Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Why Do Bad Things Happen to Good Shows?

Warning: Here is where you will find my feelings on the devolution of Andrew Lloyd Webber's The Phantom of the Opera. You may already know my feelings on this subject. Feel free to skip the post.

First of all I need to say that my first introduction to The Phantom of the Opera was reading Gaston LeRoux's book in 8th grade. Despite the lack of polish in the plot and the confusing multi-genreness (yes, I just said "muti-genreness") of the novel, I loved it. My English class raised some money and we all hopped a bus down to the Pantages Theater in Los Angeles to see the muscial production. There were many changes from the book to the play, but the only thing that really disappointed me was the speed of the chandelier (too slow). Everything else was magic to me. I loved the music. I loved the look of it. I loved the stage tricks. This was the first professional theater production I had ever seen, and I was obsessed. I played my parent's Phantom cassette tape constantly, I learned the easy version of all the songs on the piano. I annoyed my sisters to the point of insanity with my love for this musical. Sorry guys.

Eventually my love for Phantom simmered down to the point where I could function without hearing the music every day. Time passed, and other things became important. Still, whenever I would hear a song from that show it would trigger something in me that would start me dreaming. I have never not loved this show.

When I was nineteen I went with a group of people to New York to see a few shows. Of course Phantom was on the list. I was so exited to see this musical again, especially since the title role was being played by a graduate from my High School and we were going to be able to talk with some of the actors after the show. It was exciting, but it didn't quite live up to my expectations. I felt like people were not trying hard enough to make every show new and every minute real. The dancers were a little off. It didn't feel quite right. But it was still an amazing show.

Flash forward a couple years. I got married, and my husband took me to see Les Miserables (another favorite of mine) and Phantom in London. We had restricted-view seats, which was annoying, but I also just didn't like some of the choices that the actors (perhaps the director) made. It seemed as though the production was trying to somehow "update" the original, when in fact the original production was somehow practically perfect the way it was. I wondered if my criticism stemmed from the circumstances of our seats and my annoyance with our view, but we saw Les Mis in uncomfortable seats straight off the plane from LA after staying up for 36 + hours and we thought it was amazing. We didn't get tired for one second of the performance. (Of course we fell asleep on the Underground afterward, but that is a different story that thankfully doesn't involve any pick-pocketing.)

The movie came out. I did not see it in the theaters. I heard mixed reviews. My mom popped it into the DVD player while I was over at her house one day. I wanted to laugh at parts that were not funny, and I was mad that the movie could have strayed so far from the original story. I will now list all of the things wrong with this movie, in no particular order.
1) They picked a Christine and a Phantom that do not have remarkable singing voices. In fact, there are moments in the movie where they both totally mess up vocally. (How many takes did you have?! Isn't this a movie where you can fix stuff like that?!) Gerard Butler learned how to sing for this film. That is just plain crazy. Not only is the Phantom a very demanding vocal role, he is supposed to be training Christine. The role calls for someone with remarkable abilities just so that we as an audience will believe that the Phantom actually could be Christine's teacher. I guess since Emmy Rossum isn't a fabulous singer it is a moot point.
2) They took away everything that is cool about the Phantom. He is supposed to be able to lull you with his gorgeous voice. He is supposed to be the world's greatest ventriloquist. He is supposed to be lethally dangerous. Raoul would NEVER be able to beat him in a stupid duel because a) he would kill Raoul before he could reach for his sword and b) the Phantom has WAY more experience with killing people than Raoul does. Removing these important character traits takes away the magic and mystery of the Phantom. In this film he was just a weird guy living in the cellar of the opera. Why were people scared of him?
3) They made the Phantom hot. I mean, he was really good-looking. Even with his mask off, I was like "Dang, I'd take him over that pompous scraggly-looking Count any day! He only lost an eyebrow, what is everyone so horrified about?" The Phantom is not supposed to be more handsome than everyone else in the movie, that is the point. He is a freak.
4) They added a sword fight in the movie. A sword fight. Between Raoul and the Phantom. Seriously, LAME. This would never happen. Raoul is supposed to be a young, scared, rich boy- not some swashbuckling hero. At the end of the fight he HAS the Phantom at the tip of his sword, and he is ready to do him in and Christine yells "No! Not like this." Ok, guys. Let's come up with a better plan then. Lets spend tons of money performing his opera and put Christine in mortal danger and try to kill him later. This makes no sense.
5) The costumes were totally inappropriate for the time period. They were pretty scandalous for 1919. But they were pretty, I'll grant.
6) They added a back story for the Phantom that totally doesn't fit with the timing of everything else. Also, they decided to just invent their own story instead of referencing the book. I don't think anyone involved in this movie even read the original novel. An added annoyance, Raoul's acting is terrible in this scene.
7) I could go on, but we only have so much space here. Those are my main points anyway. Just to counter-balance all this negativity, I will say that I loved Mini Driver as Carlotta. I don't care if her singing voice was dubbed, that is what they should have done with almost everyone else. Raoul had a great singing voice. The orchestra sounded amazing. Some of the sets were cool, but the computer graphics were pretty bad. (Sorry, I'll stop.)

Ok, so now on to the Vegas Phantom. First of all, the billboards for this showed a very inappropriate amount of Christine cleavage. She was wearing something completely inappropriate to her innocent character and the time period. In the picture, the Phantom is about to seductively kiss her. I was annoyed from the start, because this changes the whole meaning of their relationship. He is supposed to like her in part because of her purity and her naivete. His whole relationship as her "angel of music" is based from her trusting and innocent nature. Plus, I resent that anyone thinks they have to make their show look whorish in order to get a Vegas audience to come see it. Shouldn't good work speak for itself? Grr...
They also cut the show to 90 minutes and added some lame stuff from the movie (a bit of the back story, making the chandelier fall at a stupid time, etc.). WHY cut GOOD things to add in confusing BAD things? Did Mr. Prince and Mr. Webber think that the original musical wasn't effective or good enough? It is the longest running musical of all time! If it ain't broke, DON'T FIX IT!! They added a ton of spectacle... there were fireworks on the stage, there was glass that the wedding Christine "broke through", Raoul got trapped in some crazy death box instead of lassoed by the Phantom, the Phantom appeared on the chandelier, He appeared on the stage before his opera so that the police could shoot at him, he disappeared in his red death costume only to reappear at the top of the steps and start running at everyone. Although I am not opposed to adding things to an existing show, don't do it at the expense of the show's merit. Most of these additions were stupid. It seemed to be spectacle for spectacle's sake. Plus, it moved the show farther from it's roots, which were perfect. The show is morphing into something cheap and bad, and I don't like it.
One more note, the guy playing the Phantom in Vegas annoyed the heck out of me. He played it like a crazy man. He sometimes beat his chest and he would go into unexplainable seizures. He actually went into a few seizures when he was kissing Christine. He wasn't relatable or even likable. The little boy next to my husband was laughing, and rightfully so. He looked retarded. Literally. The man got a standing ovation. I was horrified. I wondered if people just assumed that they were supposed to, or if they really liked him. Are people that blind to bad acting? His singing wasn't good enough to make up for it.

Maybe I am a very severe critic when it comes to this specific show because when I saw it for the first time I was young and inexperienced in the theater world and I didn't see its flaws. I'm not discounting this possibility, but I really think there has been a gradual dissent with this musical (more speedily in recent years). I think the creators are trying to make it new and fresh, when really it doesn't need to be changed. Every change they make takes them further away from the truth of the story, and therefore further away from the brilliance they had at the beginning. Maybe Andrew Lloyd Webber has been hanging out with George Lucas. I heard from a friend of mine "in the know" (she is an Emmy-winning writer) that Sir Andrew is working on a sequel to Phantom. A sequel. As if he hasn't corrupted the story enough, he wants it to be centered around a young boy whose mother is Christine and whose father is unknown. You can imagine how I feel about that.

It has always saddened me that I have never been in The Phantom of the Opera. For a while it was the great longing of my life because it was really the beginning of my love for theater and my reason for becoming an actress. I loved the play so much, and I just believed that I would relish each moment on stage. I actually auditioned for the original Vegas cast. Although I would still love to be in some production of Phantom, I wouldn't want it to be Vegas. Now I can safely say that I am extremely happy not to be a part of that mess.

Another plus to my feelings about all of this was that once I was hired to sing at a party and I noticed that Joel Schumacher (director of the movie) was in the crowd. Instead of freaking out I thought to myself "This guy wouldn't know good singing if it hit him in the face" and I kept on singing with the confidence that he probably thought I was rather good, if he cared that I was singing at all.


Logan said...

I've never seen or read any version of Phantom in any form. I know most of the music because my uncle bought me the Phantom music for the piano. So I can't really discuss things on the same level as you. But as you mention the changes that ALW has made to his own work, I didn't see the big deal with him making the changes. To me, it seems comparable to a band switching up arrangements or adding a new verse to a very popular song when they are on tour. What do you think? Are they similar, or am I comparing apples to oranges?

jamiehixon said...

First let me say, you may be the only person to EVER read this post.

I think your comparison is a good one, but it is like the band making their songs worse and worse sounding every time they change it. Dumbing down the arrangements, putting in a section that has nothing to do with the rest of the song, etc. Maybe the music started out original and very fresh, and then it gets more main stream and bubble-gum sounding. A lot of people really like it, because a lot of people don't have taste. Those who DO have taste and liked the original sound of the music are really sad that the band sold out.

Think of your favorite Bic Runga song turning into an NSYNC sounding piece of garbage. Yes, it is her choice to do that, but that doesn't make it better.

Logan said...

I can see that...but I don't think ALW is making changes that he thought should have been done originally. I think perhaps he's just having a little fun trying out different things with a story and play that people love. But, I do see where it would get frustrating for a fan who is wanting to see a stellar performance of the original. If I saw Bic in concert four times, I would hope that at least one of the shows she did a jaw-dropping straightforward rendition of Sway.

Also, I wanted to ask mentioned that the first time you saw it, the chandelier dropped too slow. How did it compare in the other productions? (Carlyna had the same complaint when she saw it.)

jamiehixon said...

London was pretty good, New York was about the same. Actually Vegas was the best chandelier drop, that is one of the things they got very very right. Even though the drop happened at the wrong time in the play.

Maybe another thing that bugs me is that ALW didn't write the original book. Gaston LeRoux did. He is changing it to be less and less like the original book that he stole the story from. I figure if you are going to steal someone else's work at least maintain the integrity of it. This is why I hate Gregory Maguire. (Author of Wicked, etc.)

Boon said...

Who was in the cast from our high school?

"I will now list all the things wrong with this movie" *Like*

I loved Minnie Driver in it too! I thought she was hilarious and the greatest part about the movie. The costumes were "pretty" but innappropriate and stupid; I totally agree.

Come back to SB and let's put on The Phantom of the Opera ourselves. The problem with these shows is that there's no artistic vision, just a money vision.