Having been a fan of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s The Phantom of the Opera since I was an impressionable (and some would argue misguided) teenager, I was well aware of other musical versions of Gaston Leroux’s 1910 novel. Long before it became a Broadway record breaker, Phantom had been adapted into melodramas, silent films, matinee thrillers, and even a ballet.
Before Webber’s Phantom:
Ken Hill created a stage musical of Phantom back in the 1970s, a decade before Webber’s mega-hit. The music from the Hill production combined bits of classic opera melodies with witty (and often silly) lyrics. Andrew Lloyd Webber and producer Cameron Mackintosh watched Hill’s production, thus sparking their own ideas as to how to create their own version.
While Sir Webber was developing his Phantom, the creators of the Fellini-inspired Nine were brainstorming ideas for their next project. Composer Maury Yeston and playwright Arthur Kopit chose to adapt Leroux’s novel. Unfortunately for them, as they were finishing up their musical they opened up a Variety magazine to discover that Webber’s next extravaganza was none other than The Phantom of the Opera. (Simpsons fans would call this a “D’oh!” moment).
”Phantom - The American Musical Sensation”:
Yeston and Kopit’s financial backers did not want to compete with the man who brought the world Cats, so they abandoned the project. The Kopit and Yeston musical collected dust for a while, but in the early 90s the playwright was hired to adapt Phantom as a miniseries. Kopit’s success with the teleplay enabled the duo to launch a production of their Phantom at Texas’ Theater Under the Stars. Although the show has never been on Broadway, it has attained a following, pleasing audiences at regional and community theaters.
Yeston’s Music and Lyrics:
The score emulates the style of turn-of-the-century operettas, traversing from the romantically ethereal to the melodramatically brooding. Perhaps because the Webber tunes have been engrained in my consciousness since my teen-age years, I still prefer the Michael Crawford / Sarah Brightman duets. A few of the Yeston songs just don’t do much for me. In particular, the repetitive lyric “The Opera’s been invaded by a phantom” from the “Phantom Fugue” borders on the laughable, and the romantic number (“Who Could Have Ever Dreamed Up You”) delivered by the Count pales in comparison to Webber and Black’s standard, “All I Ask of You.” (Keep in mind, the creators of Forbidden Broadway would argue that both librettos are nothing more than inane drivel unworthy of a Hallmark card.)
The stronger songs are given voice by Christine; her solo numbers and her duets with the Phantom are delicate and enchanting. Also, one of the musical highlights of the show appears at the end – a touching duet between father and son. As with many shows, if the performers are not high exceptional vocalists/actors, these songs might seem emotionally forced, even overtly sentimental. Fortunately, I experienced a performance with talented actors who were at the top of their game.
The musical’s book follows an interesting structure. The first act lightheartedly introduces the characters, often playing for laughs. Even the Phantom tells a few jokes. (Sure, a guy gets killed in the first ten minutes – but somehow the energy is still fun!) The supporting characters are quite cartoony (but they weren’t exactly realistic in the Webber production, by the way). Yet, during Act Two the mood darkens. An impending sense of doom and grief tints each song. Like the Webber version, the final scenes are a bittersweet lament of a love that could never be fulfilled.
The most poignant message of Kopit’s script: That beauty of music alleviates the pain of life’s ugliness. Music makes the journey worth the hardship.