The Phantom’s Silver Jubilee

Posted by Dorota Babilas on November 02, 2011 in Dr Dorota Babilas, Guest Blog tagged with , , ,

Posters featuring a silver-hued mask announced the 25th anniversary of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical The Phantom of the Opera to be celebrated by a special gala staging at the Royal Albert Hall in London on 2nd October this year. Jubilees inevitably inspire generalizations and recapitulations. I first saw the Phantom in London in the summer of 1992, being of similar age to the story’s Christine (and probably even younger than the actress who played her). If – as some critics of the show claim – Christine was experiencing a bout of the Stockholm syndrome, I plead guilty of the Stendhal type. Since then I saw the London staging 4 times with different casts, plus the two (decidedly inferior) non-replica productions of Budapest and Warsaw. One of the good sides of the anniversary gala was that no-one – not even Andrew Lloyd Webber – seemed to remember these artistic blunders (the documentary showed before the cinematic broadcast from the Albert Hall must have been made before 2003, as it claimed that all the many productions of the Phantom were exactly ‘the same as the original’ in terms of the mise-en-scène and direction). Also, mercifully, no mention was made of Joel Schumacher’s 2004 movie version of the musical, and its (to put it mildly) controversial 2010 sequel Love Never Dies.

It has always puzzled me how little attention the Phantom has received from the scholars of the Gothic. There had been hardly anything at all written on Gaston Leroux, his novel, and its many adaptations before a ground-breaking chapter in Harriett Hawkins’s Classics and Trash: Traditions and Taboos in High Literature and Popular Modern Genres (1990), which to me seemed to confirm my intuition that the Phantom was predominantly not a tale of a simple abduction of a stereotypically helpless maiden by a masked villain, but a complex and multifaceted story of a woman’s talent – something I took as a starting point in the research leading to my PhD. Another important study was the Lacanian reading of Leroux in Slavoy Žižek’s article ‘Grimaces of the Real, or When the Phallus Appears’ (1991). Then Margaret Miner (1994) situated Leroux in the context of French literary ‘opera-house mysteries’ of the 19th century. The first monograph on the subject – Jerrold E. Hogle’s The Undergrounds of the Phantom of the Opera (2002) maintained a largely psychoanalytic viewpoint. Professor Hogle also contributed a chapter on the Phantom to the collection of essays on the European Gothic edited by Avril Horner (2002). Since then no meritable addition has been made to this list, Ann C. Hall’s Phantom Variations (2009) providing rather a partial catalogue of existing versions than a discussion of their contents.

Before Lloyd Webber’s musical, the Phantom was not primarily identified as a love story, but rather as a thriller with some Gothic elements. However, the seeds for conflicting interpretations of the relationships among Christine (the ingénue), Erik (the Phantom) and Raoul (Christine’s childhood sweetheart) were sown already by Leroux. Most importantly, the novel lacks a reliable narrator, the one able to force onto readers the single definitive reading of the tale. The Phantom is never given a chance to explain himself, always referred to by people who do not know the whole story, who are his enemies, or who simply cannot see the complexity of his character. Also Christine is interpreted by others, particularly by Raoul who puts words in her mouth before she can have a chance of expressing herself. Thus, the kernel of the tale remains hypothetical and uncertain; ready to be discovered and rediscovered again, each new interpretation as good as all those that went before. Moreover, Gaston Leroux’s novel is a stylistically hybridic creation incorporating Gothic horror, adventure, romance, mystery, crime story and journalistic novel.

The Phantom (Howard McGillin) and Christine (Sandra Joseph)

Lloyd Webber’s musical referred the novel’s plot back to two of the most important theatrical genres of the 19th century – opera and classic melodrama (Booth 1965). Both these genres relied on heightened emotional agony, violence and picturesque disasters, but most importantly on the use of stock characters. The protagonists of The Phantom of the Opera fitted well into the recognisable paradigm of Hero and Villain competing for the Heroine, the secondary characters providing typified images of farcical Opera managers, girlish ballerinas and tempestuous divas. Melodrama (and, for that matter, opera) shares some elements with the Gothic: the fast pace of action and the physical sensation matters more than complex psychological motivations. The moral distinctions are just as rigid and cliché-ridden – melodrama relies greatly on binary oppositions of good versus evil and strictly observed gender roles. Like the Gothic, it is an allegory, a dream world in which characters are little more than ‘concretised essences’ (Clover 1992, 231), and since it is moralistic – everybody knows the end in advance.

The characters of the musical were recognisable types in terms of stereotyped costumes and physical features, but at the same time they were equipped with exciting and surprising possibilities for interpretation – pointing to the novel’s liminality. The struggle for the soul and body of the indecisive soprano could be read in Faustian and even Oedipal terms – present already in the novel – the Phantom was a mature, paternal man, but still he was given considerable seductive charisma. The delicate balance within the title character torn between the forces represented by the two names which were used to describe him: the threatening ‘Phantom of the Opera’ and the protective ‘Angel of Music’ (the name Erik, used in the novel, was absent from the musical) was played out to theatrical perfection. Despite the insistence on reproducing the show in its entirety in subsequent productions, there was enough space for the actors to elaborate on the various nuances within the role of the Phantom. I can fully agree with the opinion of the writer Suzy McKee Charnas who observed:

I saw psychotic and bloodthirsty Phantoms, aching and driven ones, sarcastic and knowing ones, Phantoms concealing painful tenderness behind manic cruelty, sadly suave and sorrowful Phantoms, miserable prisoners of crippled personalities and bodies operating like half-broken clockwork — a surprising array of interpretations, given the limitations of being hired as, essentially, stand-ins for Michael Crawford.

One of the popular ways of reading The Phantom of the Opera is to perceive the story as a kind of a dark fairy-tale, or a (quasi) paranormal romance, similar to Beauty and the Beast. The connection was made clear in the libretto, where the Phantom admitted that he was ‘a Beast [who] secretly yearn[ed] for Beauty’, which could be understood as a reflection both on his creative genius and a longing for a perfect partner in Christine. Interestingly, the popular TV series elaborating on Beauty and the Beast was launched in 1987, that is between the West End and Broadway premieres of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical. It seemed to appeal to a similar audience, consisting largely of women. Beauty and the Beast set new standards of romantic television. The characters of Vincent and Catherine – visually borrowed from the highly acclaimed film directed by Jean Cocteau (1946) – were given an entirely new dimension. First of all, the Beast was never to be transformed into a handsome prince by Beauty’s kiss; he remained locked in his animal-like flesh, the only real alteration happening ‘in the eye of the beholder’. Two 22-episode seasons were broadcast, but then – after Linda Hamilton, who played Catherine, resigned from the show – the production team opted for a risky resolution of killing off the heroine in the first episode of the third season and making the abduction of her newborn son by a psychopathic villain the major focus of the story. The popularity figures dropped so sharply that the third season was abruptly cut after just 13 episodes and it was never concluded.

Multiple stage, screen and book adaptations of the Phantom which, at least to some extent, exploited the popularity of Lloyd Webber’s musical, nearly all gave prominence to the romantic subplot of the story. Moreover, other Gothic tales started to follow the example of the Phantom, most notably Bram Stoker’s Dracula who in the 1992 film adaptation directed by Francis Ford Coppola shifted from the well-established position of the Gothic arch-villain to that of a tortured lover reunited with the reincarnation of his long-lost princess. The Romantic liberties taken with Stoker’s novel infuriated many scholars of the horror genre, inspiring Fred Botting to declare ‘the end of Gothic’, and proclaim the genre’s demise together with the Count dying in the arms of his beloved (Botting 1997, 180). Even if Gothic, in its classical form, was ‘dead’ – Romance proved to be its afterlife. Talk about sparkly vampires.

The new Romantic approach started to reflect back on the stage musical. The Phantoms in the subsequent productions became visibly younger. Michael Crawford was 44 when he started playing the role, and the make-up made him look considerably older. Ramin Karimloo, who played the Phantom at the Royal Albert Hall, had debuted in the role at the age of 29 after having played Raoul for some time 5 years earlier, and the make-up (both the new, more camera-conscious version used in the gala, and the regular stage one) did little to conceal his youth. One of the guests at the 25th anniversary gala was Peter Jöback, scheduled to take up the role of the Phantom in London starting March 2012 – his high, youthful falsetto voice created a sharp contrast with the ‘old generation’ of Phantoms: Colm Wilkinson, Anthony Warlow and John Owen-Jones (the last, actually, born in the same year as Jöback).

Carlotta (Ann Runolfsson) and Piangi (Larry Wayne Morbitt) in 'Hannibal' - The Phantom of the Opera

In the following weeks, I would like to share with you some of my observations concerning the connections between the modern, musicalised Phantom and the genre which inspired Gaston Leroux – that is the opera. Andrew Lloyd Webber equipped his score with three quasi-operatic episodes imitating the style of Giacomo Meyerbeer’s grand opera (‘Hannibal’) and two classic works of Mozart (‘Il Muto’ and ‘Don Juan Triumphant’). ‘Il Muto’ alluded to some aspects of The Marriage of Figaro, and the Phantom’s own opus, ‘Don Juan Triumphant’ – crucial already for the plot of Leroux’s novel – was in itself a reworking of Mozart’s Don Giovanni. I have been thinking how relevant the Gothic mode was (and is) to opera, and how much of the operatic exuberance found its way to contemporary Gothic. For me, one of the most immediate results of my first encounter with Lloyd Webber’s Phantom almost twenty years ago was the desire to go and explore ‘the real thing’, that is to see and hear the classic operas that the musical celebrated and mocked, and somewhat incidentally promoted among the audience more accustomed to pop and rock music. I have never since left ‘The Box Five’ for good.


Botting, Fred, Gothic. London and New York: Routledge, 1997.

Booth, Michael, English Melodrama, London: Herbert Jenkins, 1965.

Clover, Carol J., Men, Women and Chainsaws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1992.

Hall, Ann C., Phantom Variations: the Adaptations of Gaston Leroux’s Phantom of the Opera. Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland, 2009.

Hawkins, Harriett, Classics and Trash. Traditions and Taboos in High Literature and Popular Modern Genres. New York and London: Harvester Wheatsheaf, 1990.

Hogle, Jerrold E., The Undergrounds of the Phantom of the Opera: Sublimation and the Gothic in Leroux’s Novel and its Progeny. New York and Houndmills, Hampshire: Palgrave, 2002.

Hogle, Jerrold E., ‘The Gothic Crosses the Channel: Abjection and Revelation in Le Fantôme de l’Opéra’ in: Avril Horner (ed.), European Gothic: A Spirited Exchange 1760-1960. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2002.

Miner, Margaret, ‘Phantoms of Genius: Women and the Fantastic in the Opera-House Mysteries’ in: 19th-Century Music, Vol. 18, No. 2 (Autumn 1994), pp. 121-135. (Available on JSTOR).

Žižek, Slavoy, ‘Grimaces of the Real, or When the Phallus Appears’ in: October, Vol. 58, Rendering the Real (Autumn 1991), pp. 44-68. (Available on JSTOR).

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