The Phantom of the Opera is a musical composed by Andrew Lloyd Webber, with lyrics by Charles Hart and Richard Stilgoe. Based upon Gaston Leroux’s gothic novel, Phantom holds the record as the longest running musical on Broadway. For over twenty years, Webber’s masked musical has wowed audiences with its over 9000 performances on the West End, not to mention the countless touring companies that have spread Phantom-mania throughout the world.
So, What Makes Phantom So Popular?
The Phantom of the Opera combines high tech stage craft with good old fashioned melodrama. Consider some of the elements featured in this musical:
- A sweeping musical score.
- Powerful, operatic voices.
- Sharp, direction by Harold Prince.
- A sprinkling of ballet choreographed by Gillian Lynne.
- Elaborate costumes and dozens of quick changes.
- And when all else fails to entertain: Throw in a falling chandelier.
Anytime something is immensely successful, critical backlash is to be expected. In my observations, many who are serious about musicals despise much of Webber’s work, opting instead for the more complex compositions of Stephen Sondheim. Some might argue that The Phantom of the Opera is filled with gimmicky effects, flat characters, and sub-par trilling.
As warranted as these criticisms might be, there is a component to this show that remains the secret of its phenomenal success. The show has been a hit for over two decades because the character of the Phantom is a mesmerizing anti-hero.
The Bad Boy Image:
Step one in winning the hearts of the female audience: create a mysterious character with a dark side. Step two: Make certain that underneath that dangerous exterior lurks a loving heart, ready to bloom when the right woman happens along. A character that is seemingly cold, callous, and even cruel delights the hearts of romance addicts. Just look at some of these supposed jerks who turned into dreamboats:
- The Beast from Beauty and the Beast
- Edward Cullen from Twilight
- Mr. Darcy from Pride and Prejudice
Musical Genius and Renaissance Man:
To contrast his violent nature, the Phantom is masterful composer of brooding ballads which have the power to transfix the young singer, Christine Daae. Now, there have been other less, successful stage versions of Phantom (such as the one by composer Ken Hill). However, I believe Webber’s production best captures the Phantom’s melodic powers, especially during the famous soolo, “The Music of the Night.” During this song, both Christine and most audience members become entranced with his character because he reveals his artistic soul.
More than a musician, the Phantom is almost like a Parisian Batman (minus the crime fighting). He’s got a cool lair, which he constructed himself. He has created a plethora of inventions (some of them deadly). Also, he is a shrewd business man (or perhaps I should say extortionist) because he constantly sends payment notices to the opera managers. And we can only assume he designs his own costumes. All of this talent almost makes the viewer want to ignore his murderous crimes.
Sensitive Soul or Sinister Stalker?
Yes, The Phantom of the Opera has been called the most “haunting romance” of all time. But think of it: would you really want someone becoming obsessed over you the way the Phantom becomes obsessed with Christine? Maybe not. Today we call that stalking. However, because deep down the Phantom has a sensitive soul, audiences ultimately become sympathetic to him, despite his villainous behavior.
Through exposition, we learn that the Phantom was imprisoned in a carnival freak show. We also learn that his own mother despised him. He sings about his appearance: “This face which earned a mother’s fear and loathing.” These details put the audience in a forgiving mood.
In the final scene, the Phantom attempts a devious plan. He threatens to kill Christine’s handsome boyfriend, Raoul, unless she decides to live with the Phantom. However, his plan backfires. Christine sings, “Pitiful creature of darkness, what kind of life have you known. God give me courage to show you, you are not alone.” Then, she bestows upon the Phantom a long, passionate kiss.
After the smooch, the Phantom is overwhelmed by the experience of physical affection. He feels an unselfish love for Christine and he releases the young lovebirds. His transformation differs from other stories which hinge upon true love’s kiss. In this case, the Beast-archetype doesn’t turn into a handsome prince. However, he does undergo a moral awakening. And it is that moment, the Phantom's reaction to the kiss, that (despite all of the musical’s flash and pageantry) makes The Phantom of the Opera an eternal classic.