by: Allan Wallach
'The Phantom of the Opera" is sold out so far into the future that people may one day be declaring their all-but-unobtainable tickets in wills and divorce settlements. So it's largely to comfort those who have already purchased their tickets rather than to discomfort those who delayed that I report that the Andrew Lloyd Webber musical is every bit as stunning on Broadway as in London. Why this show makes so overwhelming an impact takes a little explaining. The story, after all, is drawn from a novel by a minor French novelist that's been around, largely unread, since 1911. And while Lloyd Webber's music has a lush, romantic sweep, so does that of many operas that don't compel such astonishing attention.
The triumph of "The Phantom of the Opera" lies in the amalgam of virtually all its elements into as gloriously theatrical a show as we've had in recent memory. They coalesce into a musical of manifold delights: Harold Prince's virtuoso direction, the performances led by Michael Crawford and Sarah Brightman, the spectacle created by a brilliant design team, the beautifully sung music and Gillian Lynne's period choreography.
But yes, there are some faults. For me, after seeing the show in its London and New York productions and listening to the London cast album, Lloyd Webber's music has some problematical aspects. Though I think it is the finest of his career, he has relied excessively on a few musical motifs for the central characters. And Charles Hart's lyrics fall far short of sophisticated, even for a melodramatic story such as this one.
It's the totality, though, that matters. "Phantom," like Lloyd Webber's "Cats," succeeds by establishing a special milieu - a world where, once willingly entered, we surrender to a story that might seem ludicrous in a less evocative context.
That world is the Paris Opera House during la Belle Epoque. Gaston Leroux, author of the novel that became the basis for so many varied treatments, drew upon the fact that beneath the opera house were a honeycomb of passages and a lake, and that a chandelier counterweight had once fallen on the audience. These things are central to his story of a horribly disfigured Phantom, a masked "opera ghost" who tyrannizes all who work at the opera and is himself the slave of a hopeless love for the young singer Christine Daae. Casting a mesmeric spell, he is the Svengali to her Trilby, the Beast to her Beauty.
The book by Richard Stilgoe and Lloyd Webber, differing in some particulars from the novel and the famous 1925 silent film, gives the affair an erotic undertow, an overripe mood of sexual repression and decay that is deepened by Lloyd Webber's seductive melodies. This is his most operatic score to date, both because of his Puccini-scented music for the blighted romance and the opera pastiches incorporated elsewhere.
Giving a performance likely to be remembered for decades, Crawford is extraordinary as the Phantom. It would be hard to imagine the musical without his magnetic presence and eerie tenor, without the poignantly broken figure he becomes. Brightman, possessed of a lovely soprano and fragile beauty, is an ideal Christine. (The musical, however, was equally compelling when I saw it in London with an unknown replacement, and I'm sure those who see the talented Patti Cohenour at certain performances will not be shortchanged.)
In the largely recast production, the most effective work is done by Steve Barton as the young aristocrat who loves Christine, Cris Groenendaal as an impresario, Elisa Heinsohn as a dancer and Leila Martin as her mysterious mother. I wasn't taken with Judy Kaye's campy performance as the reigning diva whom Christine replaces.
This is a musical, though, in which the production itself is the star. Much of its effect is the work of the gifted designer Maria Bjornson, who has created a magnificently ornate opera house, a shadowy underground labyrinth, a mist-shrouded lake dotted with candles and, everywhere, gorgeous costumes. Andrew Bridge's lighting is a dazzle of light and shadow.
In such settings, anything is possible - from a crashing chandelier to a Phantom hurling firebolts. Special effects such as these can, of course, be duplicated elsewhere. Here, they are among the elements that draw us into a haunting world, as irresistibly as the Phantom leads Christine into his subterranean lair.