webber musical, it might just go on forever.

The Broadway production of "The Phantom of the Opera" is at the Majestic Theater, 247 West 44th Street, (212) 239-6200.


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