So my birthday was a couple of weeks ago, and, for it, my Mom and I got together two days in a row to celebrate – to have nice dinners, do a bit of mild shopping, etc,. I turned 35! Ye-gods! Anyway, over dinner on my actual birthday, Mom totally indulged me by watching with me one of my all-time favourite DVDs, my DVD of the concert put on at the Royal Albert Hall in London England to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the opening of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s The Phantom of the Opera (still running to this day). (A bit of history. This was indulging me on Mom’s part because, when I was much younger and had first discovered Phantom, and was very, very obsessed with it for the first time, I drove her quite crazy playing it and talking about it all the time! But she has long understood what Phantom means to me and how important it is to me, so she was happy to watch it for my birthday.) Then, the next day, we watched the 2004 movie version of the Phantom musical – the one starring Gerard Butler (known among hard-core Phantom fans as the “Gerik” – a combination of Gerard and Erik, the Phantom’s real name in the original novel on which the musical is more or less based). 🙂 And that was my opportunity to return the favour of indulgence to Mom. Because, while she loves the Gerik, especially Mini Driver’s totally over-the-top portrayal of Carlotta (which is, I admit, hilarious), I, like many others who became Phantom fans via the stage-version, profoundly dislike it. Some fans would even go so far as to say they hate it! I’d leave it at profound dislike, though. LOL It’s a version of Phantom, so I don’t have the heart to outright hate it!
It has been hard for me to articulate exactly why – exactly what it is about the Gerik that I find so profoundly off-putting. Yet, from the very beginning, I found I had diametrically opposite reactions to it vs to the original stage-version (or, in fact, any other version of Phantom I have yet encountered). The stage-version, although very sad, especially the ending, and often hitting painfully close to home, always leaves me (well, unless a particular performance is really bad) with a deep, rich, resonant sense of uplift – like a powerful Good Friday service that takes you to the depths of crucifixion, yet rings with the hope and the possibility of resurrection if one can find the courage, and is willing, to take a leap of faith. Yet the Gerik simply leaves me depressed. It has taken me years, though, to figure out why, especially since, on the surface of it at least, very little is changed between it and the stage-version. Most of the original music and dialogue is retained, and only a tiny amount of new music/dialogue is added. But, seeing the stage-version again several times after the Gerik came out, I was struck by how utterly different the two “felt”. In talking about my vastly differing reactions with Mom following our birthday viewings of both, however, (for the 25th anniversary concert has the “feel”, thankfully, of the original stage-version not the Gerik) I think I finally begin to understand, and to be able to articulate consciously what I’d and many other fans picked up intuitively from the beginning.
Ultimately, I think, it comes down to this: both versions, stage and Gerik, agree that you can’t demand love from some one who doesn’t feel it for you, and that some one like the Phantom (“deformed”/different/mad/Dis/abled/…) will most likely end up alone, society being what it is, while the “normals” go off together. Where the two diverge significantly, though, is in their response to this reality, and it is this difference in response that creates the profoundly different “feel” between the two versions.
The Gerik’s response can be summed up in the title of the one new song added to the score, played at the end while the credits roll, “Learn to be Lonely”. It shrugs its proverbial shoulders, resignedly accepting that this is simply the way of the world. It’s best suggestion, apart from learning to be content with outsider status, as that song advises, is to integrate as much has possible into “normal” society if one can – if, as is the case with the Phantom as conceived by Joel Schumacher and portrayed by Gerard Butler, one’s difference is minimal enough to make “passing” possible and one is, otherwise, quite “normal” or even “hot” (in the Gerik, the Phantom’s facial deformity is drastically reduced from what it was in the original stage-version, much less the novel, and he only lives in the Opera House because he was brought there as a child – a change to his back-story from the novel and stage-version, in both of which he comes to be the Phantom as an adult after years of trying to live out in the world without finding acceptance, which is extremely controversial among fans). Thus, it offers no resistance – no defiance – to the status quo. If anything, it seems to take the side of the status quo, upholding ideals of “wholeness” and “normality” which it embodies uncritically in the figures of Christine and Raoul and their Disney-movie-like romance.
The response of the stage-version, on the other hand, is one of challenge to the status quo, even more so, in some ways, than the original novel (more on that in future posts). True, the “normals”, Christine and Raoul, do go off together in the end, and the Phantom is left alone. But this is not treated simply as the natural, inevitable way of things, nor is it upheld as an unquestioned, if tragic for the “poor” Phantom, good. Nor, as importantly, is it, as it is in the Gerik, blamed exclusively and uncritically on the Phantom’s own “maladjusted” behaviour. Yes, his behaviour is acknowledged to be extremely problematic. But this is laid every bit as much at the feet of the society that rejected him as it is at his own. It is not pathologized away with the explanation that he simply never had the chance to integrate into “normal”, society. Nor is it pathologized away with the excuse that his deformity has been blown out of proportion in his own mind, exaggerated by the, itself pathologized, “fringe” element of society (a travelling fair from which he escaped/was rescued as a child and was hidden in the Opera House) which caused him to be prevented from integrating. No, it presents the rejection he has experienced as coming squarely from society as a whole, not merely a fringe element thereof. And he is portrayed as mounting a legitimate, if sometimes flawed and less effective than anyone would like, defiance and resistance to that rejecting normalcy. But more than that, it, at least, it always seems to me, draws the audience in, inviting them to participate in the Phantom’s defiance and resistance, and asking them, pointedly, if they are truly content with a world – with a society – in which such injustices are allowed to go down. And, just as importantly, by leaving many things, including what happens after Christine and Raoul go off together, open-ended and/or unexplained, it leaves space for the viewer to imagine how things might be/have been different – how circumstances and characters might be changed in order to produce a different outcome in which barriers are dismantled instead of reinforced. It leaves space for the viewer to imagine, at least in a small way, a better world – one in which difference is accepted, not disappeared through the minimization of “oh, your deformity/difference is really small and the rest of you is perfectly normal/totally hot” (as happens in so much Gerik-based fanfiction). Thus, 🙂 while undoubtedly not intended by its creators as a protest-piece, the stage-version comes across, at least, it always has to me, as a powerful call to engagement. And, also, it comes across as a powerful call to take the leap of faith of courage and love that makes a better world possible, and is what has the power to bring that world into being. It most certainly does not advise its viewer to “learn to be lonely”! It does not encourage “passing”, and it does not try to pretend that society as a whole does not have a serious problem when it comes to accepting (especially physical) difference. Moreover, although it agrees that you can’t demand love from a person who does not feel it for you – the realization which is the Phantom’s great redemption in the Final Lair scene, it argues that you can, however, hold society to account for the kind of people it produces – people who, all too often, lack the emotional and spiritual tools for such a love. Thus, and in many other ways too, it offers a passionate defiance (more on that later as well) to the very concept of “normal”, especially, though by no means exclusively, when “normal” is based on physical appearance!
🙂 Yes, I shall site the various elements from both versions that shape them into giving these two so different responses, and go more deeply into some of the issues they deal with. But this post is already very long, so that will be parts 2 and onward.! And I apologize to those of you who are unfamiliar with the various versions of Phantom I’m talking about, or, perhaps, with Phantom at all for that matter. 🙂 If you want a crash-course, though, go and watch the 25th anniversary concert, which is available on DVD and on iTunes, as it will give you a pretty decent feel for the stage-version. Though, of course, if you are fortunate enough to live close to a standing production or near a stop of one of the touring companies, and you can afford it, I cannot recommend highly enough that you go and actually see it live! There is truly no substitute for that! In addition, you will want to see the 2004 film, produced by Joel Schumacher, for comparison. Also, if you can, you might want to pick up the original novel by Gaston Leroux which was the inspiration and source-text for both. It’s long-since in public domain – at least the earliest translation is, so it stands a good chance of being in your local library. In fact, I think it’s even in some online libraries like Project Gutenberg! You’ll also find several more recent translations in some bookstores, and they may be in some libraries as well. I cant’ speak for those, as I haven’t yet read them. But fans speak highly of them, especially the one by Lowell Bare, and one even more recent one whose translator/editor’s name I forget. Anyway, do go check those sources out if you can, as this post, and probably its successors too, will likely make a lot more sense to you then!