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Category: Phantom of the Opera News
Article Date: December 17, 2004 | Publication: Nola.Com | Author: Michael H. Kleinschrodt

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Debut of 'Phantom' musical caps 15-year journey from stage to screen

NEW YORK -- Although the backstage struggles at the Opera Populaire in "The Phantom of the Opera" come with an unfortunate death toll, at least the fictional characters in the tale manage to put their productions together in something less than the 18 years it has taken for composer Andrew Lloyd Webber's stage adaptation of Gaston Leroux's gothic thriller to make it to the silver screen.

Lloyd Webber's show, starring Michael Crawford and Sarah Brightman (then the composer's wife), opened in London in 1986 and quickly gained notice for its extravagant production, which included a chandelier suspended over the audience that crashes to the stage at the end of the first act.

The film adaptation, directed by Joel Schumacher, opens Wednesday.

The musical tells the story of orphan Christine Daae (Emmy Rossum), a young opera singer torn between a mad, disfigured composer known as the Phantom (Gerard Butler) and a wealthy suitor, childhood friend Raoul, Vicomte de Chagny (Patrick Wilson).

The film's creators and stars gathered in New York this past weekend to discuss the project with journalists and to celebrate the movie's premiere.

"It's as good a movie as I could have ever hoped," Lloyd Webber said of "The Phantom of the Opera."

Schumacher and Lloyd Webber said business concerns and personal matters delayed the movie adaptation, which was first discussed in 1989.

Lloyd Webber had asked Schumacher to consider the project based on the director's skillful use of music in the teen vampire movie, "The Lost Boys."

Schumacher prepped the film while working on the movie "Flatliners." "The Phantom of the Opera" was scheduled to shoot in Munich and Prague in 1990 with Crawford and Brightman reprising their roles as the Phantom and Christine, but Lloyd Webber canceled the film.

The composer said his theatrical backers were concerned that a movie might undermine the financial health of stage productions around the world. (More than 65,000 performances of "Phantom" have been staged in 18 countries, taking in more than $3.2 billion. In terms of longevity, the Broadway production of "Phantom" -- still playing -- is second only to Lloyd Webber's "Cats." The cast album has set multiple sales records.)

For those keeping track of such things, 1990 also was the year Lloyd Webber and Brightman divorced, a matter to which Schumacher only would hint. Production notes provided by Warner Bros., the film's distributor, are less coy in citing the divorce as part of the reason for the delay.

Meanwhile, Schumacher and Lloyd Webber each moved on to other projects. A couple of years ago, the time finally was right to revive "Phantom."

"I decided to do this before 'Chicago' came out," Schumacher said. "I think that the media creates trends for itself. But I don't think the audience does. In other words, I don't think a guy says, 'Come on, Marge. Musicals are in. We better go see this.' I think people just go to see what they want to see."

Nonetheless, the success of the Oscar-winning "Chicago" made it easier to raise money for "Phantom," Lloyd Webber said.

But there would have to be some changes for the movie, Schumacher said.

"If you really analyze the story, if you take away the music and the costumes and the sets and, you know, the glamour of the piece, the allure of the piece -- at the heart of it (my job, as you know, is the storyteller) -- at the heart of it is this very intimate, tragic love triangle," the director said. "In order to tell that story, the girl must be very young. She has to be innocent."

"Joel was very, very keen that we cast young," Lloyd Webber said. "We really wanted to do what the book said. Christine was a girl in the Corps de Ballet. She was just 16; she's a kid," he said.

"I felt if she's going to be a teenager, then 30, 32 was the oldest I could go with the guys," Schumacher said. "I didn't want to do 'Lolita of the Opera.' "

This eliminated any chance of Antonio Banderas playing the Phantom. The Spanish actor had campaigned for the role ever since starring opposite Madonna in Alan Parker's film adaptation of Lloyd Webber's "Evita."

And Banderas was not the only actor pursuing the role.

"A lot of people, obviously, wanted to play the role," Lloyd Webber said, refusing to name names. "There were a number of famous people who sent audition tapes for this movie."

"Suddenly everyone in Hollywood could sing," Schumacher said. "So their agents would call, and I'd say, 'Look. They're terrific actors or actresses. They're beautiful. They're appropriate. But can they sing?' 'Absolutely!' 'They've heard the album. Can they sing like that?' 'Absolutely!' "

Schumacher said he received CDs from many actors vying for the roles.

"I cut (the CDs) up because I was afraid they would get on the Internet. And I didn't send them to Andrew because, you know what, I didn't want to embarrass these people. And I was surprised that the people around them would. They were really bad," he said.

"What I said to Andrew was, 'Look. The three leads must be very young for me to make this story work. And if they're famous, fine. If they're unknown, fine. But I don't want to be stuck with someone that can't make the story work because then I can't do a good job for you.' And Andrew said, 'If you do this movie, you can have anyone you want but they have to do their own singing.' And I said, 'That's fair.' "

In the end, there would be one notable exception to Lloyd Webber's condition.

Finding Raoul

Wilson was the first actor cast on the film, a feat the actor attributes to old-fashioned connections that border on the incestuous.

Both Schumacher and Wilson are clients of Creative Artists Agency in Los Angeles. Schumacher's agent's former assistant was one of Wilson's agents. Meanwhile, Schumacher's agent also happens to be Mike Nichols' agent, and Nichols recently had directed Wilson in an acclaimed HBO production of "Angels in America."

"That's the great thing about when you're in a company like (CAA)," Wilson said. "It's a business, and you find out. It's not like there was a breakdown for Raoul, and I went and auditioned. You find out before there's even a casting person on the movie. You find out about roles that are coming about."

It turns out that Schumacher had seen Wilson on Broadway in the musical "The Full Monty," but assumed he was too old for "Phantom." He thought Wilson must be in his 40s. Once Schumacher learned Wilson's true age (he's now just 31), a recommendation from Nichols helped get the actor's foot in the door.

Wilson said he was most excited about the opportunity to do his own bareback horse-riding stunt in "Phantom" and to engage in a swashbuckling sword fight.

Wilson decided he wanted to be an actor at the age of 15, after attending a summer program at Boston University. He made his major film debut earlier this year in "The Alamo," an experience the Virginia native treasures despite the movie's poor performance at the box office and its critical drubbing. His success is due more to "Angels in America."

" 'Angels' opened a lot of doors. I mean, look, I still audition. It's not like I'm a household name and I get offered parts every day. There's always somebody who's going to get (the role) before you unless you're Tom Hanks or Tom Cruise. That's the reality of the business, and that's fine," Wilson said.

Enter the Phantom

With their Raoul in place, Schumacher and Lloyd Webber were left with the more daunting tasks of finding their Phantom and Christine.

"(Hugh Jackman) wasn't available (for 'Phantom')," Schumacher said. "I'm sure we would have gone to Hugh, but Hugh was under contract to do 'The Boy From Oz' (on Broadway)."

Instead, Schumacher found the Phantom right under his nose.

The story begins a few years ago when Schumacher was in St. Louis scouting locations for a movie and decided to catch a film.

"Behind the hotel, there was a huge cineplex with about 16 theaters. And we had seen 15 of the movies, except for 'Dracula 2000.' So we thought, 'This will be fun.' We got our popcorn. We went in. And Gerry's first entrance (as Dracula) is in a plane. He bursts out of a coffin. And I said, 'This guy has fantastic screen presence.' "

"At least it was good for something," Butler joked about "Dracula 2000."

Butler's agent had been trying to get Schumacher to meet the Scottish actor. After seeing "Dracula 2000," Schumacher agreed. The director was so taken with Butler's sense of humor that the two would meet for lunch whenever Butler was in Los Angeles.

"I sent him the script and I said, 'I think you would make a great Phantom.' And he came in to meet with me. He was so emotional about the loneliness, I knew he understood the inside of this character. And I said, 'You know, Gerry, I think you'd be a great Phantom, but you can't have this role if you can't sing it.' "

Butler had started taking voice lessons as soon as he got the script. On the appointed day, Butler was ushered into a small music room to audition for Lloyd Webber. He sang "Music of the Night," and Schumacher was blown away. More important, Lloyd Webber reacted with enthusiasm. And Butler got the role.

"He's a fabulous Phantom," Lloyd Webber said. "I mean I think he's got the physical presence."

In singing, Butler said he concentrated on conveying the character's emotions more than perfecting his musicianship.

He speaks of the Phantom with great empathy. While it's true that the character slips into insanity and becomes murderous, Butler said his personality is understandable after being so horribly mistreated and banished from the world because no one wanted to look at him.

"At the end of the day, I saw him as a man who never really had a chance to grow up so he's still like a little boy," Butler said. "All he's looking for is some love, and everything else is a reaction to that. . . ."

The actor's job was complicated, however, by the white mask covering half of his face.

"We tried on probably quite a few hundred masks, it feels like, of every shape and size and material and color and facial expression and size of eye and the size of the mask. We finally got the perfect mask. . . . It had a great physical expression on it, which was kind of beautiful but ominous," he said.

There was just one problem: No one knew how to put on the mask. As filming was about to begin, Butler was still holding up the mask by hand. Extra sticky double-faced tape provided the solution.

Despite the physical hardships endured and the pressure of the singing role, Butler said working on the film was everything he had hoped for and more.

Singing a different tune

Lloyd Webber wrote a new ballad for the Phantom ("Learn to Be Lonely"), but decided that the song was too much of an interruption in the story and he removed it from the film.

"Learn to Be Lonely" now is sung by Minnie Driver over the end credits, the only time audiences hear Driver's real voice in the film. Driver plays Carlotta, the opera diva jealous of Christine's burgeoning success. It was the one role Lloyd Webber permitted to be dubbed. The voice is that of Margaret Preece, who has played Carlotta on stage.

"We've made no secret about it," Driver said. "That bel canto sound takes a lifetime of training. It's not something you can kind of pick up and do." Ironically, Driver released a CD, "Everything I've Got in My Pocket," in October. She sent a copy to Lloyd Webber, who decided she should sing "Learn to Be Lonely" on the movie's soundtrack.

Driver said she has been friends with Schumacher ever since auditioning for the Nicole Kidman role in "Batman Forever." Her recurring role on television's "Will & Grace" helped prove that she had the comic ability the role of Carlotta requires. She and Preece worked together closely to ensure that the voice matched the physical performance.

Can it be Christine?

After searching high and low, Schumacher thought he finally had narrowed the field to five actresses for the role of Christine.

"I was going to screen test five young ladies in New York for the part," he said. "And Emmy came in 48 hours before those screen tests. Suddenly, her agent called and said, 'You know, we have this young actress and she can sing.' And I said, 'Well, send her in' because I always meet with everybody. And she walked in the door of my house in L.A. . . . and here's this gorgeous creature."

Schumacher said he was impressed with Rossum's performance in 'Songcatcher' when she was 13.

"I thought she was a local Appalachian girl or something because she's like a girl from the hills in it, singing these folk songs. . . . I thought they found a local girl for that movie. I had no idea she was a New Yorker."

"This was as if we had ordered her from a catalog with that face and figure and that skin and that color -- I had always wanted Christine to be dark -- she was perfect."

To this day, Rossum said she is unsure who was among her competition.

"I was 16 at the time of the audition," Rossum said. "I knew that I was the youngest and least famous of anybody going in for it. I didn't ever know who else went in for it because we were ushered around this audition process in a very secretive way."

After receiving the screen tests, Lloyd Webber announced that Rossum had not been eliminated and he agreed to hear her sing in his New York living room. There were no introductions, no small talk. "Shall we?" Lloyd Webber asked. "I thought, 'Well, I guess this is the way things are done in the Lloyd Webber household,' " Rossum said. She sang the two biggest numbers in the show, and Lloyd Webber stood up and said, "Oh, that was really good. I'm Andrew. Nice to meet you."

"I got the call that I got 'Phantom of the Opera,' and I was in total shock," she said. "We were all sitting at breakfast, and I put the phone down. I looked up and my mom was reading the newspaper, and I said, 'Mom, I got "Phantom of the Opera." And she looked up and said, 'That's nice, honey,' and kept reading."

Rossum, an only child in a family with no show business background, had been part of the children's chorus at the Metropolitan Opera since she was 7. "(Singing) is something that's always come naturally to me, like breathing," she said.

Rossum said her training from the Met allows her to adapt easily to different styles of music. She said her biggest challenge in "Phantom" was to reflect Christine's journey to adulthood, allowing her voice to become darker and darker as the story progresses.

She admits that her life has changed, but she still lives at home and does her own laundry. She's taking classes at Columbia University, concentrating on the core curriculum.

Despite a role in last summer's "The Day After Tomorrow," Rossum said she never would take a role for the money. "I was working from the time I was 7 for $5 a night. There was a horse on stage with me that was getting $150. So it's not long before you realize you're worth less than a horse, and you realize I'm here because I love it."


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