Thursday, October 6, 2011

The Music of Last Night

A shady avenue, Pere Lachaise
I love the Phantom. That would include Gaston Leroux's muddled novel (and any and all references to the Opera Garnier) and Lon Chaney's enduring silent masterpiece. I can even manage a kind of esteem for Claude Raines 1943 version--which is more of a vehicle for the awkwardly wooden Nelson Eddy than anything--though I found it mostly high camp from the first time I saw it as a teen. And then there's the mother of all Phantoms: Andrew Lloyd Webber's musical, The Phantom of the Opera. 

Phantom can inspire a fair amount of eye rolling and dismissive scoffing, with the non-infatuated complaining vehemently about a cloying score and syrupy romance. The critics will point to pedestrian lyrics and derivative story lines. To those people I say read no further as the following paragraphs will make your teeth hurt.

So, now that I'm chatting with you, perhaps a similarly afflicted fan of Phantom, who could believe it was celebrating a 25th Anniversary this fall? I certainly couldn't as it seems as the music, the show, the story has been part of my life since the very beginning. I'd guess that most of us who are fans recall our first Phantom experience with a kind of reverence.

It was 1989 in Toronto, at the Pantages Theatre, and there were a number of us attending the show as guests of a Canadian friend of my parents who kindly brought us all as part of his birthday celebration. I'd been to plays before, but this was spectacle on a completely different level. This was major. My father wasn't feeling well the evening of the event and I remember thinking that NOTHING, not a thing on this fair earth of ours short of nuclear Armageddon, was going to keep me from the Pantages that evening. (Selfish only child alert!) Let the record reflect that the entire PaperTyger clan did indeed attend--including a well-known artist friend who was in the party and decided to dress casually--and in a baseball cap (!!)--for the evening. Yes, the cap stayed on for dinner and the entire show. Yes, I was mortified. This was an event, an occasion! What did I wear? A cream silk charmeuse blouse with passementerie detail and a black moire silk skirt. In retrospect, that's not all that important, but it does go to show the extent to which that evening imprinted on me. The pageantry, the soaring orchestrations, glorious voices and lush costumes...all of it left me a little in awe. And I mean real awe. The kind you experience the first time you walk into Yankee Stadium or Fenway Park; the first time you see a great horse race in person; the first time you lay eyes on your favorite painting a few inches in front of you. Awe. The rich Irish tenor of Colm Wilkinson gave voice to The Phantom and even though I'd already committed every nuance of Michael Crawford's London performance to memory, Wilkinson's portrayal stuck with me. It's the Toronto cast album that holds priority on my iPod these many years later.

After Toronto, well, the obsession only grew. I wore out at least one set of cassette tapes listening to the entire score over and over--in the car and at home--and I even learned to play a few of the songs on the piano. Wishing You Were Somehow Here Again sounded plaintive and melancholy when played on an old piano, but the real show stopper, the impressive opening organ theme, was reserved for the ca 1914 Aeolian pipe organ at Mayowood. I was a summer tour guide at the time and nothing impressed the tourists like a few bars of a Bach organ fugue or, better yet...the instantly recognizable opening chords of Phantom of the Opera. Between tours I'd play little bits of Phantom, assured that any ghosts in the mansion would appreciate my musical efforts.

22 years later, I write this having just returned from seeing the 25th Anniversary production at my local multiplex. (The actual performance was staged at London's Royal Albert Hall last weekend.) There were so many things to love about the production, and the one thing I will say is that the team at Royal Albert did a phenomenal job adapting large, complicated, and difficult scenes/sets to their stage. I didn't love some of the camera work and I thought the costumes in some cases looked less rich than in the various stage productions I've been to, but nothing that really detracted from the experience for me. The leading performers were outstanding. Sierra Boggess IS Christine Daae and Ramin Karimloo's Phantom was a delicious combination of sensuous and poignant. For a musical to have the staying power that Phantom does, it needs to resonate with audiences, and this show continues to do so. For a musical to celebrate a 25th Anniversary people need to love your characters and music and want to see it anew, and that's something of a feat in itself.

OH...and the best part? The "gathering of Phantoms" at the end of the show. Once the anniversary cast had taken their well-deserved bows, Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber came out and brought with him the original London cast and production group as well. I was scanning the London cast for Sarah Brightman and Michael Crawford, but didn't see them. Then, Sir Andrew announced that Sarah (whom he still calls his "angel of music") had agreed to sing. She came out with classic Phantoms including my Phantom, Colm Wilkinson and proceeded to sing The Phantom of the Opera main theme with all of them. CHILLS. I had chills. Michael Crawford was on stage as well but did not sing, which while disappointing, was maybe for the best. He looked great but he also looked rather overwhelmed and overcome with the emotion of the day. There seemed to be nothing but love and good will on the stage as they looked out at the audience's standing ovation.

 I'd actually planned to be on my soapbox tonight and writing on a totally different subject, but I left the theatre feeling so much nostalgia that I couldn't let it pass without a small acknowledgment. On my first trip to Paris a couple of years after Toronto I couldn't wait to get to the Opera Garnier. The Musee d'Orsay, the Eiffel Tower, the Louvre, Notre Dame--they'd all still be there (and be visited later in the week), but I needed to see the Paris Opera first. And on a subsequent trip to Paris I had Wishing You Were Somehow Here Again streaming liltingly through my head as I walked up and down the shady lanes of favored haunt Pere Lachaise. Phantom--in all of it's many incarnations--has managed to thread itself into unexpected corners of my memory, for which, in all cases, I'm most genuinely pleased.

1 comment:

Mark Devereux said...

Great stuff! I have similar feelings about Les Miserables. Saw it for the first time in 1989 in Toronto while at law school...then went twice more! A couple of years later, saw it in London...then enjoyed the ensemble version (mainly music) with many of the performers from over the years a few weeks ago on PBS. Am clearly a sappy musical lover...must have to do with the infamous lavender issue...;-)