Favorites Friday: Phantom of the Opera

This seems to be the month for anniversaries.  Yesterday, January 26th, was the 24th anniversary of The Phantom of the Opera opening on Broadway.  Just recently they had the 25th anniversary in London.  And I’m using the Broadway anniversary as an excuse to examine probably more versions of the Phantom than you ever knew existed.  Indulge me just this once.  🙂

I’m fascinated by all the different versions, by how different people and different mediums can start with the same story and tell it so many different ways.  And how they all interpret the character of the Phantom differently–terrifying or romantic, heartbreaking or horrifying.  I have read or seen at least twelve versions of The Phantom of the Opera (which is why I’m mostly keeping this brief!)  I don’t regret even the bad ones, because I’m interested to see HOW they did it.  So here we go–in chronological order, because that’s how my brain works.

The Phantom of the Opera by Gaston Leroux (1909) is the original, and I don’t think he quite knew what he had.  It’s a pretty straight-forward monster story, and the Phantom is an almost irredeemable, terrifying figure.  He’s the most interesting one in the story, but still terrifying, and completely off his head.  It’s a good read, but don’t expect it to much resemble the Webber musical.  If you do read it, try to find the version edited by Leonard Wolf; it’s a particularly good translation and has some useful (and sometimes amusing) footnotes.

The Lon Chaney Phantom (1925) also depicts a rather terrifying figure, though it gets points for getting the Phantom’s name right–Erik–and even if he was still a monster, he was a somewhat heroic, tragic one.  You feel bad for him, and admire his abilities sometimes too.  This one also has a completely baffling character who is obviously the Persian, but is listed in the credits as Police Inspector Ledoux.  I can’t explain that.

The Claude Rains Phantom (1943) is one of the more serene Phantoms, one of the less villainous ones but also one of the least romantic.  No Angel of Music at all, and this one is the source of the story about acid causing the Phantom’s deformity.  This also makes a complete mess of his name–it sounds fine, but in the credits it’s spelled “Erique.”  I just don’t know.  But I do love Rains’ mask.

The Herbert Lom Phantom (1962) adds basically nothing.  He’s even less romantic or villainous than the Raines version, and at that point there’s not much character left.  And I really can’t explain his psychotic hunchback sidekick…

After this desert of unromantic Phantoms, we come to the Webber Phantom (1986), which is just lovely.  The Phantom becomes much more sympathetic and more complicated.  The talented but deformed man who hides in the shadows and really does love Christine is so much more interesting than Leroux’s crazy monster.  The music is wonderful, the scenery and costumes are so elaborate, the supporting characters are funny…  I’ve seen this five times live, once recorded (more on that later), listened to the soundtrack with the amazing Michael Crawford many times, and it is excellent.

The Charles Dance Phantom (1990) features probably the only Christine I ever actually liked.  There’s a much more open and trusting relationship between her and the Phantom than we usually see.  This one also gives the Phantom a father, which is a bit bizarre but kind of works, and the Phantom gets some great dialogue talking to him–as when they overhear Carlotta singing, and the Phantom says, “Good God, the place really is haunted.”  One disappointment of this one–we never see under the mask.  Christine does, but we don’t get that camera angle.  Otherwise, very fascinating portrayals of both Christine and the Phantom.

Susan Kay’s Phantom (1990) is amazing, incredible, mind-blowing…one of my all-time favorite books.  Passionate, intense, a deep exploration of Erik and of the people who pass in and out of his life.  Read my review for more.

The David Staller Phantom (1991) is a less well-known musical.  The music is forgettable, but the Phantom’s character is fascinating.  He doesn’t get to talk much in Webber.  In this one, there’s some actual conversation, and we see the Phantom’s arrogance, and hear about his history–which is much more accurate to Leroux, and delightful.  This one features the Persian, otherwise known as the Daroga, and not only is it great fun to actually see him in a movie, I love hearing Staller drawl, “Da-ro-GA!”  There’s also some good humor here.  Be warned it completely messes with the ending, but I actually rather like how it did it…

Angel of the Opera (1994) by Sam Siciliano brought together two of my favorite worlds, combining Phantom with Sherlock Holmes, and is strangely enjoyable despite not really portraying either all that well.  I can’t explain that.  The lonely, thinks-she’s-ugly-but-actually-beautiful, musically-talented blind girl gives me fits (could you BE more obvious when you bring in an extraneous character?) but despite the flaws I really enjoyed reading this one.

Maskerade by Terry Pratchett (1998) is only very loosely a version of Phantom, but it is hysterically, hilariously funny.  There’s an Opera House and a Phantom, and he writes notes.  In fact, he writes down maniacal laughter, as in “Ahahahahaha!!!!!  Yrs, The Opera Ghost.  P.S. Ahahahaha!!!!!”  Five exclamation points are a sure sign of an unbalanced mind.

The Phantom of Manhattan by Frederick Forsythe (2000) is also only very loosely the Phantom, except that I don’t think he meant it to be that way.  This is meant to be a sequel to the Webber play, and it’s just dreadful on pretty much every level–the writing, the POV choices, the plot.  The Phantom goes to New York (I don’t know), continues mooning after Christine, eventually becomes a tycoon of business (I don’t know!) and then tries to lure Christine back after he realizes she has his son, product of a scene that was not and could not have been in the Webber musical.  I don’t know.  Webber himself did a sequel similar to this in 2010, Love Never Dies (I don’t know), and while I haven’t seen it, as far as I can tell that was also a horrible mistake.

More wisely, Webber also did a movie version (2004), with Gerard Butler as the Phantom, which is quite different in staging than the play version.  I enjoyed it, though it’s not as good as the play; for one reason, Butler isn’t up to the singing.  Although he does look very good in the mask.  If you do watch this, I HIGHLY recommend Cleolinda Jones’ Phantom in Fifteen Minutes parody.  Just about as funny as Maskerade.

If you can, see the Webber Phantom live.  If you can’t see it live, get the DVD of the 25th Anniversary Performance (filmed in 2011, out in February).  I saw it in theaters recently.  They did a wonderful job with the filming, and the performance is excellent.  Counting this one, I’ve seen the play six times in six different venues, and the 25th Anniversary is probably the second best (London was the best; Las Vegas was the worst).

If you’ve made it this far 🙂 what’s my overall recommendation?  If you’re really, really interested in Phantom, watch or read them all.  If you’re a little interested, go for the Webber play.  If you’re a bit more interested, read Leroux and Susan Kay.  And if you’re not interested at all, read Maskerade because it’s hilarious even if you’re not a fan of the Phantom.

From people who have already delved into a version or two, I’d love to hear your opinions too!  And…have I missed any?  🙂

8 thoughts on “Favorites Friday: Phantom of the Opera

  1. I’ve just read the Leroux, and seen the Chaney and Webber versions; but you’ve made me want to check out some of the others. Comparing different versions of the same story is so interesting, isn’t it? I’m currently in the middle of a binge of movie and TV adaptations of Sherlock Holmes from throughout the 20th and 21st centuries, and I find it fascinating how differently the character is interpreted in different eras and by different people. Of course, a lot of these actually have original plots, not directly based on any of Conan Doyle’s stories; so in a way it’s more like fanfiction.

    I’ve heard of The Angel of the Opera though I haven’t read it yet; I believe there’s another Holmes-meets-Phantom book called The Canary Trainer, by Nicholas Meyer. Supposedly that one isn’t very good, though.

    1. The things that live in my head… I knew Nicholas Meyer sounded familiar, so I looked him up–the Star Trek director! Now I think I have to read his book, good or not…

      I enjoy different Holmes versions too, though I haven’t done too much concentrated seeking. If you haven’t watched the BBC miniseries, put it at the top of the list, it’s excellent.

      1. Oh yes, I’ve watched the BBC series, and I love it.

        Meyer’s written a few Holmes books (one of which was made into a movie), and he’s the guy who made Spock claim in Trek VI that Holmes was his ancestor. Funny how different fan interests can overlap like that.

  2. ensign_beedrill

    I love hearing Staller drawl, “Da-ro-GA!”
    Ummm, yes? Nearly every time I think of Daroga, I hear this in my head.

    Speaking of Phantom and Sherlock Holmes, I haven’t actually read that story, but have you seen the new Sherlock Holmes movie? They actually go to the Paris Opera and I really half expected to see Erik there.

    You’ve seen it five times?? Ah-some. I’ve only seen it thrice, but I am hoping to go see it in Las Vegas this year. You said it was the worst. Was it bad, or just not up to snuff? No spoilers. 🙂

    Love Never Dies is coming out on DVD (a recording of the Australian production), which is something I’m going to have to Netflix at least, just out of curiosity. Phantom of Manhattan was a right mess, and from all I’ve read and heard, this will be, too. I actually think that in your last e-mail you asked me my thoughts on it. And I never responded because for some reason I’m horrible at responding to e-mails?, but I guess I’ll put it down here. It stinks. I’ve read a synopsis of the story, took some looks at some bootleg films… it stinks. Complete character assassination. Poor Raoul. Poor Meg. Christine apparently no longer has free will. All the mysteriousness of the Phantom is gone. Giry is spiteful. Erik is left in the end to raise a kid (I am laughing at the thought). It’s really just ridiculous. There are a couple songs that I like the tune of, and if you take them out of context, they’re alright to listen to. But it just. Doesn’t. Work. I hate to say it (or maybe not), but it just seems like a bad fanfic. This story is really not in need of a sequel. I’ve read an opinion that if Webber had to make another Phantom, he should have done a prequel with all his adventures and Persia and all that (like Kay’s novel), and then end with him first hearing Christine’s voice. That mighta’ worked.

    But the thing is, the original is just such a powerful, wonderful thing. If it isn’t perfect, it’s close to it. The first time I saw it live, I was completely blown away and no other musical I’ve seen has come close to matching how amazing it is. Even Webber admits that it’s a very rare thing to have such a great production team and have all of it come together so exquisitely. He knows. HE KNOWS. And he just had to try and top it. But you can’t. I hate to be trite (or maybe not), but it is so hard to catch lightning in a bottle. To do it twice? He had to know the sequel would be measured against the brilliant original, that it would be scrutinized much more harshly, but he expected everyone to like it just because it’s Phantom. Well it’s not. I read a great quote somewhere: Andrew Lloyd Webber didn’t take Love Never Dies seriously, so why should I?

    I see you’ve left out Yeston and Kopit’s Phantom. Are you familiar with it? I haven’t seen the Charles Dance version, but it was written by one of those guys. I got the soundtrack from a used book store years ago and it’s not bad. The odd thing about it is that Raoul isn’t in it at all… instead the lead is Philippe (Raoul’s brother’s name, but not actually Raoul’s brother!), and Carlotta also owns the Opera.

    1. YES! Would it have been so hard to work in a little Phantom reference when Holmes went to the Paris Opera House? But then, I expect a reference every time anyone does anything involving the Paris Opera House…but it would have been so lovely.

      As to the Las Vegas Phantom…it was pretty bad. But let me qualify that. First, I had seen it four times already, and I know I’m particular about my Phantom renditions. Second, it had its pluses. The theater is amazing, and they do some cool effects–there’s fireworks when Christine and Raoul are on the roof, and the Phantom hangs off the chandelier for “Behold, she is singing to bring down the chandelier!” Third, my biggest problem was the actor playing the Phantom–which always makes or breaks the Phantom experience for me. My recommendation is to check first to see who’s playing the Phantom when you want to go, and hope it isn’t Crivello. I couldn’t get any handle on his portrayal of the character (scary? shy? campy?) and he sang the entire thing with his jaw clenched. Which bothered me way more than you might think it would. But he sang like it was hard for him to sing, and the idea that Erik’s singing is effortless is kind of important to me. And he over-enunciated “Music of the Night.” So I don’t know where that leaves you, but…that was my experience with Vegas. But if you’re ever in London, SEE IT.

      I also plan to get Love Never Dies on Netflix, out of, I don’t know, morbid curiosity? Even though it sounds so awful on so many levels. I honestly think I put a effort into learning about it just so I could speak with some authority in hating it. I’ve skimmed the libretto and heard about half of the songs on YouTube and it seems pretty near irredeemable. But it’s all okay–it closed in 18 months in London, and they’re “still deciding” when it will come to Broadway. In other words, it died.

      I am not familiar with Yeston and Kopit, though now I vaguely remember you mentioning it at some point…I’ll have to investigate further!

      1. Looks like Crivello is still the Phantom, so I’ll just have to take my chances. When I saw it in New York, the Phantom was an understudy (James Romick) and he was just phenomenal… he’s still my Phantom.

        Don’t worry. If I ever somehow find myself in London, I’m seeing it. In fact, I think it would be my main reason for going to London if I ever do. The thing is, international travel scares the bejeebers out of me. In this case perhaps not so much the act as the planning.

  3. How successful was the David Stoller “Phantom”? Pretty gutsy to attempt any kind of musical of this story after the phenominal success of Webber’s version. Did you think there were any good songs in this version?

    1. I’m afraid I don’t know much about the success of the Staller Phantom. As to good songs, well, I can’t say they were BAD…but I’ve watched the movie twice, vividly remember some of Staller’s dialogue and yet can’t remember a single song…so they weren’t memorable!

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