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Phantom of Opera’ lurks eerily behind big screen

Category: Phantom of the Opera Reviews
Article Date: January 20, 2005 | Publication: The Billings Outpost | Author: RACHEL CRISP
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The stage production of Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber’s “The Phantom of the Opera” is the largest grossing stage or screen production in the world, reaching approximately 80 million people and earning more than $3.2 billion in box office receipts. It has received more than 50 major awards, including seven Tony Awards, and the soundtrack to the original London stage show is the largest-selling cast album ever. That’s an awful lot for a film adaptation to live up to.

Luckily, this film is one of the rare instances when the original creator has had a say in the movie adaptation. Certainly, no one could direct Lloyd Webber’s musicals like Lloyd Webber himself. When I fell in love with “Phantom” it was hard and fast, and I have been anticipating this film for 11 years.

As it turns out, Sir Webber and director Joel Schumacher have been thinking about it for over 16 years. However, life happens, and the film wasn’t finally realized until the two met in December 2002 to discuss the project once again.

Though some criticized a film adaptation as something that would cheapen the stage show, both artists felt that a movie was the only way for such a spectacle to be accessible to the broad public. When was the last time you had the resources to see a live show on Broadway? As Schumacher has noted, “Think about films like ‘The Sound of Music,’ ‘West Side Story’ and ‘Chicago.’ How many people have actually seen ‘The Sound of Music’ on the stage, compared to the millions who have seen the film?”

Based on Gaston Leroux’s novel, “Le Fantôme de l’Opéra,” Lloyd Webber’s version is noted for portraying the Phantom in a humanistic light, rather than as a purely evil tragic character. With a Beauty and the Beast dynamic, the Phantom represents that part in all of us that is timid and frightened of how we might repulse the world around us. Those things we try to hide from light, ashamed of revealing – that is who the Phantom really is.

He is enraptured by the young singer Christine and sees her as the only way that he can have a voice. The world has scorned and ignored him due to a physical deformity, and all he desires is compassion. With the plot revolving around the Opera Populaire, the grand opera house that Leroux based on the famed Paris Opera House, the Phantom causes disasters while secretly training the young singer to become a star. He hides in shadows, tormenting those living above the catacombs, afraid of the world that has treated him so harshly.

Newcomer Emmy Rossum portrays the innocent ingenue Christine Daae, a role originally performed and inspired by Lloyd Webber’s former wife, Sarah Brightman. Trained at the Metropolitan Opera since the age of 7 and only 16 when picked for the role, Ms. Rossum is a perfect Christine. She has that certain innocence, tinged with burgeoning sexuality, that fascinates the audience as well as her phantom idolater.

Perhaps the most difficult mask to fill, the Phantom character is decently portrayed by Gerard Butler. Though no one has that creepy, whispering tinge to his voice like Michael Crawford, the original Phantom, Mr. Butler does bring an edgy, rock ’n’ roll sense to the character. The frustration of the Phantom, and yet his tenderness, are evident in such classic tracks as “Music of the Night” and “Past the Point of No Return.”

Though the Phantom is certainly the center of the story, Minnie Driver’s portrayal of opera diva La Carlotta often steals the scene. Of course, that’s what a diva does. Partly humorous, and partly pathetic, La Carlotta sees herself as the sun around which the universe revolves. When she realizes just how replaceable she is, her ego is shattered and she curses the managers in ad-libbed Italian. Of course the prima donna must be satisfied, and once satiated the only thing bigger than her ego is her hair.

Visually, the production is stunning. The sets are intricate and exquisite, the historical details accurate and the costumes breathtaking (and not just because of all the corsets). There are scenes that the stage version could never hope to portray in-depth, such as the hustle and bustle backstage, and scenes that look as if they used the actual stage props from the original. One aspect that greatly pleased me is the way the ballet girls look as if they’ve stepped right out of a Degas painting.

Musically, the film is quite true to the stage version. During my Phantom fanaticism, I memorized the libretto completely and was impressed by how closely this movie was to the original. Here and there, a few words have been changed and some lines are spoken rather than sung.

The final recording of the film’s music was done by a handpicked orchestra that met in London to record at the famous Abbey Road Studios. Most of the actors sing their parts, even though it is sometimes through a vocal track instead of a live on-screen performance. Of course, nothing can compare to seeing real people really singing on a real stage, but for a movie, “The Phantom of the Opera” comes satisfactorily close.

Critics have complained that the film is too gaudy, too full of music and not horrific enough. But this is a musical, set in 1870s Paris, and it is a tale of compassion, not boogie men. The era was opulent, the opera performers were rock stars, and deformity was something to be mocked in a sideshow, not dealt with in a politically correct manner.

And how does the creator feel about how his work comes across to his audience? For Lloyd Webber, “The film looks and sounds fabulous and I think it’s an extraordinarily fine document of the stage show. It’s not based on the theater visually or direction-wise, but it’s still got exactly the same essence. And that’s all I could have ever hoped for.”

 


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