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Phantom of the Opera
Three Hearts

"High and Low Notes in this Opera"

Written by Steven Walker

The Phantom of the Opera is my favorite musical.  I grew up with it, and have had the entire libretto memorized for over a decade.  I’ve listened to the original cast recording countless times and I’ve seen the show performed on and off Broadway.  Needless to say, I’m bringing a lot of baggage to my take on Joel Schumacher’s film adaptation. 

First, I do not believe it is necessary to be entirely faithful when adapting.  Stage musicals are structured quite differently from films.  The two best musical-to-film adaptations for me are Chicago and Sweeny Todd.  They both condensed and streamlined the source material into something that flowed much better as a film.  A beloved song or moment may have been lost from each, but their spirits were intact and often strengthened by the abridgement.

Secondly, the thrill of a stage musical is knowing the people are really singing right there in front of you as they do the physical performance.  In a movie musical…we know that the songs were recorded before-hand for maximum quality and the individual shots are lip-synced.  For this to work, the film needs a stylish set of visuals that are carefully crafted to fit the music and the lip-syncing must be absolutely spot on.

The first mistake Joel Schumacher makes is being too loyal to the musical.  For all my love and adoration of it, I am the first to admit that it somewhat repetitious and could really benefit from a streamlining. Songs like “All I ask of you,” “Wishing You Were Somehow Here Again,” and “The Point of No Return” all bring the story to a standstill.  A verse could easily be cut from each song and the whole affair would feel more energetic.

The second mistake is that not all of the lip-syncing is good.  For every five moments that work, there is one where I just don’t believe the people are really singing.  Other times there is poor body language that kills the illusion.   There are certain notes that you cannot hit with any clarity if you are hunched over in a way that constricts your diaphragm.  The fault for this lies entirely with Schumacher.

There are also several times where the staging is so, well, stagy.  “Angel of Music” and “Music of the Night” are both diminished by blocking that just has the actors standing still for long verses while the camera does nothing to create a sense of flow or rhythm.  Songs that are a wonder on stage during a live performance become a bore on screen because there is no imagination in their presentation.

The casting of Phantom aggravates me to no end.  I like Gerard Butler, I really do.  After his role in 300, he is going to be a real movie star.  Problem is…he is not a singer.  I know he wanted this part really bad and I know he put himself through vocal boot camp to prepare for it, but no amount of dedicated crash learning can make you into a Broadway caliber singer.  Yes, he looks great in the part.  Yes, his performance strikes the necessary balance between sympathetic and villainous.  No, he is not Michael Crawford.  Phantom is one of those roles young singers dream about playing.  To do this part right is a vocal tour de force.  To cast an actor who looks good but can’t really sing is criminal and it diminishes the A-List reputation this role has.

Butler’s failure is made that much more obvious by the perfection of Emily Rossum.  Her acting is not that great, as she tends to wear the same doe-faced blankness in a lot of scenes, but her voice is extraordinary.  I would argue her singing is better that Sarah Brighton’s.  To hear the best performance I’ve ever heard of Christine next to the worst Phantom is seriously disappointing.

The biggest crime against the musical is the Phantom’s lair.  On the stage, his lair feels dark, cavernous, and scary.  It is a vast and hollow place where the Phantom’s organ reverberates right down your spine.  The journey from Christine’s dressing room to the Phantom’s lair is still my favorite bit of stage production ever.  When the candelabras rise out of the mist is it electrifying. 

The movie fails in every way to recreate this.  The Phantom’s lair is pathetically small, practically cozy, and so brightly lit is might as well be daylight.  When candelabras rise out of the water and magically catch fire, it is absurd when it should be inspiring.  The lyrics talk about the darkness of the music of the night, but we a seeing a cheerful, well lit cave where I half expected to see underpants gnomes dancing around. 

Schumacher also makes some really bizarre and frustrating choices.  On several occasions the characters will speak lines that were sung on stage and the impact is always lessened. He also includes new dialogue before “Angel of Music” where Christine tells Meg about her father.  This is stupid for two reasons: 1.) Everything she says to Meg is repeated during the Little Lotte exchange with Raoul, thus making it feel extremely redundant.  2.) It clarifies everything she sings to Meg so that when Meg sings the line, “Christine you’re talking in riddles…” there is no reason for it because Christine has not been talking in riddles.  I don’t understand the thought process behind these decisions.

Another from the ‘what were they thinking’ category is the choice of one particular lyric.  They use the revised libretto in the film…which is fine…but during one section of Firmin’s first song they use one half-verse from the original libretto and the other half-verse from the revised libretto and the two DO NOT RHYME!  How could they make this mistake?  The line “Spare me these unending trials” should rhyme with “you’ll pack them in the aisles!”  Instead they try to rhyme “unending trails” with “you’re sure to have a hit!”  What?  

Finally, Schumacher really drops the ball with the Masquerade sequence.  Easily one of the best songs and the most visually lush on the stage.  The costumes always blew me away when I saw the show.  They were full of color and life and made me wish people still threw parties like that.

For some mind-numbing reason, Schumacher decides to make everyone’s costume black and white.  He takes the most colorful scene in the show and makes it completely monochromatic and boring.  If the intent was to make the Phantom’s Red Death outfit stand out, the ball is dropped on that one, too.  Phantom does not actually wear the elaborate Red Death costume that was so awesome on stage and made you wonder how Michael Crawford could even see through that thing well enough to walk down the stairs.  Instead, Phantom wears a simple scarlet suit and a half-skull mask that is entirely lacking.

You might have noticed that I’ve spent my entire review blasting the movie and may be wondering where the three stars come from.  Well it turns out that Schumacher gets even more right than he does wrong, it just happens that the parts he gets wrong were my favorite parts.

Returning to the Masquerade scene, color choices aside, it is brilliantly staged.  The visuals work hand in hand with the music.  I love how the stage hands steal the booze and have their own party while the rich people dance it up.  I love that Carlotta and Piange are standing in the places where the mannequins are during the stage show.  I love the confetti during climax of the song.  I love the living statue candlemen who turn to look at the Phantom when he appears.  I love that they move the second “Notes” section into this scene because it is much more dramatic to have the Phantom address people directly.

Everything with the Opera House itself is pitch perfect.  I get a true sense of the frantic madness that must ensure behind the curtains at a theater like this.  When listening to music and dreaming of what a film version might be like, it seemed obvious to me that the movie should start in black and white with the opera house all run down and deteriorated.  Then, when that magnificent overture strikes up, we should see the opera house morph back to its splendor.  Clearly Schumacher and I were on the same page because he stages it in exactly this way and it is amazing.

The characters of Carlotta, Piange, Andre and Firmin are perfect.  Mimi Driver is hysterical as Carlotta and she gives the role more life than it ever had for me in the show.  The staging of “Notes” and “Prima Donna” is just spell-binding.  I can’t say a word against it, especially the bit where various presents are given to Carlotta and she rejects all but the most random ones.

I love how Schumacher shows us the reality behind the Phantom’s magic.  The stage show never tried to explain the ‘perhaps it is you who are the toad’ trick and that always bothered me. 

I also love getting a real feel for how the audience of the opera house reacts.  Those shots are critical in a movie like this.  I love how engaged they are with the archane humor of “Il Muto” and how put off they are by the dissonant opening verses of “Don Juan Triumphant.”

They also include the Phantom’s mirror trap and water trap, which is a nice throw back to Gaston Leroux’s original novel.

Finally we arrive at the film’s greatest success, the staging of “The Point of No Return.”  In the play, it was staged like people just didn’t realize the Phantom had replaced Piange until Christine unmasks him.  Here in the film, everyone knows it is the Phantom there on stage but no one can do anything about it.  This adds a tremendous new level of tension that makes the song much more interesting (though they could still lose that middle verse with no harm done.) 

Then, of course, comes the chandelier.  That was the only thing that I actively disliked about the stage show.  Yes, the effect of the chandelier falling was awesome, but its placement in the story was nonsensical.  If the audience just saw a man get hanged on stage, they would not stick around long enough for the company to get it’s act together and continue the performance.  For Christine to go right back downstairs and sing after the rooftop scene was just silly.  It was clear that it only happened to end Act I with a bang and have people buzzed during intermission.   The film very wisely moves the chandelier fall to the finale where it belongs.  It is much more dramatic that way.

All told, this is a frustrating viewing experience.  There are moments of perfection and moments of complete stupidity, which I guess is typical Joel Schumacher.

 

 

Copyright 2008 Flaming Heart Enterprises, L.L.C.