So while I’m trying to get back into writing regularly, I figured I’d take my blog back to its roots and do a review of a stage production. Funnily enough it was my review of a local show, Aeterno Elementum, that first got people reading my blog. Prior to that, I had 3 readers: My mom, dad, and best friend. It was the success of this review, of an amazing show that I really hope comes back soon, that made me feel like I could actually write well and encouraged me to continue writing this blog.
So in the spirit of that feeling, let me talk about my time with The Phantom of the Opera. My first experience with this story came watching the movie version, which I loved. Nearly a decade after its release though, my mom took me to see it on stage, insisting that it was something that had to be experienced. It turned out to be let down, while still fun to watch, it just didn’t move me emotionally. Still though, it’s one my mom’s favorite shows and so when it returned to Seattle this month, I decided to buy us tickets to go see it.
And it was outstanding. The performances were out of this world, the emotion that the actors poured into it was at times almost overwhelming. The Phantom in particular, played by Quentin Oliver Lee, was amazing and gave such a nuanced performance that it gave me a deeper understanding of the character.
What I want to focus on though, is the stage direction: how the show was put together. Because while all the dialogue and songs were virtually identical to previous shows, how it was presented completely changed the context.
Note: I’ll be using pictures from the film in this post, because obviously I can’t capture screen shots from a play.
The Phantom of the Opera
A Storytelling Review
First of all it should be said that my only knowledge of this play comes from having seen this production only once on stage, and then of course my viewings of the film. So when I’m pointing the differences in presentation, that’s where I’m coming from, just in case as you’re reading you suddenly think “hasn’t it always been like that?” It may very well have been, but I’ve never experienced it like this.
What’s truly remarkable is that this wasn’t a radically different show than the others I’d seen, I’d say 99% of this show played out exactly as I knew it would. That 1%, however, changed everything. First of all, let me talk about Christine’s unmasking of the Phantom.
Previous versions I’ve seen have always shown Christine ripping the Phantom’s mask off, which always seemed like a dick move on Christine’s part. I mean, come on Christine, he’s obviously uncomfortable about something behind that mask, why would you just rip it off? It is especially galling that, after ripping off the mask, that she acts horrified by what she sees. Like what were you expecting Christine? Did you think he was wearing the mask because he was just too handsome? Not only does this make Christine seem like kind of a terrible person, it also casts the Phantom in a more sympathetic light.
How would any of us feel if something we tried to keep private and hidden were suddenly and violently exposed? We’d all be angry under those circumstances.
In this version, however, while Christine is sleeping, the Phantom removes his mask and washes the warped flesh of his face with a wash cloth. His back is facing her, so Christine isn’t totally innocent in this, and the way she creeps up on him makes it clear that she wants to see his face. However, that kind of curiosity is understandable, and the way she does it is far less cruel. She walks up behind him and gently places a hand on his shoulder, startling him and making him look over his shoulder at her, which of course reveals his face to her.
This changes the emotional context of the scene, because instead of his anger coming across as a justified reaction to a cruel act, we see his rage is coming from a much darker place. The Phantom is caught in a moment of vulnerability, and the Phantom is furious because she’s behaved unexpectedly, she’s failed to live up to his expectations.
The Phantom has been watching, and loving, Christine from a far for a long time. Finally, after months or possibly years of teaching her, he makes his move: an incredibly romantic serenading of the love of his life. Even better, she seems to accept him, and for a few precious moments there he thinks that this woman could come to love him. For a man who has lived such a profoundly lonely existence, this is probably the happiest day of his life.
And then it’s all reduced to ashes after she sees his face. She sees the shock, horror, and fear on her face, and all his dreams turn to dust. The Phantom loses both his masks in this scene, the physical one that hides his face, and the emotional one that protects him. His cool confidence, his aloofness, and even his seductive qualities are all a mask he’d spent years perfecting for this exact moment.
His rage at it all falling apart made me realize something about the Phantom; his “love” for Christine is coming from a profoundly selfish place. He built Christine up in his head, he fell in love with the idea of her, and more importantly he fell in love with how Christine made him feel. And when she fails to live up to his expectations, fails to act as he imagined she would act, he loses control and he lashes out violently.
This particular show isn’t afraid to show what a dark and twisted creature the Phantom is. The violence of his reaction to Christine in this show, at one point grabbing her by the hair to force her to look into his face, truly revealed the depths of his madness. It’s refreshing to see a show that’s not afraid to full embrace the darkness of its characters. The Phantom is, of course, a tragic and romantic figure that’s easy to sympathize with, but it also does a disservice to the character, and the story, to not show him as violent and cruel as well. After all it’s that contradiction of the Phantom being both a romantic artist, and a vicious monster, that creates the drama.
By embracing both aspects of the Phantom to their fullest extent, it made me truly feel for the Phantom and elevated the emotional resonance of the story. In fact all the characters felt so much stronger, and more real, in this production. For instance I’ve always felt Christine was too subdued given the horrific events unfolding around her. In this production, Christine had a fire to her that I’d never seen before.
At one point in the play, Carlotta accuses Christine of working with the Phantom to advance her own career. Christine, without missing a beat, replies with a powerful “How dare you!” that surprised both Carlotta and myself. Later, during the song “Point of No Return,” Christine truly throws herself into the role the Phantom wrote for her, to the point where I almost believed she was going to choose the Phantom over Raoul. Of course the real pay off for having such strong characters comes at the end.
At the end, as the Phantom tells Christine to love him or let Raoul die, as they’re screaming/singing at each other, Christine grabs his music and starts tearing it apart. Again, this is a small change and yet it makes the ending so much more compelling. Christine is angry at the Phantom, she wants to hurt him and she knows exactly how to do it: by destroying the only thing that’s ever brought him peace. The Phantom falls to his knees, desperately grabbing up all the fragments of his music, at one point almost crawling off the stage to grab a sheet that had fallen off.
This change, the viciousness with which Christine attacks what is most precious to the Phantom, adds a new dimension to the ending. As touching as it is that Christine chooses to show compassion in the face of cruelty, how she reaches that decision has never really been clear to me in previous shows. What goes through her mind between screaming “I hate you” and choosing to kiss him? With her shredding his music though, it paints a clearer picture.
Pitiful creature of darkness, what kind of life have you known? – Christine to the Phantom
Christine, in shredding his music, begins to understand what kind of life he’s known. She’s suffered from the Phantom for only a relatively short time, but even in that short time, her first instinct was to repay cruelty with cruelty. It’s in that act of cruelty she realizes she’s doing exactly what the Phantom is doing. The Phantom, having suffered a lifetime of abuse and loneliness, has become as hateful and venomous as the world that shunned him. It was in that desire for revenge, to hurt others the way he’d been hurt, that warped his soul. It’s in that moment she realizes she can’t change him by hurting him, because pain will just continue to feed off itself. Perhaps compassion, however, can beget compassion.
And so comes the famous ending, where once again, a small change made it infinitely more powerful.
Every other version of Phantom of the Opera that I’ve seen, Christine kisses the Phantom at the end, a long prolonged kiss that ends when the music does signalling his surrender. Christine kisses the Phantom in this version as well, but it’s much shorter, and it was what happened after the kiss that actually moved me to tears:
She hugged him.
She throws her arms around him and hugs him as tightly as she can. And the Phantom doesn’t know what to do, he literally can’t comprehend what she’s doing and he throws his arms wide and almost tries to pull himself away as if afraid she’s attacking. It’s a heartbreaking flourish to his performance because it reveals that the Phantom has been alone so long, gone so long without any affection, that a simple hug is completely alien to him. And as he finally surrenders to it and hugs her back, you can see it’s the hug that finally breaks him, that melts through the cruel shell that he’d protected himself with for so long.
As someone who hated physical contact for a long time, and still isn’t entirely comfortable with it, I can attest to the power of a simple hug. A hug from a good friend can wash away stress and sadness in way nothing else can, so seeing him surrender to a hug? That… that moved me to tears, because I might have easily ended up like the Phantom at one point in my life. Once upon a time, I was so depressed and isolated that I hated the world. Were it not for several good friends who, like Christine, showed compassion (and gave a lot of hugs) my life might have turned out quite differently.
It’s my favorite kind of story: one that reminds me of how lucky I’ve been.