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Category: Phantom of the Opera News
Article Date: January 2, 2005 | Publication: The Age.Com | Author: editors

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Not content with the millions he's made in the world's theatres, Andrew Lloyd Webber has taken his cash cow Phantom of the Opera to the big screen. Stephanie Bunbury reports.

From this distance, it looks like a no-brainer. Take the most successful musical in history, lush it up with all the spectacle modern cinema can offer and the resonance of a 105-piece orchestra, make squillions. And now that The Phantom of the Opera is finally on our screens, you wonder why it took so long.

You also wonder, given that Andrew Lloyd Webber owns the movie outright, what kind of swell it might put on his reputed fortune of £450 million ($A1.14 billion). Because whether or not you think Lord Lloyd-Webber is worth two bob as a composer, he is indisputably talented at making money.

Paradoxically, it is partly the Phantom's very success that has kept it off our screens for so long. Warners bought the rights to Phantom in the late 1980s, but the Really Useful Group, Lloyd Webber's production company, was afraid a film version would cut into theatre ticket sales. So far, punters in 18 countries have bought 80 million tickets to see Phantom live. The cast recording of 1987 is the most successful ever, with 40 million units shifted. Andrew Lloyd Webber himself pointed out to an interviewer in 1999 that it was "the biggest entertainment in any medium ever, including film. Forget Harry Potter, forget Titanic."

Lloyd Webber first asked Joel Schumacher to direct the film in those early days of excitement at Warners, when Phantom was a hot new project and he, after surprise successes with St Elmo's Fire and The Lost Boys (1987), was a hot new talent. It was to star Michael Crawford, the original stage Phantom, and Lloyd Webber's wife Sarah Brightman as Christine.

"We were ready to make it in Prague and Munich," says Schumacher now. "We were in pre-production. The sets and costumes had been designed. And then Andrew and Sarah decided to divorce, which was amicable but their lawyers got involved in all the rights and the plug got pulled. Then a couple of years later, when Andrew came back to me, my career had taken off."

But the two men stayed friends and, after years of dinners during which Schumacher would sometimes suggest other directors for the job, Lloyd Webber urged him once again to take it on himself. "And this mutual friend, who is a producer, said, ‘Before you say no, think about why you wanted to do it 16 years ago. And if you still want to do it for those reasons, then do it'. So I thought about the films I could have been doing last year and this was scarier, more interesting and more passionate."
18-year-old Emmy Rossum plays Christine in the film version of Andrew Lloyd Webber's Phantom of the Opera, and Gerard Butler plays the title role.

18-year-old Emmy Rossum plays Christine in the film version of Andrew Lloyd Webber's Phantom of the Opera, and Gerard Butler plays the title role.

Lord Lloyd-Webber's Phantom of the Opera is the record breaker, but it was not the first. The novel by Gaston Leroux was published in 1910 and has inspired half a dozen films, the first and arguably greatest being the 1925 silent classic with Lon Chaney, which played out the full, frightening horror of the disfigured malevolence prowling the bowels of an old theatre. But when Andrew Lloyd Webber saw a campy theatrical version of the story back in the days when he was first engaged to Brightman, who would become his second wife and the first Christine in what was to become his own Phantom, it struck him as essentially a love story.

"It's that conflict in the adolescent girl," he told The Guardian newspaper in London. "Her first love is Raoul, the gorgeous tenor whom every mother would hope her daughter would marry, but the danger side of her, the rock'n'roll side, is the Phantom. We all know, us rock'n' roll dads, that she wants the Phantom."

He wanted the chance, he says, to get his teeth into "a full-blooded romantic musical". It is an approach that has won the hearts of millions, turning Leroux's hectically confused novel into "a classic".

Throughout the decade when the film of Phantom didn't happen, fans were increasingly disturbed by rumours about the casting. Michael Crawford, the definitive Phantom, is now 62, but there were demonstrations outside Warners by devotees determined that no other contender - John Travolta one year, Antonio Banderas the next - should take the role that was rightfully his. Back at the studio, however, no decisions were being made on Phantom at all. Nobody on the inside was pushing it. Lloyd Webber himself has related how a Warners representative told him that while he got the idea of people singing inside an opera house, he couldn't see why they would sing on the roof. "And I thought, ‘It's a musical!'" It was this that persuaded him that he should try, somehow, to buy the rights back and make the film under his own steam.

With Schumacher once again on board, any suggestion that Michael Crawford could reprise his stage success was forgotten. Schumacher loves glamour, youth and "sexiness", a word he uses frequently. "I said I'd do it, but they'd have to all be very young and beautiful and really sexy and really gifted. I wasn't going to do a middle-aged Phantom."

At one time Katie Holmes was mooted as Christine but, at 26, even she was too old. He wanted a teenage Christine and a Phantom with a bit of rock'n'roll about him.

Pretty, dewy Emmy Rossum was only 16 when she was cast. Incredibly, however, she was already a veteran of both opera and films: she joined the Metropolitan Opera House's training scheme for talented children at the age of seven and went on to work in films, coming to Phantom straight from the set of The Day After Tomorrow. Now 18, she has a frightening kind of pert self-possession. "I didn't know Emmy existed when she came for audition," says Schumacher. "The fact that there was this gorgeous girl with the most beautiful skin and perfect colouring who had been singing opera since she was seven - it was like, ‘Thank you, God'."

The two leading men are considerably older - Patrick Wilson, who plays the Vicomte Raoul de Chagny, is rather long in the tooth at 31 to have been Christine's childhood sweetheart, while Gerard Butler's Phantom is now 35. Butler is, as the agitators might say, no Michael Crawford, but his wavering adherence to the upper reaches of Lloyd Webber's melodies is outweighed by exactly the sort of masculine sexuality Schumacher wanted. The deal was that the leads had to be able to sing their own roles; only Minnie Driver, as the screechingly over-the-top Italian diva displaced by young Christine, was dubbed. (This despite the fact that the release of Phantom follows the release of Driver's first album as singer and songwriter. "But she has to sing like Maria Callas," Schumacher explains. "And the great opera singers take themselves very seriously. I needed someone who was willing to take the mickey, as we say, and Minnie had great fun with it.")

Whether the film will succeed, or perhaps whether it will succeed at the stratospheric level that is Lloyd Webber's rightful airspace, is another matter. Those film reviewers who declare themselves fans of the stage show have greeted the film with lukewarm approval. Plenty more hate it, largely for the reasons they would hate the stage show were they obliged to see it.

In Phantom, Lloyd Webber plunders operatic tropes, just as he did various styles of popular music in Starlight Express and Jesus Christ Superstar, in order to create "pastiche without love", to quote another critic. While Gerard Butler describes the music as "incredibly moving and powerful", the naysayers describe it, to quote one, as "a plodding musical score that burrows into your head like a bad pop tune".

There is resentment, too, that a story full of Freudian potential has been watered down to no more than another soft-rock meeting in the candy store. "The guignol is alchemised into syrup, creating a film so lifeless and soulless it's almost scary," wrote one critic.

But perhaps none of that really matters. Whatever it does in the theatres, Phantom of the Opera will have a great commercial life on DVD, being seen and loved in millions of suburban lounge rooms. Without question, both Andrew Lloyd Webber and Joel Schumacher - who will tell you affably that, no matter how much Batman and Robin flopped, "I made a fortune for them in merchandise" - will have taken that into detailed account.

The story of Lord Lloyd-Webber is not quite rags-to-riches, but it is certainly a model of focused aspiration. Young Andrew's father was an organist and composer; his mother was a piano teacher. He thinks his father could have been a great writer of film scores - "he was as good as any of the major Hollywood writers" - but he felt it would let his family down if he deserted serious music.

Andrew did not have to shoulder that burden.

He dropped out of Oxford after one term to concentrate on writing musicals. Tim Rice, the lyricist who worked with him on Joseph and the Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat and Jesus Christ Superstar, recalls in his memoirs that when they met in the '60s Lloyd Webber was only 17 but had no interest in writing pop songs. His focus was already the West End.

Over the years, he made those grubby streets his own. This is almost literally true: the Really Useful Group, in which he is the 100 per cent shareholder, jointly owns 12 London theatres. The greater truth, however, is the extent to which one man has transformed and dominated the commercial theatre culture.

Before Andrew Lloyd Webber, only Agatha Christie's The Mousetrap had run for years and years; its very longevity was part of its freakish sideshow quality. Cats, which opened in 1980, changed all that. It ran for 21 years; Starlight Express, which opened in 1984 to critical dismay at its lack of any real plot or memorable tunes, went on to run for 17 years. Both closed in 2002, victims of September 11. In 1986, the Phantom started swinging that chandelier. He's still going strong.

The most recent Lloyd Webber to hit the stage is The Woman in White, based on Wilkie Collins' Victorian chiller and featuring Michael Crawford in a supporting role. It opened in September to reviews ranging from the gushing to the damning. The Sunday Times deemed it a "majestic return to the musical theatre", with "a great arching narrative, brilliantly told", while The Evening Standard felt it "deserves to be stuffed and placed in a museum for deceased musicals". It was "about as spine-chilling as a Teletubbies teaparty," said The Observer, though its critic did praise some performances.

The conservative Sunday Telegraph, however, nailed it by looking at the new show as product. "This is standard-issue Lloyd Webber," said the critic, that would "run and run" rather than "run and run and run". With a revived Joseph packing them in around the corner and Phantom showing in two media, it is safe to say that the West End is still Webber Central.

Recently, however, Lloyd Webber himself suggested that his name is no longer the box-office draw it once was. He even suggested that, after 14 musicals, he might be ready to move on to something else. Movie scores, perhaps. Or serious music. "I've been sent a book of poems written in the Warsaw Ghetto during the war," he told The Guardian. "I'm thinking about it seriously … A song cycle."

Not that he has shown any real signs of letting go of the musical: there is constant talk of new ideas and he is an inveterate tinkerer, even on successful shows. He closed Sunset Boulevard in London at the height of its success to rework it, at an estimated cost of $18 million; this year, he shut Bombay Dreams, the Bollywood musical he commissioned, produced and shepherded to popular success, after just 18 months because he felt the new Broadway version was better. A revamped London show will open next year.

This is the thing about Andrew Lloyd Webber: his musicals are not, in fact, pastiches without love. If the music is middle-brow and the stories rendered banal, they are still the shows he wants to do as much as they are the shows the masses want to see. His musicals are his children, by his own admission, even if he puts them to work forever like some Gradgrind of Drury Lane. And for all his apparent commercialism, he prides himself on having pushed the musical form into new zones: on having written The Beautiful Game about terrorism in Northern Ireland, for example, even if it did only run for a year.

And clearly, he is driven. It can't be the money any more. Like the Phantom, he's out to haunt us.

The Phantom of the Opera is now showing.


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