I was a quirky kid and spent many formative high school years in the green room of my high school theater. It was the early 90s, so we naturally sang all sorts of Andrew Lloyd Webber songs, including the big numbers from ALW’s newest hit musical, Phantom of the Opera.
Fast forward to today. Until last night, I’d seen all of the biggest ALW productions – Cats and Starlight Express in London; Joseph, Jesus Christ Super Star, Evita, and Starlight Express (again!) on tour – but never Phantom.
It is the longest running show in Broadway history by a wide margin, and the second longest-running West End musical after Les Misérables. It was time to actually see what all the fuss was about.
I had high expectations. I loved the music as a kid, remember? But last night I left the Paramount Theater feeling dirty. After reflecting on it this morning, I have come to one conclusion:
The Phantom of the Opera is offensive.
There, I said it. You can unfollow my blog and start hating on me now.
Seriously though, no matter how beautiful the music, it can’t make up for the incredibly disturbing plot and intensely unlikeable characters.
Spoiler alert! The central conflict of the story is the love triangle between Christine, the Phantom of the Opera, and Raoul. The Phantom is a fairly archetypal Byronic hero: brooding, moody, dangerous, and artistically talented. He is also a dangerous lunatic and incredibly controlling over Christine. Raoul is the patron of the opera and Christine’s childhood friend turned suitor. He controls Christine in a less forceful but very paternalistic way. Meanwhile, Christine, the beautiful young ingénue, spends the whole show acting like a possession and obeying both of them like a “good girl” rather than a woman acting of her own will.
Let’s break it down:
The play opens with an auction of items from an opera house then flashes back to the time when the opera was in business. We meet the key characters: Christine, the gay couple who are taking over management of the opera, Raoul, the diva Carlotta, and the ballet instructor Madame Giry. After a near miss accident, Christine replaces Carlotta in the title role in the upcoming production.
Raoul invites Christine to dinner. I think we’re supposed to like Raoul, but his invitation isn’t really an invitation so much as an order. He doesn’t really ask; he just says, “And now, we go to supper.” Is he the rich guy telling the poor opera singer what to do or the man telling the woman what to do? Either way, it’s doesn’t sound very good.
It appears Christine would like to accept this pseudo invitation, except that it would anger a mysterious “angel of music” she’s never seen.
And indeed, Christine doesn’t make it to dinner because the “angel of music” – aka the Phantom of the Opera – kidnaps her. Some say she goes willingly with him, but in the production I saw last night, she was definitely dragged down into the sewer by a man that frightens her.
Here we learn that the Phantom has been exploiting Christine’s grief over her father’s death by pretending he is the “angel of music” that her dying father said he would send to her. He has been giving Christine vocal lessons since she was a child. It also appears that the Phantom has hypnotic powers over Christine. He commands her to sing and she does, seemingly unable to disobey.
Then comes the song we’re all waiting for – Music of the Night. As a kid, I thought this was a sweet song of seduction. In context though, it’s pretty obvious the Phantom rapes her (although in a 1980s, family-friendly sort of way). When the Phantom kidnaps her, she is wearing a sheer white flowy nightgown. After she returns from their encounter, she is never in pure white again, leading to the unfortunate conclusion that she is not so virginal anymore. And we have to seriously question the amount of consent she can offer. Christine is afraid of the Phantom, remember?
After the rape song, Christine passes out and wakes sometime later to the Phantom playing discordant music on the organ. She rips his mask off and exposes his facial deformity. The Phantom explodes with anger. Apparently he can violate Christine’s privacy all he wants by following and watching her everywhere around the Opera House, but he damns and curses her for violating his privacy.
And then this line happens:
Fear can turn to love
You’ll learn to see
to find the man behind the monster
What a healthy sentiment for any budding relationship. Commit it to memory, girls!
In the next scene, we learn that the Phantom wants Christine to play the lead in the next play “or else.” Christine, Carlotta, and the gay opera managers don’t want to take orders from a crazy ghost that lives in the sewers, and so Carlotta goes on stage in the lead role.
(Here we get a little bonus sexism when we learn that this is play is about men cheating on their women.)
Through some theater wizardry, the Phantom casts a spell on Carlotta, making her sing like a frog, and Christine has to take over the lead role. To punish the opera for not obeying his wishes, the Phantom kills a stage hand.
We next see Christine trying to run away from the opera house. Raoul stops her and demonstrates everything that’s wrong with the men in Christine’s life: Christine expresses sheer terror of her stalker who’s just killed a man, and Raoul dismisses her fear tells her that it’s all in her head.
The Phantom, who sees all of this, responds with:
I gave you my music, made your song take wing
And now, how you’ve repaid me, denied me and betrayed me
You will curse the day you did not do
All that the Phantom asked of you!
Is he expecting submission and romantic affection from her in exchange for helping launch her professional career? Ugh! Can you say “Nice Guy Syndrome”?
Christine isn’t very sympathetic here either, by the way. She demonstrates she has the emotional IQ of a 6-year old when she sings:
But his voice filled my spirit
with a strange, sweet sound
In that night there was music in my mind
And through music my soul began to soar!
And I heard as I’d never heard before
So you’re telling us this guy kidnaps you, drags you to his dungeon, and has his way with you. Then he kills a guy just because you didn’t get a role you never wanted. But he sings sweetly so your feelings are conflicted. Now we’ve got the beginnings of Stockholm Syndrome.
Let me offer you a bit of advice, girlfriend. Go with your first instinct and run. Run far and fast from both of these guys, and find another opera to perform in. Sheesh!
On this happy note, the curtain falls for intermission and we are blessedly given the opportunity to get a drink.
When the curtain goes up again, we are treated to a colorful masquerade ball where everyone is wearing masks. Raoul tries to force Christine to show her affection publicly by questioning why she is hiding their engagement, while still dismissing her fears.
The Phantom crashes the party to announce he has written a play for the opera called Don Juan Triumphant. He commands Christine to play the lead role, reminding her that “Your chains are still mine, you belong to me!”
Everyone is terrified and runs away except Raoul and Madame Giry. Madame Giry tells us that the Phantom was captured by carnies as a boy and held as a sideshow attraction because of his disfigurement. She claims that the Phantom is a prodigy of everything from technical inventions to engineering to the arts.
I’m not sure what the point of this side story is. Are we now supposed to feel sorry for the Phantom? Sure, that sounds like a pretty horrible childhood, but a sad back story can’t erase the fact that he is a scary murdering rapist.
Rehearsals for Don Juan Triumphant progress. Raoul continues to dismiss Christine’s fears. He also becomes increasingly protective of her and decides that she must sing in the premier so that they can capture the Phantom.
Christine sneaks out that night to visit her dad’s grave. The Phantom and Raoul join the scene (because Christine can’t go anywhere without her two men). The Phantom starts singing, and Christine thinks it is her father singing to her.
Anyone else notice the creepy Electra complex going on? The Phantom pretends he is the spirit of Christine’s father, and Raoul acts like a father. Both are very possessive of her.
But I digress.
Next we see Raoul giving orders to a clueless person with a gun. Seriously, one of the soldiers asks when he should shoot and Raoul responds with “You’ll know.” Needless to say, the whole booby-trap thing doesn’t go well.
Don Juan Triumpant starts and we see Don Juan conspiring with another man to trick the man’s new bride (played by Christine) into sleeping with Don Juan while thinking it’s her husband.
The actor playing Don Juan goes backstage to change into his disguise, but the Phantom kills him and comes out on stage as a disguised Don Juan. Christine plays along, singing “Past the Point of No Return,” suggesting that Christine can’t refuse this sexual encounter. (Is she about to get raped a second time?)
Christine figures out the Phantom’s disguise and rips off his mask again. Enraged, he drags Christine off to his sewer dungeon. Raoul chases after them and is immediately caught in the Phantom’s noose. The Phantom gives Christine a choice: marry him or watch Raoul die.
At first, Christine responds somewhat rationally:
The tears I might have shed
For your dark fate,
Grow cold and turn to tears of hate!
Because who doesn’t hate this guy right now?
But then Christine mysteriously wills herself to stay with the Phantom – a choice that is really no choice at all. (If that kiss isn’t the biggest 180 in the history of musical theater, I don’t know what is.)
Christine’s kiss somehow cures the Phantom of his craziness, and he releases both of them. Christine leaves with Raoul (the lesser of two evils), but not without a lot of longing looks at her murdering rapist.
Finally, the Phantom is left all alone.
All in all, what a mess! Phantom of the Opera is the story of two controlling men fighting over a spineless, personality-devoid woman. (Hey, Twilight fans, sound familiar?) Christine is given absolutely no agency throughout the entire story, and can’t seem to do anything without a man telling her what to do.
My mom refused to take me to see the show when I was an impressionable teenager. After watching it for the first time last night, I now know why. This musical has been loved to death for nearly 30 years, but I say this with conviction:
It’s time to let this anti-female story die.