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'Phantom of the Opera' enters a new stage

Category: Phantom of the Opera News
Article Date: December 31, 2004 | Publication: Los Angeles Daily News | Author:
Glenn Whipp

Posted by: admin

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 a call from Lloyd Webber.

"He told me it was off," Schumacher said. "He was getting divorced from Sarah Brightman [the star of the musical who also was 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."

Luckily, the marriage is back on. "Phantom" finally arrived in theaters last week.

But there is no Brightman or Michael Crawford, the Phantom of choice for the musical's obsessive fanatics (and there are many), in the lead roles. They were casualties of the passage of time.

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

Since its October 1986 premiere on London's West End, Lloyd Webber's bombastic, insanely melodic pop opera has been performed more than 65,000 times in 18 countries, selling an estimated 80 million tickets. The musical's original-cast recording, released in 1987, is the biggest-selling cast album ever, at 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.

"People never seem to get tired of it," Lloyd Webber said. "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. He reclaimed the movie rights to "Phantom" from Warner Bros. four years ago, putting up $6 million of his money and, along with Schumacher, going to foreign investors to raise the film's $75 million budget.

"The timing is better now," Lloyd Webber said.

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 the 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 who's in love with Christine, his beautiful singing protégée.

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.

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 who has played leads in "Oklahoma!" and "The Full Monty."

Lloyd Webber called 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, which appears to have come 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 said. "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 said, 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 said. "We all have those dark feelings inside of us, baggage that we don't let people know about because we don't want to feel rejected. With the Phantom, it's even worse because of the purity of his love for Christine."

"Then again," he mused, "the man does go around killing people -- and that love he has for Christine is more than a little dysfunctional. ... 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."


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