If I were to conduct a survey that asked random participants to name any three to five musicals that they have heard of, I am willing to place a very large wager that The Phantom of the Opera would easily be one of the top responses. Opening on Broadway in 1986, The Phantom of the Opera has gone on to become the longest running musical in Broadway history with well over 10,000 performances. In London’s West End, it is the second-longest running musical after Mousetrap. Phantom has worldwide sales of over 6 billion dollars, trailing only The Lion King in that regard. It has won every conceivable award including Best Musical, Best Actor (Michael Crawford), Best Set Design, Best Director (Harold Prince), Best Musical Score (Andrew Lloyd Webber), Best Costume Design, Best Lighting…you name it, The Phantom of the Opera has won it. Beyond any debate, it is one of the most popular and successful musicals ever created anywhere in the world. Here is the story of The Phantom of the Opera.
The smash hit musical Phantom of the Opera is based upon a 1910 book of the same name by French writer Gaston Leroux. His book was, in fact, inspired by a mid-1800s German opera called Der Freischutz or “The Marksman”, which is considered to be Germany’s first romantic opera. The original opera centered around a love triangle that involved hunters and marksmanship and “magic bullets”, one of which was cursed by a spurned lover named Kaspar. In the end, the “evil” final bullet that was intended to be fired via trickery into the heart of a woman named Agathe by her true lover Max ends up deflecting into the body of the nasty Kaspar, who dies and is cast away to reside in the underworld. Max and Agathe fall in love and get to live happily ever after. In his book, The Phantom of the Opera, Gaston Leroux took this storyline and changed the setting to be the Paris Opera House. But, he took great pains to keep the vital love triangle intact. Instead of a shooting contest being the mechanism that moves the story along, Leroux set his story on the opera house stage and had it revolve around the world of musical performance. His book was well received at the time and spawned a popular movie version that starred Lon Chaney in the 1920s and another in the 1940s that starred Claude Rains as The Phantom.
However, it was the magical touch of Andrew Lloyd Webber that launched this well-known tale into the stratosphere of cultural consciousness when he sought to adapt Leroux’s literary work for the stage. By the time Webber got around to thinking about turning The Phantom of the Opera into a musical, he was already one of the most successful creators of musicals in the world, having previously launched Joseph and the Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat, Jesus Christ Superstar, Evita, Cats and Starlight Express on Broadway and the West End. The songs for the new musical were written by Richard Stilgoe (who wrote the songs for Starlight Express), along with Charles Hart. Andrew Lloyd Webber then created a musical score that was, at times, more operatic than purely a musical. In this way, he was able to tip his creative hat toward past geniuses of opera such as Mozart and Puccini. Much of this was done via the creation of a play-within-a-play, which occurs during the second half of the musical when The Phantom’s own musical, Don Juan Triumphant, is used as the vehicle that brings the story to its riveting conclusion. Overall, Webber felt the time was right for a huge romantic musical and he was correct. The ending of The Phantom of the Opera has gone on to form part of the western world’s idea of what true love and selflessness really look like in action. The Phantom, himself, has gone on to be viewed as the archetypal anti-hero for movies, literature and musicals that have followed in The Phantom of the Opera’s wake.
Without giving away the plot and ending of the musical for those who haven’t seen it and may wish to after reading this post, let me simply say this about the storyline…Andrew Lloyd Webber has successfully created his own love triangle on stage featuring the disfigured anti-hero known as The Phantom, a beautiful understudy named Christine and her childhood friend and true love, Raoul. And just like how the ending of Der Freishutz plays out, in Webber’s musical The Phantom has set a series of traps that will seemingly lead one true lover to hurt or cause the death of the other. In the climactic closing scene, Christine first and then the Phantom, soon thereafter, both make decisions from the heart that cause the storyline to veer off into the stars and cause the musical to veer away from being a morality play (as the original opera tended to be) and steer toward becoming one of the most romantic stories ever told on stage by anyone. There is a reason that The Phantom of the Opera is the longest running musical of all time. That reason is love.
The score of the musical had two big songs that rose above the rest and they were the theme song, “The Phantom of the Opera”, and today’s song choice, “The Music of the Night”. Both tunes first appear toward the end of Act #1. “The Music of the Night” is sung by The Phantom. At this point in the story, he has kidnapped Christine and taken her to his lair below the opera house. As he sings, he appears to exhibit many facets of his personality at once: he is scary, unpredictable, and yet tender and loving, too. For many people, it was Michael Crawford’s performance during this song that won him the Best Actor awards on both sides of the ocean. Not many actors could pull off that delicate balance that exists between madness and love but Crawford did, as you shall soon see when you click on the link to the song below.
I will close this post by betraying my age a bit. I spent much of my adult life living in and around the city of Toronto. Toronto has played an important part of the story of this musical. Initially, Andrew Lloyd Webber wanted The Phantom of the Opera to premiere in Toronto. But, untold “political pressures” caused the premiere to be held on the Great White Way in NYC. But that didn’t stop The Phantom of the Opera from eventually coming to Toronto and having a long, multi-year run. For most of that run, Colm Wilkinson played the role of The Phantom to great acclaim. But what I remember most about it is the marketing campaign for the musical and how it became interwoven into the cultural identity of the city. The tagline of the campaign was spoken in the deep, dulcet tones of The Phantom, who simply implored us all to Buy Phantom by phone. As long as The Phantom spoke out over the airwaves and in print in newspapers, on billboards and in magazines, we were always part of his world. Rarely has a fictional character managed to become so intertwined with the identity of a place as did The Phantom with the city of Toronto. In the end, I truly believe that The Phantom of the Opera was as much a cultural phenomenon as it ever was a musical. Andrew Lloyd Webber helped to create something that has transcended the boundaries of the stage and has become part of all of our lives. Whether or not we ever bought a ticket to see this musical in person, we all know some aspect of this show in the same way that we all know of Hamlet or Elvis or Star Wars in some way, too. It is rare when a story becomes more than just a story but that is certainly the case for all involved in The Phantom of the Opera. Take a bow, everyone! You are all part of something that you can be very proud of. Well done, all! The stage is yours.
The link to the video for the song “The Music of the Night” from the Original Cast Recording of the Musical The Phantom of the Opera can be found here. ***The lyric video is here.
The link to the official website for The Phantom of the Opera can be found here.
The link to the official website for Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber can be found here.
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