(Warning. Another quite lengthy one!)
So, because the Friday before last was October 9 (the anniversary of the opening of the original stage-production of Phantom in London), I wanted to return to the discussion I began way back when, in which I began comparing the stage-version of Phantom with its movie adaptation. I’ve been meaning to post part two of that discussion for ages anyway; and this seems like a suitable occasion, especially since, in December, the current touring production of the stage-version will, to my great delight, be coming to my home city for a run until mid/late January! I cannot tell you how awesomely exciting that is! That last time that happened, the last time Phantom was here since our own production closed in 1999, was all the way back in 2007. Seriously! Thus, this likely won’t be my last post on this topic either, as I’m sure I’ll have more to say on the subject!
Anyway, I talked last time, if you’ll recall, about how the two versions portray and treat the Phantom’s behaviour – how, in the Gerik (a Phantom Phans’ term for the 2004 film), it is portrayed as the “genius turned to madness” of some one who was simply denied the opportunity to integrate and find his “place” in “normal” society, whereas, in the stage-version, it is portrayed as the legitimate defiance and resistance of some one who has experienced very real, systematic marginalization and exclusion by society as a whole (not only the abuse of an itself pathologized fringe). Now, then, I want to look at what these two portrayals – these two constructions of the Phantom’s character and story – do to the love-story which is at the heart of Phantom. And I want to explore what they do to the relationship of that love-story to the issue/s of defiance and resistance. In fact, I want to problematize the way in which the Gerik handles these things, as I think it takes them in a direction away from liberatory potential, and towards the affirmation of dominant narratives of “beauty”, “normalcy”, “wholeness”, “health”, and of what love is or should be. It does this by presenting the audience with a pathologized infatuation on the part of the Phantom, which is contrasted with the Disney-movie-like romance between the “normals” – Christine and Raoul – who become the focus of the love-story. This in sharp contrast to the stage-version, in which both loves – that between Christine and Raoul and that of the Phantom for Christine – are portrayed as equally valid even though only one is reciprocated, and even though the Phantom’s love for Christine is troubled by the psychological effects of his experiences of marginalization.
As with the treatment of the Phantom’s behaviour more generally, the pathologization of his feelings for Christine is achieved through a series of subtle but critical changes to his back-story, to Christine’s back-story, and to their joint back-story, from what they are in the stage-version.
In the stage-version, prior to the unmasking, the Phantom is Christine’s “new tutor”. The audience isn’t told exactly how long she has been taking lessons from him, but this phrasing clearly implies that it is a recent development. And, while Christine does state that she believes her unseen vocal instructor to be the Angel of Music sent to her from heaven by her late father, a later line (in the fourth verse of the song ‘the Phantom of the Opera’) complicates this assertion by suggesting that she has known all along that her teacher was, in fact, a human man impersonating her angel.
“(Phantom) In all your fantasies, you always knew that man and mystery… (Christine) were both in you.”
Thus, Christine has entered into this strange relationship as an adult woman (if, perhaps, a somewhat naive one whose head is full of romantic airs). And that relationship is one complicated by her awareness, at least in part or on some level, that it is one of role-play (though the audience is never told how Christine came to this awareness).
In the Gerik, by contrast, this entire context is altered. Spoken dialogue and visual material are added to the song ‘Angel of Music’ which imply that Christine has been taking lessons from the Phantom since her late childhood, perhaps even since the age of 7 when, in this version, she first came to the on-campuspera as an orphan to live an train in the corps de ballet. Moreover, part of this added material suggests that she not only believes her unseen teacher to be the angel sent by her late father, but, in fact, her father himself. For, a passage is added in which Christine is asked if she believes that the spirit of her father has been teaching her, to which she replies “Who else, Meg? Who?”. In addition, the above-referenced “In all your fantasies…” passage is removed from the version of the song ‘The Phantom of the Opera’ in the Gerik (along with the entire fourth verse). Thus, Christine’s pre-unmasking relationship to her teacher is portrayed as one of innocent, child-like faith in a surrogate father figure, uncomplicated by any awareness on her part of the fact that her angel/father’s spirit is being impersonated by a man (though, oddly, her knowledge that her “Angel” is also the Phantom of the Opera is retained, even as her explicit declaration of awareness that this figure is human is not).
The effects on the liberatory potential of the love-story of these two very different portrayals, then, can begin to be observed in what they do to the songs ‘The Phantom of the Opera’ and’Music of the Night’. In the stage-version, these two songs, though especially “Music of the Night’ (see end of post for full lyrics quoted), are the moments when the Phantom invites Christine to join him – to become his partner – in the space of alterity which he seeks to create in order to defy and resist his othering and marginalization by society. It is where he invites Christine to join him in finding and creating liberation. This invitation is made possible because their relationship is already a complex one, as explored throughout the “title song” (though especially in the last two verses).
“(Christine) ‘Those who have seen your face draw back in fear. I am the mask you wear….’ (Phantom) ‘It’s me they hear.’ (Both) ‘Your/my spirit and your/my voice in one combined, the Phantom of the Opera is there inside your/my mind.’
(Phantom) ‘In all your fantasies…’ (see above)”
And this complexity implies the potential to deepen the relationship into such a partnership, if both can find the courage to go there (though scenarios in which they find that courage are, of course, left to the imagination of the audience-member/Phan, as they do not occur in the actual show). But in the Gerik, however, because of the alterations described above, these two songs become, instead, the moments when an older man attempts to seduce a young, innocent, naive girl who truly believes him to be, at the least, the angel sent by her late father if not, in fact, the spirit of her father himself. And this, then, casts a pall of perversion over the Phantom’s feelings for Christine, and, indeed, over any attraction she might feel toward him once she realizes he is a man. Indeed, it makes these two songs, which are, in the stage-version, though not explicitly sexual, the most erotically charged moments in the show, feel out of place, even inappropriate, in the Gerik. What is more, these changes, then, serve to set Raoul up as the “natural” and obviously “right” love interest for Christine. They set Raoul up as the choice of “healthy”, “wholesome” love for Christine, in contrast to the Phantom’s “disturbed” desire.
Moreover, this casting of the Phantom’s feelings for Christine as perverted and “disturbed” is linked, in the Gerik, to the pathologization of his other acts of defiance (see previous post in this series). For, after seeing this seduction by him of this young, innocent girl to whom he is a surrogate father-figure, the audience, of course, then learns of the Phantom’s past. They learn how he came from an, itself pathologized, fringe of society (the “Gipsy” fair where he was abusively exhibited as a “freak”) straight into living beneath the Opera House at a young age, never having had the chance to integrate into “normal” society and find his “place” there. They learn, in short, that he has never learned “normal” behaviour, and thus his inappropriate way of approaching Christine becomes framed as part of his general “maladjustedness”. This is especially so when combined with the downplaying of his “deformity” and making him otherwise a “hunk” (see previous post in this series again), as this delegitimizes the fear of rejection which caused him to want to approach Christine while unseen. It does this by framing this fear as “all in his head”. Whereas, in the stage-version, in which the Phantom’s “deformity” is much more severe, his fear of rejection by Christine is presented as being entirely legitimate (to say nothing of the original novel, although that’s a whole other post or several!).
So what, then, is the nature of this “”healthy” love” that is set up in the Gerik as the obvious, “natural” right choice? Well, in some ways, that can be summed up in the Gerik’s description of Raoul as Christine’s “Childhood sweetheart”. It is an innocent, non-threatening affection, whose participants remain firmly within the bounds of mainstream social acceptability. They are both physically “normal”, even beautiful, and neither is involved in defying or resisting normative conventions. Nor does their “love” for one another itself come from a space of defiance or resistance, as it does not come from, or arise in concert with, the creation of any kind of space of alterity. Even the potential of their “love” to defy and resist class structures is neatly defused by the fairy-tale trope of Christine being the poor girl who yet possesses inner nobility (think Cinderella), signified by her physical beauty, innocence and “purity”. And this, then, makes her a suitable match for the young nobleman Raoul by making her inner nobility the equal of his worldly rank. Indeed, she even ennobles Raoul by elevating him from mere worldly aristocrat to the hero who saves the maiden. Thus, Christine and Raoul become the knight in shining armour and the hidden princess of every Disney children’s movie. Or, in this narrative’s more contemporary incarnation, they become the home-coming queen and her handsome boyfriend.
To be sure, this trope of Raoul as knight in shining armour and Christine as maiden in need of rescue is present in the stage-version as well. But, because the Phantom’s love for Christine is not cast as perverted and “disturbed”, as is done in the Gerik as described above, that fairy-tale trope does not go unchallenged. The Phantom has, as mentioned above, invited Christine to become a partner with him in the space of alterity and liberation he is struggling to create. Moreover, it is implied, again, especially in the songs The Phantom of the Opera and The Music of the Night, that his love for Christine is integrally linked to his desire for liberation. It is the desire for companionship in which he is truly accepted as he is, including his “deformity”, his survival of the traumas of systematic marginalization and exclusion, with all that that entails psychologically, and his desire to create a space of liberation and empowerment. And this, then, forms a powerful counterbalance to the fairy-tale trope invoked by Christine and Raoul. But, because the Phantom’s feelings for Christine are pathologized as perverted and “disturbed” – as being part of his “maladjustedness”, this counterbalance is removed from the Gerik. Thus, the presumed rightness of the Christine/Raoul romance is left to stand unquestioned and unchallenged.
The Gerik, then, presents its audience with what is, in some ways, a classic gothic horror narrative – pure young woman is menaced by a lecherous older man, and a young, handsome, honourable nobleman fights to free her from that older man’s clutches before he can defile her. The only thing that causes the Gerik to break the mould of the traditional gothic tale even slightly is that, in the end, it is Christine’s act of compassion toward the Phantom that saves the day rather than Raoul slaying the “villain”. Even this change, however, has much of its radical potential severely undercut by the pathologization of the Phantom’s defiance and resistance (as described in my previous post in this series), and by the pathologization of his love for Christine. Rather, the Gerik is a narrative which affirms the ideal of the romance between the hero and the maiden – a romance which does not challenge notions of beauty, “normalcy”, “sanity”, etc,.
The stage-version, however, though it poaches many tropes from the gothic genre, actually presents the audience with two contrasting imaginings of what love could be rather than with the classic gothic narrative (even a modified one). It presents the conventional vision of love as romance between beautiful people – knight and maiden, football captain and home-coming queen, – in which the ideal is to ride off into the sunset, and live “happily ever after” in safety, security and comfort (as portrayed in the song “All I Ask of You”, the great love-duet between Christine and Raoul near the end of Act 1). But it also presents the possibility, though unrealized, of love as imagined in The Music of the Night – as partnership in the creation of spaces of alterity, born of true acceptance, where liberation and empowerment can be sought and explored. Indeed, I don’t think it’s pushing the text too far to argue that the stage-version suggests that, if realized, this latter kind of love could be far more powerful and deep! For, this is not warm, cozy companionship based on compatibility, nor is it agape – the general love for all beings. What the stage-version hints at here is a passionate connection between specific people as they seek liberation together.
Indeed, the stage-version portrays the Phantom as unashamedly passionate, and portrays Christine as being, at least somewhat, drawn to that passion in him (although how much so depends on the actress in any given performance). His creativity as a musician, his struggle to create a space of alterity and empowerment for himself through his art and through his living, and his love for Christine, all arise from that passionate being. But it is not merely sexual, or even erotic. It is nothing less or more than passion for, as Jesus puts it, “the fullness of life”, free from oppression, marginalization, and stultifying normativity. And it is this kind of passion that is understood, both as being the wellspring of, and as being manifest in, the kind of defiant, resistant love glimpsed in the songs “The Phantom of the Opera” and “The Music of the Night” – the kind that will not be content to accept a safe, comfortable “happily ever after” within the narrow confines of the roles delineated by normativity, that will not settle for injustice, and that can give one the strength to overcome fear and reject despair. But it is this very kind of passion, so full of liberatory power, that has been disappeared from the Gerik through the pathologization of the Phantom’s defiance, resistance, and feelings for Christine.
It is the stage-version’s assertion of this radical, yet radically personal kind of love that has the power to bring liberation which, I think, is a great part of what makes the show so compelling for so many Phans. It certainly is for me, both as a Phan and as an activist! Indeed, it was this invitation in the stage-version to radically liberating, yet radically personal love that really set me on the road to working for justice. And it is still what informs my convictions, both as an activist, and, yes, as a Christian. For I see it as portraying, in a different story and idiom, the radical love that God has for us, so powerfully manifested, too, in Christ’s death and resurrection. Yet, the awesome thing about Phantom is that you can get that message of radical love out of the show regardless of what you believe or don’t of any particular faith. You definitely don’t have to be a Christian, or a believer of any kind for that matter, to get it! You do, though, have to be willing, in your mind and heart, to question normativity. Like Christine and the Phantom themselves, you do have to have/find the courage to unmask – to look exclusion and marginalization in the face and see the harm they do. And you must be willing, be open, to accept difference – to really accept it, not in spite of (which is condescending and so reinforces normativity), nor even because of (which treats the different as an exotic object and is thus also condescending), but including that which makes those bodies and minds different. This is not easy! I myself still struggle with it! But then, we’ve all grown up and been raised in a culture that tells us, from a very early age, that to be “normal” – to be beautiful, “healthy” and “whole” – is good, and that to be anything “less” is bad. And those early lessons are devilishly tricky to root out and unlearn! But, if you can do it – if you can open that door – even a little, then you may be able to hear the radical possibilities of transformation tantalizingly hinted at in the stage-version of Phantom. And you may begin to really feel why the Gerik’s pathologizations of the Phantom’s love, passion and defiance are so problematic, disappointing and, frankly, alarming in a film adaptation of this musical!
Music Of The Night (lyrics)
“Nighttime sharpens, heightens each sensation,
darkness stirs and wakes imagination.
Silently the senses abandon their defences.
Slowly, gently night unfurls its splendour.
Grasp it, sense it, tremulous and tender.
Turn your face away from the garish light of day! Turn your thoughts away from cold, unfeeling light,
and listen to the music of the night.
Close your eyes and surrender to your darkest dreams, purge your thoughts of the world you knew before.
Close your eyes, let your spirit start to soar
and you’ll live as you’ve never lived before!
Softly, deftly, music shall caress you.
Hear it, feel it secretly possess you.
Open up your mind! Let your fantasies unwind in this darkness which you know you cannot fight,
the darkness of the music of the night.
Let your mind start a journey through a strange, new world.
Leave all thoughts of the world you knew before!
Let your soul take you where you long to be!
Only then can you belong to me.
Floating, falling, sweet intoxication,
touch me, trust me, savour each sensation!
Let the dream begin! Let your darker side give in to the power of the music that I write,
the power of the music of the night!
You alone can make my song take flight.
Help me make the music of the night.”