Curious how old obsessions can suddenly resurface… I was recently scouring my thoroughly disorganised CD collection to find something I had not listened to in a while to help me through my shift. Work, alas, continues to be demoralising, that warehouse environment being typically loud, laddish, sweary, and mansplainy, so I tend to rely on music that takes me out of it as a psychological prop. The one I rediscovered on this occasion was the soundtrack to “The Phantom of the Opera” (Andrew Lloyd Webber, Charles Hart, Richard Stilgoe, 1986).
Incidentally, bearing in mind this play has now been showing more or less solidly for thirty years, I will assume general familiarity, but nevertheless, DEFINITE SPOILER ALERTS.
My first encounter with the show was, as seems all too bizarre and rather sad to me, a whole adult lifetime away: late 2000, during an abortive study venture in New Jersey. A friend of mine at the same university with theatre connections was able to get me good seats, and I was determined to take in Broadway before my inevitable going back home in failure (America being an expensive option for ill-prepared ex-pats without work visas). I doubt I opted for seeing “Phantom” on any stronger justification than the fact that I was even more of a soppy Goth back then then I am now, though this was violating my general rule of never seeing the adaptation before reading the original book.
Still, as I left the Majestic Theatre in tears of purest Hellenic catharsis, I felt it was a rule well broken…
Sarah Pfisterer and Howard McGillin were at the time performing the roles of Christine Daae and the Phantom, and I sometimes wish I had had the temerity or the technical know-how to have pirated their performances, as I have never seen that bizarre relationship more effectively realised. McGillin’s edgy, psychotic portrayal was unnerving to a fault, notwithstanding all of the thickly-applied romance and pathos… not that there is anything wrong with that, although I was glad of the refusal to “pretty up” a character who is, in essence, extremely abusive. Pfisterer, by contrast, portrayed Christine as the sanest character in the show, taken in neither by the elaborate manipulations and relentless gaslighting of her “teacher,” nor by the petty dramas of her co-stars and managers, yet responding to every situation with intelligence, dignity, and compassion. This comes to a head in the final scene in which her would-be heroic rescuer Raoul de Chagny (Gary Mauer) totally botches his rescue attempt and ends up in the “damsel in distress” role himself, as the Phantom attempts to use his life as a bargaining chip for Christine’s “love” (the Phantom having very unfortunate ideas about what constitutes meaningful consent). At which point, Christine completely wrong-foots him by showing compassion. What emerges is a far more haunting if less “dramatic” resolution than than obtained by the 1925 reworking, in which the Phantom is beaten up by a mob and hurled into the Seine, and Christine’s active agency and intelligence is pared down to preferred Hollywood standards, thus making her less of a protagonist and more of a damsel in distress herself… though not even this manages to conceal the fact that Raoul is a pretty useless hero.
Christine lingered on my mind, and when I eventually got around to reading the original novel (Leroux, Gaston; 1911) I was pleased to see that she was much as the play had depicted her: intelligent, independent, worldly-wise (she is not above using deception to resist her abuser), principled, and compassionate, and in every sense outclassing her vapid love interest – Raoul, in the book, being little better than the Phantom, albeit whiny rather than psychotic. It was disappointing the author felt she had to end up with either of them, mind.
Of course, there was another, very visceral reason why this play affected me so much: for its depiction of a character who feels their body to be a hideous prison / “loathsome gargoyle” / “repulsive carcass” etc, and who consequently spends their whole adult life hiding away, wearing a mask, trying to make their art a vehicle for the beauty they felt their life itself could never express. I was very glad the play finally gave the Phantom his moment of redemption, as walking out of that theatre feeling such painful empathy for a totally unredeemed character of moral equivalence to Hannibal Lecter would have been disturbing to say the least.
Soppy little Goth that I was, I cried. Soppy old Goth that I remain, I cried again on hearing it nearly sixteen years later, but not quite in such a melancholy vein. Back then it was a painful dramatisation of where I was, and felt that I was trapped for good. Today, it is a reminder of the fact that I have, albeit after a very long time, finally taken off my mask and climbed out of my basement. At times I still feel like a freak, but it has dawned on me finally that I what I see is a lot worse than what the world actually sees (Indeed, in typical performances of “Phantom” the antagonist is played by a fairly attractive actor with some nasty gashes on one side of his face, or in the case of Gerard Butler in the 2004 filming, a downright handsome actor with a bad sunburn. Either way, as Christine points out, “It’s in [his] soul that the true distortion lies”).
Still, weeping over sad musicals in the middle of a Royal Mail depot full of sweary blokes is probably not the best survival strategy for the long term, so wish me luck with the job-hunt…