In all seriousness, I’ve always enjoyed Broadway performances, but I’ve never really had the opportunity to watch that many shows. Part of it was because I grew up in a small town with very few opportunities to watch performances of that nature, but I enjoy a good show as much as anybody.
The Phantom of the Opera is no exception.
Phantom is the most financially successful entertainment event to date ($5.6 billion) anywhere. After premiering in 1986 on in London’s West End and two years later on Broadway, Phantom was one of the biggest hits for Andrew Lloyd Webber, and one of the primary reasons the man is a household name to this day.
Phantom also has a special place in my heart — I saw it while on vacation in London in December 2006. We were in the front row. The chandelier went directly over my head. It was awesome.
Also, I’ve always been irresistibly attracted to the story of Phantom. Based on a relatively obscure French novel (Le Fantôme de l’Opéra) written in 1910 by Gaston Leroux, the story (as most of us know already) is about the title character — a disfigured genius and his dark obsession with the gorgeous soprano at the Paris Opera House. Based on rumors that had widely circulated in Paris at the time, Leroux wrote about the fear that there actually was a lurking figure in the catacombs of one of the city’s most historic buildings. Considering that Leroux was a mystery/detective novelist by trade, it’s not surprising that he chose to play on a fear of his fellow Frenchmen.
Anyways, we all know and love the story. So obviously, everyone got super excited when the film version of Phantom was announced in 2002 following over a decade in development hell. Director Joel Schumacher, best known as “the guy who destroyed the Batman franchise in the 90s,” was selected to be the man at the helm. That made many fans anxious, and there was similar apprehension about the casting, too.
Eyebrows were raised when Gerard Butler, an untrained singer, was cast as the Phantom, despite many fans clamoring for a more established singer/actor like John Travolta or Antonio Banderas. Veteran Broadway actor Patrick Wilson was cast as Raoul, Christine’s childhood friend and love interest.
Speaking of Christine, nobody saw an unknown 16-year-old New Yorker in that role, but Emmy Rossum came away with the part. A trained vocalist from age seven, Rossum is a very talented singer and a capable actress, but keep in mind that Schumacher was taking a huge risk by allowing Rossum to inherit the role from Sarah Brightman, who was without peer on the Broadway level in ’86.
Anyway, despite some unrest from Phantom’s massive fanbase, the show went on and the finished product premiered on December 10 in the U.K. and on December 22 in the U.S.
While Phantom did very well at the box office, grossing $154 million against a $70 million budget, reviews were mixed. I had mixed feelings, too, and for many of the same reasons — the writing and directing felt disconnected and distant, and it seemed like the danger, romance, and mystery in the story all took a backseat to the (admittedly gorgeous) visuals.
On to the acting: Butler, Wilson, and Rossum all deliver solid performances. It didn’t really feel like they’re Broadway actors trying to act “natural” on the screen; all three fit in very well and the chemistry didn’t feel forced either. Yes, Butler is untrained, but the Phantom does kind of have a rock star quality to his vocals. So the raw quality of his singing meshes surprisingly well with Rossum’s clear soprano.
Be that as it may, Butler’s voice is still not Broadway-quality. It works for the film, but the lack of training shows in several songs.
For reference point, watch the 2007 adaptation of Sweeney Todd by Tim Burton, which is one of my favorite movie musicals ever. In that film (which wasn’t even marketed as a musical), Johnny Depp sings — and sings well. Again, Depp is not a trained Broadway singer by any stretch, but he really does pull it off well.
But — need I state the obvious — Gerard Butler is not Johnny Depp. Not that Butler doesn’t try, but if you’re looking for roof-shaking, emotional effect, look elsewhere.
Then again, Butler and Rossum’s chemistry is solid in a script that, frankly, isn’t even to close to being as emotionally involving as the musical was. When I saw Phantom on stage, I got goosebumps numerous times. Regrettably, the film does not pull off the same type of impact, and Schumacher’s directorial baggage remains all too real.
The Phantom of the Opera is there, inside your mind. But hopefully, not this version.
Directed by Joel Schumacher
Produced by Andrew Lloyd Webber
Screenplay by Andrew Lloyd Webber & Joel Schumacher
Based on the musical by Andrew Lloyd Webber
Based on the novel Le Fantôme de L’Opéra by Gaston Leroux
Starring Gerard Butler, Emmy Rossum, Patrick Wilson, Miranda Richardson, Minnie Driver, Simon Callow, Ciarán Hinds, Kevin R. McNally, Victor McGuire, Murray Melvin, Jennifer Ellison
Rated PG-13 for brief violent images.