Allow me a bit of nostalgia ……
I have arrived full circle with “The Phantom of the Opera.” This granddaddy of a musical is still playing some 26 years after its 1988 opening at the appropriately named “Majestic Theater” and remains the longest running show on Broadway. I can’t envision anything topping this fantastic record, although should it ever happen, I hope “Chicago” inherits the crown simply because it seems right that an American musical hold this title. I was quite fortunate to catch this landmark show soon after it opened in early 1988 to somewhat reluctant raves from the critics, but thunderous applause from its mesmerized audience. Yes, I was young and impressionable (that’s a good thing!) and found this show intensely romantic (if only!) yet I was old enough to appreciate the new musical theatrics, both vocally and visually, at work here. Like everyone else, I bought the album… yes, on vinyl, those were the days…. and wore it out along with my vocal chords! Whatever made me think I was a soprano?
So I jumped at this recent opportunity (thank you Jess) to see how I would perceive “Phantom” so many years later given that my world has altered in every way possible.
In 1988 this show was like no other with its amazing stage inventiveness, excepting perhaps “Cats” and “Starlight Express” – both Andrew Lloyd Weber shows, no coincidence there – which paved the way for the eye popping theatrics of “Phantom.” The 80s were a seminal time in musical theater history; the British invasion had arrived on our Great White Way and our stages were filled with shows from London’s West End. “Phantom” was the hottest ticket in town and its composer was welcomed as the heir apparent to the melodic traditions of Richard Rodgers. Yes, there were rumblings about the melodrama of its story, and the repetitive, perhaps copied nature of the music – but we all ignored the naysayers, this show was just too dazzling to let them take away the welcomed sensual pleasures at work here. We all came out feeling that we had surely gotten way more then our money’s worth of entertainment. “Phantom” was – and I gladly maintain that “Phantom” STILL IS – a major theatrical experience.
You all know this legendary story as it essentially follows the plot lines of “Beauty and the Beast.” The Phantom (an intense, emotional Norm Lewis in this current production, living up to the iconic performance of Michael Crawford as the original Phantom) resides under the Paris Opera House circa the era of the Belle Epoque, thus the exquisite costumes and sumptuous sets. Sadly, he is hidden from the world, denied of humanity, as he was horribly deformed as a child and rejected by the cruel world. Enter the beautiful young songstress, Christine Daae – magnificently performed by the fabulous Sierra Bogess. (You may recall she did the London PBS televised 25th Anniversary performance of “Phantom” several years back.) Such an electrifying performance, my hair stood on end – Sierra/Christine is surely the “angel of music” achingly sought by the Phantom. He is smitten with her musically and every other way and is determined to move her out of the chorus, into his lair, and make her a star. What inevitably follows and keeps you enthralled are the mysterious, downright creepy, doings astir at the Opera House. But of course a love triangle ensues as the handsome, vocally gifted Raul (nicely sung by Jeremy Hays) enters this timeless story. The plot thickens as does the music and the overt moving production numbers. Think “pop opera” due to the intense bass line that underscores many of the songs alongside the sung dialogue. This luscious score is always melodic, emotional, at times exquisite, and ultimately downright voluptuous. It all comes together in a glorious orgy of melody, costumes, and staging.
How can this show ever date? I know there are muted grumblings now about the campiness of the infamous chandelier effects and the artifice of the musical numbers. I don’t debate any of these easy criticisms. But when a show sells out night after night, and runs for 26 years….well, they must be doing something right!
And so you rightfully ask, is this show better the 2nd time around? And in my case, so many years later? YOU BET. I felt an emotional maturity and depth in the music as well as in this ageless story which I did not sense way back when, and this is especially evident in the complex performance of the two principles. Or perhaps it’s my own growth at play here that allows me to relish this work thru the eyes of experience rather then innocence?
This is a great night of theater, a sumptuous spectacle and an essential part of musical history on whatever level or dimension you experience “Phantom.” It’s a win/win at any stage of your life. Don’t miss this landmark.
Have you ever experienced a piece of theater that had a different meaning the second time around? Share below!
By: Joanne Theodorou