Sunday, April 27, 2014

The Phantom of the Opera


Normy and I have been in something of creative low ebb of late. Neither of us is having much luck in our projects. Normy spent a number of months at work on a terribly modern operetta, based on Aldus Huxley’s Brave New World, only reset in 19th century Tyrol. I was very fond of all of the identical lederhosen clad babies in the opening chorus, but Joseph, our agent, was having a decidedly hard time selling it to producers. Apparently if there’s no role for Jennifer Lopez, it doesn’t get made these days. I, for my part, have been making the rounds on the Hollywood cocktail circuit, letting everyone know that I’m available for new and exciting prestige projects. The scripts are trickling in, but none of them has really tickled my fancy. 

The current selection includes a new television pilot in which I would play a forensic scientist investigating murder and mayhem amongst the film community. CSI: Hollywood has potential but they want to pair me with Bob Denver and I refuse to be upstaged by that silly hat. There’s also a new film version of Showboat, but they’re offering me Parthenia, a part I am most loathe to play as I am much too young for the role. I’m holding out for Magnolia, or at least Captain Andy. Lastly, there’s a movie adaptation of Moby Dick where I’m apparently being considered for the title role. I haven’t had a chance to read it yet to see if it’s a possibility, but I’m suspicious. The character doesn’t seem to enter until page one hundred and twenty six. 

While fussing about all of this, Normy and I stole out to the Cineplex to see a film that I would have been perfect for, Joel Schumacher’s adaptation of Andrew Lloyd Weber’s musical, The Phantom of the Opera. I was in the running for Christine at one point, when the film was going through development hell, but was forced to bow out when they decided to make the character less of a belter and cut the extended tap sequences from the second act. The part went instead to a young lady by the name of Emmy Rossum, who is (and sounds) all of seventeen years old. She and a Scots actor, by the name of Gerard Butler (no, I never heard of him before either), portray the leads in this story of star-crossed love, gothic romance, and luxurious fabrics. 

Most of the civilized world has attended a performance of Andrew Lloyd Weber’s phenomenally successful stage musical, The Phantom of the Opera which originally opened in London in 1986 and has sold billions of dollars of tickets all over the world ever since. Critics have lambasted the music as Puccini for dummies, the plot for making no sense and the insipid lyrics but the impeccable design and direction (by stage master Harold Prince) served to conceal most of the piece’s flaws from less discerning eyes and the public came and came and continues to come. With sales starting to finally sag, a generation after the initial production, the time came for a film version to be developed, especially after the success of Chicago revived the musical as a bankable film genre. Stars such as John Travolta and Hugh Jackman were mentioned for the lead; instead the producers went with a soulful Scot with the singing voice of Lou Reed after a three-day bender on bourbon and Cigarillos. Miscasting is not the only major issue. Blowing the piece up to the dimensions of film, while faithfully retaining the structure of the original stage work reveals all of the flaws of the original, which all of the opulence in the world cannot camouflage. 

The plot of The Phantom of the Opera is paint by numbers simple, and the story has been filmed so many times before (most notably in 1926 with Lon Chaney) that it’s familiar to most film goers. A mysterious man (Gerard Butler) lives in the bowels of an opera house in Paris. He acts as guide and mentor to the young soprano Christine Daae (Emmy Rossum). When she falls in love with an old childhood friend, a young Vicomte (Patrick Wilson), the phantom is spurred into action against his rival and the opera company members who conspire against Christine’s success, most notably resident diva Carlotta (Minnie Driver). The mystery of who the Phantom is ultimately explained and the love triangle is resolved in favor of the conventional hero. Lloyd Weber took this thin story and embellished it with soaring melodies, almost all slow ballads, which everyone can sing the first two lines to and then gets lost due to the abysmally dull lyrics of Charles Black and Richard Stilgoe. 

As a film, The Phantom of the Opera does about a good a job as it can do given its source material. The score is presented more or less intact, showing up dirge like ballad after dirge like ballad. Joel Schumacher, the director, brings a visual opulence to the proceedings and the gorgeous production design carries the viewer off to a never was Second Empire France. Schumacher started his career as a window dresser and costume designer and he knows his fabrics. The shimmering luminescent weight of brocade and satin comes through in every frame. Many of his better visual ideas are direct lifts from other films, such as his taking a candelabra cue from Jean Cocteau’s Beauty and the Beast but at least he’s stealing from masters, and not from hacks. His one major mistake is to stage the masquerade number, with all of its lyrics and images about color, as a black and white ball. It’s a bit out of place given the color and ostentation of the rest of the piece. 

Performances are uneven; the cast does their own singing (with the exception of Minnie Driver – who, while she has a fine voice, is an alto, and not a bad coloratura soprano). And range from reasonable (Patrick Wilson as the thankless hero) to forgettable (Emmy Rossum whose voice is much too immature to make her in the least bit believable as an operatic soprano) to irritating (Gerard Butler). Rossum is unable to squeeze out much chemistry with either of her two leading men. Butler looks soulful and smoldering sexy, even beneath his mask, but we lose interest when he opens his mouth. When the mask finally comes off, it’s not terribly exciting. He just looks like he needs a large bottle of Oxy-10 to clear up the pimples. It’s rather anticlimactic. The standout performance is from Minnie Driver who is obviously having the time of her life as the tempestuous diva. Her scenes kick the film up a notch and it’s a pleasure to see her enjoying herself so much. She might have been matched by Miranda Richardson as Mme. Giry, the ballet mistress with the key to the mystery, if she hadn’t been saddled with a ridiculous French accent, making her the only member of a Parisian opera company without impeccable English. 

Ultimately, I enjoyed the film and give it thumbs up, but with the caveats that the leads are less than ideal and that the material is exposed as being the shopworn piece of goods that it is. Without the stage magic, the non-sensical plot, the stuporous melodies, the rotten lyrics, and the lack of character motivation are all laid bare and cannot be hidden, no matter how many yards of embossed brocade or swan beds are tossed into the mix. 

Chandelier in pieces. Mechanical elephant. Haunted mirror. Diva mooning. Black and white lap dogs. Comic opera managers. Restoration wigs. Hanged stagehand. Fan dancing. Underground gondola. Rooftop snowfall. 

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