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The Schlepic

Andrew Lloyd Weber's "The Phantom of the Opera" is the latest in a series of epic theater productions.

Lisa Maree Williams/Getty Images

It could be argued that we no longer have theater in America, we only have Events. And the blame for this rests squarely at the door of economics and the media. Recognizing that few people today are prepared to meet the soaring costs of theatergoing unless assured of a blockbuster, the press, television, and radio have been devoting more and more space to hyping special large-scale attractions. Anything that promises big sales through advance publicity receives massive pre-opening and post-opening coverage—features, double reviews, interviews, follow-ups, even audits of the income of its creators—until we are smothered under an avalanche of information we have no desire to know. This is a variant on the morphology of the hit, but it has grown to extravagant proportions. As Russell Baker noted in a recent column, people will only buy tickets to a show they can’t get into. Success in the Broadway theater is based on a culture of scarcity.

By this measure, there would even be a run on Edsels were there a shortage of parts, and lots of theatrical Edsels have gone on the market lately, masquerading as Rolls-Royces. Under such conditions, what can criticism do but fall into lockstep, praising what it has no power to alter? Even with bad reviews, the blockbuster continues to play to full houses and huge advance sales: even when heaped with scorn, the lachrymose wizard who manufactured the Event can row through his tears to the bank. By the end of the run, he probably owns the bank. 

The critic-proof Event has resulted in a whole new theater genre which I call the “Schlepic.” Often originating in England, and always costing millions, it takes New York by storm and runs for centuries to standing ovations. The first of these Schlepics was Cats, followed hard upon by Les Miserables and Starlight Express, with Chess and Carrie still to come. (Is it possible that The Mahabharata is an avant-garde version of the Schlepic?) The latest, and by far the most successful, in this series is The Phantom of the Opera by the “onlie begetter” of the genre, Andrew Lloyd Webber. This musical generated $17 million in advance sales before it even opened, and now you can’t buy a ticket until next Tisha b’Av. Costing $8 million to produce. The Phantom of the Opera is not a musical play so much as the theatrical equivalent of a corporate merger. We follow the plot with less interest than its box office reports; we can barely hear the music above the jingle of the cash register. 

There are people moving around on the stage of the Majestic Theatre, but the star of the show is obviously the chandelier. I’ve sometimes spoken of leaving a musical singing the set; this is the first time I’ve gone home singing the chandelier. What a piece of work! It may look like an ordinary object, sitting there lumpishly on the floor as you enter, but just when you’re wondering why the set looks so drab, it rises laboriously from its mooring, like Old Deuteronomy’s neon-flashing tire in Cats, and sails over your head to take its place amidst transformed scenery to the gasps of the audience. I’ll say this for The Phantom of the Opera: you’re never in doubt about where the production budget went. Most of it must have been lavished on this redoubtable piece of stage machinery, which makes another entrance at the end of the first act, gliding over our heads, executing a few barrel rolls and Immelmanns, then dropping gently if anti-climactically to the stage. I was disappointed when it failed to take a personal bow at the curtain call. 

The Phantom of the Opera, as you doubtless know, is based on Gaston Leroux’s 1911 variant of Beauty and the Beast. As a literary work, it has as much value as the novels of Paul de Kock, but Leroux’s feverish melodramatic plot was perfect material for silent films, where it gave Lon Chaney an opportunity to display one of his thousand faces. The hideousness of that disfigured face, as Chaney pumped and pounded away at his underground organ, is still the most memorable feature of the movie; and mimed silence is still the most appropriate medium for the plot. In the musical, the phantom is allowed to express himself in song, through the overheated lyrics of Charles Hart and the supercharged music of Lloyd-Webber, and while it is true that anything too silly to speak can be sung, I couldn’t help longing for Chaney’s golden silence. 

This Phantom of the Opera passes itself off as an opera about opera. It not only takes place in an opera house, it features non-stop singing and revolves around scenes from operatic works. Although this strategy gives the production designer (Maria Bjornson) ample opportunity to create some monumental sets and glittering costumes for simulations of works by Mozart, Verdi, Meyerbeer, and Massenet, Lloyd Webber’s music (though also presumably based on operatic models) somehow comes out sounding like a Puccini score stained with damp clotted parmesan cheese. Here, the composer is still hung up between writing theatrical music and devising songs that might hit the charts. As usual, he delivers one such overplugged tune—in Cats, it was “Memory,” in The Phantom of the Opera, “The Music of the Night”—that lifts itself lyrically for a moment from the gluey mass of kitsch. 

But The Phantom of the Opera, like other obnoxious offspring, is really meant to be seen, not heard. The story of a little girl from the corps de ballet who steps in and becomes a star when the diva resigns in a huff was more amusing in 42nd Street. And the heroine’s relationship with the phantom—”a lonesome gargoyle who burns in hell”—is a weak variant on the story of Svengali and Trilby, with a sidelong glance at the Dracula myth. The plot also peeks at the myth of Pandora when, at the end of the first act, our overly curious heroine lifts the white plastic half-mask of the monster, who dragged her to his lair in the bowels of the opera house, to reveal his ghastly face. Maybe this is a latent reference to exposing the “ugly” hidden parts of the male anatomy; anyway, it had half the women in the audience swooning. The other half, I suspect, were fuming. The cheap perfume that permeates the evening comes from masochistic romantic novels and their assumptions that women relish being ravished, dominated, and controlled. 

Anyway, I think the heroine is meant to relish it, though in Sarah Brightman’s impassive performance it is hard to know exactly what she is feeling. At the moment when the phantom, placing a red noose around the neck of her bleached-blond boyfriend, is preparing to hoist him to the chandelier, Brightman impulsively plants a wet kiss on the mug the phantom calls ugly enough to “incur” even “a mother’s fear and loathing.” Dynamite! His vengeful heart melting, his hatred relenting, the phantom frees the lover and sends the couple away in a boat apparently borrowed from the prop shop of Tales of Hoffman. Then, weeping copious tears over his gruesome topography, he sings “It’s over now, the music of the night.” Not quite over. Surrounded by pursuers, with all exits blocked, the phantom vanishes in a chair—leaving only his mask on the pillow and his character still available for the Schlepic sequel. The Phantom Returns

Michael Crawford manages to play this operatic Elephant Man not only with a straight face, which is no small thing, but also with considerable passion, though I found his voice a little thin and reedy in the upper registers. The even more straight-faced Brightman has a pleasant soprano, and the rest of the cast performs with that confidence that bespeaks their certainty of extended employment. The contribution of the director, Harold Prince, and his lighting designer, Andrew Bridge, to this orgy of special effects has been properly celebrated. If you’re a fan of laser lighting effects, flames shooting up from the floor, musty crypts, trick mirrors, stage elephants and bull-faced sphinxes, boat rides through a fog-shrouded lake festooned with glowing lights, and above all, aeronautical chandeliers, it will be hard to find two more accomplished technical magicians in this hemisphere. 

But I remember a time, not long ago—in a Lloyd Webber musical called Evita, for one thing—when Prince owed more to the Berliner Ensemble than to Industrial Light and Magic, when he was able to astonish us with simple Brechtian elements rather than multi-million dollar stage mechanisms. The Phantom of the Opera is a vulgar glitzorama, a parade of conspicuous consumption, a display of fake rococo for a trans-Atlantic audience glutted with material goods. It suggests that something much more dangerous than a chandelier might be crashing on the stage.