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History of the Phantom of the Opera Essay

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In 1911, Gaston Leroux published Le FantÔme de l’Opera, the now famous book that gave birth to the legend of the Phantom.  Leroux had been fascinated by the mystery and design of the Paris Opera House.  As a theatre enthusiast, he had toured all the levels of the Opera House including a visit to the underground lake, cellar and hidden passageways.

The mysterious events at the Paris Opera House which ignited Leroux ‘s interest began with Napoleon III’s call for a new opera house to be built in Paris in 1860, after he had survived an assassination attempt one evening when returning from the Opera.  The construction of the Opera House, faced many delays and construction stopped during the Franco Prussian War.

After the war, the then unfinished Opera House was occupied by the working class who used it as a warehouse, observation post, communications center, military post and a powder store.  The cellar was once used as a torture chamber.  The new Paris Opera House was finally finished in 1875.  Finally, adding to the mystery, an unfortunate incident occurred in the Paris Opera House in 1896, a counter-weight of six and a half ton chandelier fell from the ceiling, killing a patron.

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Gaston Leroux always claimed that the ghost in the story was true, based on his investigations and tours of the Opera House.  He is quoted as saying:

“The Opera ghost really existed.  He was not, as was long believed, a creature of the imagination of the artists, the superstition of the managers, or the absurd and impressionable brains of the young ladies of the ballet, their mothers, the box-keepers, the cloak-room attendants, or the concierge.  No, he existed in flesh and blood, though he assumed all the outward characteristics of a real phantom, that is to say, of a ghost.”  (Leroux, G, n.d)

In 1925, began the chain of events that would give rise to the phenomenon of the Phantom.  Universal Studios made the first film of the book – the silent movie, Phantom of the Opera, which starred Lon Chaney Snr.  A second version of the film, this time with sound and color, starring Claude Raines was produced in 1943.  Followed by a Spanish version in 1962, and a 1974 version starring Herbert Lom and Heather Sears.

The Phantom was produced twice on stage in 1935 and 1975, without much success.

Then, in 1986, the legend of the Phantom of the Opera would become one of the most famous stories in the world, when Andrew Lloyd Weber’s Musical – Phantom of the Opera hit the stage in London.  In the 21 years since the Musical began, it has broken all theatre records and is now the longest running Broadway Show in History.

The success of the musical spurred the movie industries interest again in 2004, with a moderately successful movie called “Phantom of the Opera” based on Andrew Lloyd Webber’s opera.  Critical acclaim for the movie has been varied.

The Phantom has outlived his creator who died in April 1927 and has become iconic to the 20th and 21st Century.

 

History of the Hit Musical – The Phantom of the Opera

         Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical The Phantom of the Opera opened in London’s Majesty Theatre on 9 October 1986.  In the original London Cast, “The Phantom” was played by Michael Crawford, and “Christine” by Sarah Brightman (then wife of Andrew Lloyd Webber).

The original creative team of the Phantom was:

  • Harold Prince                    Director
  • Cameron Mackintosh        Producer
  • Andrew Lloyd Webber     Composer, Book, Co-orchestra
  • Maria Björnson                 Production Designer

 

While Andrew Lloyd Webber had already been phenomenally successful with productions like Evita and the Sound of Music, “The Phantom” made stars of the actors and creative team members.

The musical is still running 21 years later (2007) in London, Broadway (N.Y) and touring worldwide.  The Phantom has won over 50 awards including 3 Olivier, an Evening Standard Award, 7 Tony’s and 3 Outer Critic Circle Awards.

At the time of writing, it is estimated that over 80 million people have seen the musical, with total ticket sales of over $3.2 billion.

 

Reviews of the Phantom of the Opera:

The Daily Mirror’s first review of the Phantom of the Opera in 1986:

It’s fantastic, fabulous and phantasmagorical!

It’s fantastic, fabulous and phantasmagorical! From the eerily flickering lights that greet you outside Her Majesty’s Theatre to the last, glorious curtain call, Andrew Lloyd Webber’s long-awaited new musical, Phantom of the Opera, is a triumph.

The special effects are among the most spectacular ever seen in the West End.

The music is very bit as memorable as one would expect from the man who wrote Evita, Starlight Express and the rest. But most of all, the show belongs to Sarah Brightman and Michael Crawford, who soar and swoop through their hugely demanding roles like eagles.

After all the well-publicised false starts and back-biting, Lloyd Webber has created a musical which deserves to be around well into the next decade.

The story is based closely on the original novel of 1911 – unlike most of the Phantom of the Opera films which have been made over the years.

Michael Carwford’s Phantom hides his hideously disfigured face by skulking in the stage caverns and pools deep beneath the Paris opera.

His passion for music is the only thing which gives his life meaning until he becomes obsessed by Sarah Brightman’s Christine – a young opera singer whose beauty is matched only by the purity of her voice. He coaches her in secret while visiting dreadful catastrophes on anyone who refuses to advance her career.

A hanged scene shifter is suddenly hideously dropped on to the stage in the middle of a performance. A vast crystal chandelier crashes on to the audience.

As the phantom becomes more fiendish so Christine becomes increasingly mixed in her feelings towards him.

A dreadful climax is fast approaching.

The eerie sets of the unfolding drama – great stages filled with mist and shining candles – are interspersed with all the colour and spectacle of the operas being prepared and presented at the theatre.

Despite all the “ghost train” theatricals the greatest thrills of the show come from Michael Crawford.

He not only sings superbly but also captures the torment of the Phantom perfectly.

If you only see one show this year, make sure it is this one! (Blake, J, 1986)

In 2002, The Times wrote:

Long-runners
One answer is obvious: Maria Björnson’s stunning designs. The story, based on Gaston Leroux’s novel, begins on the Paris Opera’s stage in 1911.

The building is dusty and neglected, the stage festooned with great swags of grey fabric. Old theatrical props are being auctioned off. Then, as the auctioneer announces the final lot — the opera’s enormous chandelier — the dustsheets fall away, the scene seems almost to dissolve and the theatre travels back in time to 1881 before our very eyes. It’s a vision of gaudy grandeur: gas lamps flicker, red velvet glows in the light and plaster nymphs and satyrs frolic on pillars.

The opera is dogged by misfortunes that are rumoured to be the work of the Phantom, a malevolent figure who haunts the theatre. This sinister creature has become obsessed with Christine Daaé, a pretty chorus girl. But only cadaverous Madame Giry, the formidable ballet mistress, knows the terrible secret that lies behind the mask the Phantom wears.

The musical’s best sequence occurs when the Phantom leads Christine through labyrinthine passages to his lair beyond a hidden lake underneath the building. As their boat glides over the misty water, surrounded by flickering candles, the effect is breathtaking. The problem is that this spectacle takes place early on and nothing afterwards can really compete. Harold Prince’s direction is slick and Gillian Lynne’s choreography effective, but Lloyd Webber’s music is often trite and dated.

There’s little depth to any of the characters, either, yet the musical’s central relationship intrigues. For while Christine is Beauty to the Phantom’s Beast, she is haunted, not only by the opera ghost, but by the memory of her dead violinist father. This lends a pleasingly perverse Freudian twist to the erotic tension between the two characters, and the performers John Owen-Jones and Celia Graham make the most of it.

Not only are they both excellent singers, they are fine actors too. Graham brings both passion and a childlike neediness to her portrayal of Christine. Owen-Jones uses his rich, powerful voice to great effect, crooning one moment, spitting bitterness the next.

But the real star of the show is Björnson’s work. The designer died earlier this month, aged 53, and if Phantom has stood the test of time, it’s because of her. It is not the music audiences will remember; it’s the opera’s chandelier swinging crazily over the stalls, or a masked figure crouched menacingly over a gilded angel. And for those images alone, this show is still worth seeing. (Marlowe, S,  2002)


The New York Times revisited the Phantom in 2005 and wrote this review:

New York Times revisits the Phantom

Old and Ghostly but Still a Hoot

The paint on the balconies of the Majestic Theater looks chipped and the electronic drum machine sounds like something left over from a music video from the 1980’s. But “The Phantom of the Opera” really shows its age (17 years and running) when the signature special effect is presented. Musicals have opened and closed in the time it takes that chandelier to lumber to the floor. Looking like one of Ed Wood’s teetering flying saucers, it crashes to the stage with the force of a shopping cart, the biggest, most extravagant anticlimax in town.

Seventeen years later: Sandra Joseph and Hugh Panaro are now playing the roles of Christine and the Phantom.

Under the fearsome shadow of Hugh Panaro in “The Phantom of the Opera.”
But what do you expect? It was designed during the Reagan administration. For a top-of-the-line chandelier, you will have to wait for the $40 million production of “Phantom” opening in Las Vegas next spring. But if the technology of the Broadway show seems a bit quaint, the real news is that the rest of the production has grown old gracefully. Judging by sheer invention, emotional punch and onstage talent, the venerable blockbuster still beats out almost all of the whippersnappers currently on Broadway.

Maria Bjornson’s flamboyant gothic design and Harold Prince’s fantastical staging still have the gleam of finely polished professionalism. Led by the current Phantom (there have been 10 after Michael Crawford), Hugh Panaro, an up-and-coming musical theater star who finds the right mix of shock and schmaltz, most of the cast retains the freshness of opening night.

That does not mean that Andrew Lloyd Webber haters, a large and very grumpy contingent, will be won over. Sorry, “The Music of the Night” hasn’t changed. Nor has Charles Hart’s bumbling lyrics (“You have brought me to that moment when words run dry”). But for those sentimental souls looking for a popular entertainment to transport them to a baroque, romantic new world with a powerful smoke machine, “Phantom,” I’m happy to report, still delivers the goods.

Which is especially impressive, given that not long ago, the musical seemed to be on its last legs. By the fall of 2003, its peers “Miss Saigon,” “Cats” and “Les Misérables” had faded away. Ticket sales were down and rumors of its demise were common around Broadway. Flash-forward to today: crowds are lined up around the corner to see the show, which regularly sells out. Last week, 99 percent of the seats were filled. In January, barring a strike, disaster or nuclear holocaust, “Phantom” will eclipse “Cats” as the longest-running show in Broadway history. What happened?

For one thing, it received a boost from Joel Schumacher’s film version of the musical, which opened in December.

Even though it wasn’t a smash hit, the movie introduced a new audience to the show (as evidenced by the large number of young girls at the Majestic) and reminded old ones how superior the musical is. In fact, the bombastic film may be the only thing that makes the musical look understated.

Mr. Prince, who continues to oversee casting and reportedly checks up on the show every few months, deserves credit for tending to it with care. When the box office dipped, he never panicked and cast a former Backstreet Boy for a short-term boost in sales. Unlike so many long-running shows, “Phantom” has not resorted to stunt casting.

Although don’t be surprised if Mr. Panaro, who has been rumored on theater Web sites as the choice to star in “Lestat,” Elton John’s vampire musical heading to Broadway next season, becomes a household name someday. A young, charismatic actor, he brings a maniacal energy and Grand Guignol charm to the tortured Phantom. In his hands, the show concentrates more on the horror than the romance; but only once does he turn to the audience and growl – which, considering how scenery chewing this role could be, counts as admirable restraint.

Surrounding him is a solid supporting cast who deliver disciplined performances free of the lazy flourishes that sneak into a role when an actor becomes bored by repetition. As the diva Carlotta, Anne Runolfsson flashes a hundred-watt smile and shows off a richly textured voice in the opening song, “Think of Me.”

Jeff Keller and George Lee Andrews, the only actors with major roles who have been with the company since the beginning, are marvelous as the nervous theater managers who made the mistake of buying the Paris Opera House. In 2001, Mr. Prince had them switch roles to keep things fresh.

Sandra Joseph (who doesn’t perform Wednesday evenings or Saturday matinees) is perfectly competent as Christine, although in her scenes with the Phantom she can come off as a bit bland. As her other love interest, Raoul, a terribly underwritten role, Tim Martin Gleason provides a strong voice and a stiff performance. In the romantic songs, one’s mind easily wanders to the bitingly funny Lloyd Webber parody in “Spamalot,” which droned on and on until the stars looked tired of their own voices.

Then again, the winking and eyebrow-raising in satirical musical comedies like “Spamalot” and “The Producers” are part of what makes the proudly melodramatic and unironic “Phantom” a nice change of pace. The musical may seem as if it is from a different time, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. (Zinoman, J, 2005)


Personal Review:

 

The Broadway production of The Phantom of the Opera captures your attention right from the start and then you will be you will be drawn into a mysterious world of horror, romance and tragedy.

Your journey keeps you spellbound through resonating songs sung by a handpicked cast, Maria Bjornson’s magnificent sets and costumes to both delight and frighten you.

Gaston Leroux’s gothic novel comes to life through Andrew Lloyd’s Webbers’ Phantom.  The musical beautifully combines a mixture of genres, performed through opera, leaving the audience entrapped in a tragic tale of love.

Whether you are recovering from fright or floating on Phantoms’ songs – this musical will keep, you entertained, wistful and somewhat disturbed leaving you thoughtful as to who should triumph in the end.

New fans and old are still being enraptured by the phenomenon of The Phantom.

 

 


Works Cited:

Blake, J, (1986) It’s fantastic, fabulous and phantasmagorical!, The Daily Mirror U.K. Retrieved 04/18/2007, http://www.thephantomoftheopera.com/poto/news_mediareviews_story.php?id=38

Leroux, G. n.d. Quotation Phantom of the Opera Official Site. Retrieved 04/18/2007, http://www.thephantomoftheopera.com/poto/show/the_show_history_filmography.php

Marlowe, S, (2002), Long Runners, The Times, UK.  Retrieved 04/18/2007 http://entertainment.timesonline.co.uk/tol/arts_and_entertainment/article805339.ece

Zinoman, J, (2005), New York Times revisits the Phantom: Old and Ghostly but Still a Hoot, The New York Times, USA.  Retrieved 04/18/2007 http://www.thephantomoftheopera.com/poto/news_mediareviews_story.php?id=216

 

Bibliography:

Paris Opera House (n.d.), Music of the 19th Century Paris, Opera. Retrieved 04/18/2007 http://gallery.sjsu.edu/paris/music/opera/opera_house.html

The Phantom of the Opera (n.d.), Official Website.  Retrieved 04/17/2007, http://www.thephantomoftheopera.com

     

 

 

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