Wednesday, September 19, 2012

The Phantom of the World: 5 Cities, 1 Moving Musical

"You alone can make my song take flight.  Help me make the music of the night." 

 -- "The Music of the Night," The Phantom of the Opera


The Phantom of the Opera is based on the novel Le Fantome de l'Opera published in 1911 by French writer Gaston Leroux. Leroux alleges that the story is based on his own experiences as a reporter, when he investigated the mysterious events that occurred in the 1880s in the Paris Opera House (Le Palais Garnier).

Commissioned by Napoleon III, the Paris Opera House was built in 1861, as part of the emperor's plan to give Paris a makeover. The neo-baroque Le Palais Garnier is a grand sight to see -- polychrome exteriors, multi-colored marble interiors, and an exquisite foyers adorned with mosaics and sculptures. There is also a magnificent staircase (where the musical's Masquerade number is set).

But it is the Opera House's labyrinthine design that makes it a perfect setting for a haunting of one kind or the other. Imagine -- it is 17 storeys high, and seven of these levels are underground. There are numerous alcoves that lead to dark passages in the below-ground spaces.

But, contrary to popular belief, there is no underground lake.There is just a stone water tank, where Parisian firefighters today train to swim in the dark. 
But during the time of Leroux, rumors swirled around about an underground lake.

And in 1896, the chandelier really did crash in the opera house, killing a construction worker. These -- along with the writer's fertile imagination, paved the way for the timeless tale of a disfigured man, and his obsessive love for a beautiful soprano.


Andrew Lloyd Weber, fresh from the success of Jesus Christ Superstar decided that  for his next musical, he wanted to stage a  love story.

Upon reading Leroux's book and watching the 1925 film adaptation of Phantom -- he decided that this story is it. He went through several lyricists before actually finishing the score and story, but finally, The Phantom of the Opera debuted on September, 1986, at Her Majesty's Theatre at the West End in  London.

The roles of Phantom and Christine Daae were originally essayed by Michael Crawford and Sarah Brightman, who would go on to become big stars because of this.

From that fateful day in September,  26 years ago, the musical has run continuously, with people streaming in week in, and week out to watch the show. Just  last October 2010, Phantom marked its 10,000th performance at the West End (outdone only by Les Miserables which opened a year before Phantom). 

To many, The Phantom of the Opera has moved beyond being a mere musical. It has become, "a habit, a ritual, a tourist attraction," says Max Davidson of the Telegraph UK.


The musical was staged in Broadway two years after its West End debut. It had a slow start of empty seats and a lukewarm crowd. But musical soon found its New York pace and rhythm. Last February 2012, it celebrated its 10,000th show -- making it the longest running musical in Broadway history.

It is estimated that, out of the audiences that see the show on Broadway, 40% have seen it already, 70% are women and a whopping 60% are tourists.


The Venetian in Las Vegas has also had a run of The Phantom of the Opera -- although this version has been transformed for the casino-going crowd. Renamed Phantom: The Las Vegas Spectacular, the musical has been cut down to 90 minutes, from the original two hours and a half.

The producers here have spared no expense, racking up a $75 million production cost that include a custom-built  theater (that mimics the original Paris Opera House) and an elaborate chandelier that weights 2,100 pounds, is composed of  29,444 hand-strung crystals.


In its 26 years of existence, The Phantom of the Opera had been shown in 27 countries -- including New Zealand, Japan, Germany, Brazil, Mexico, Korea, Switzerland, Holland etc., before the cast and crew landed here in the Philippines, during the stormy month of  August 2012.

Though perhaps not as elaborate as its Vegas counterpart, the Manila production of Phantom did cost a hefty 15 million pesos to produce. The elaborate set (including the infamous chandelier) and original costumes by Maria Bjornson, were especially flown in for this Philippine staging.

I wanted to watch Phantom  because my mom wanted to. You seem my mom is the type who never really asks anything for herself. She has always put our needs over and above hers -- and so in  the rare occasion that she does express a desire to do something, I just want to make sure it does happen.

By God's grace, a doctor friend was selling Phantom tickets to raise funds for the poor, sick infants at the Philippine General Hospital (PGH).

Jotham (very generously) offered to pay for one ticket, while I paid for the other one so that my mom and I could see the show and at the same time help the babies at PGH. Days before the show, my sister said that mom would sigh happily at the prospect of seeing the musical for the very first time.

And so on September 12, mom and I trooped to the Cultural Center of Philippines to see The Phantom of the Opera.

And my what a sad, and splendid show.

The hairs on the back of my head stood on end as the music from the 17-piece orchestra swelled for the overture as the chandelier rose. I cried buckets during Think of Me and All I ask of You (which was to be expected). Along with everyone, I laughed when the departing theater manager bid everyone farewell by saying, "As for me, I'll be in Boracay!" But as for the immensely  haunting The Music of the Night number, I was a mixture of sad and slack-jawed (not a pretty sight).

The main cast -- Jonathan Roxmouth, Claire Lyon, Anthony Downing are extremely talented and the best-looking Phantom, Christine and Raoul I've seen so far. I just want to hug them for making my mom so happy. Mom said, it's okay if she never gets to see Les Miserables, or Cats. Nothing could top her Phantom experience.

And I agree. It's hard to exceed  the otherworldly experience of The Phantom of the Opera -- its beauty, and sadness, its splendid music and melodies.

For a story as sweeping and haunting as that of Phantom and his Christine, it's true what they say: "There are times when spoken word isn't enough. Language must sing."

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