This seems to be the month for anniversaries. Yesterday, January 26th, was the 24th anniversary of The Phantom of the Opera opening on Broadway. Just recently they had the 25th anniversary in London. And I’m using the Broadway anniversary as an excuse to examine probably more versions of the Phantom than you ever knew existed. Indulge me just this once.
I’m fascinated by all the different versions, by how different people and different mediums can start with the same story and tell it so many different ways. And how they all interpret the character of the Phantom differently–terrifying or romantic, heartbreaking or horrifying. I have read or seen at least twelve versions of The Phantom of the Opera (which is why I’m mostly keeping this brief!) I don’t regret even the bad ones, because I’m interested to see HOW they did it. So here we go–in chronological order, because that’s how my brain works.
The Phantom of the Opera by Gaston Leroux (1909) is the original, and I don’t think he quite knew what he had. It’s a pretty straight-forward monster story, and the Phantom is an almost irredeemable, terrifying figure. He’s the most interesting one in the story, but still terrifying, and completely off his head. It’s a good read, but don’t expect it to much resemble the Webber musical. If you do read it, try to find the version edited by Leonard Wolf; it’s a particularly good translation and has some useful (and sometimes amusing) footnotes.
The Lon Chaney Phantom (1925) also depicts a rather terrifying figure, though it gets points for getting the Phantom’s name right–Erik–and even if he was still a monster, he was a somewhat heroic, tragic one. You feel bad for him, and admire his abilities sometimes too. This one also has a completely baffling character who is obviously the Persian, but is listed in the credits as Police Inspector Ledoux. I can’t explain that.
The Claude Rains Phantom (1943) is one of the more serene Phantoms, one of the less villainous ones but also one of the least romantic. No Angel of Music at all, and this one is the source of the story about acid causing the Phantom’s deformity. This also makes a complete mess of his name–it sounds fine, but in the credits it’s spelled “Erique.” I just don’t know. But I do love Rains’ mask.
The Herbert Lom Phantom (1962) adds basically nothing. He’s even less romantic or villainous than the Raines version, and at that point there’s not much character left. And I really can’t explain his psychotic hunchback sidekick…
After this desert of unromantic Phantoms, we come to the Webber Phantom (1986), which is just lovely. The Phantom becomes much more sympathetic and more complicated. The talented but deformed man who hides in the shadows and really does love Christine is so much more interesting than Leroux’s crazy monster. The music is wonderful, the scenery and costumes are so elaborate, the supporting characters are funny… I’ve seen this five times live, once recorded (more on that later), listened to the soundtrack with the amazing Michael Crawford many times, and it is excellent.
The Charles Dance Phantom (1990) features probably the only Christine I ever actually liked. There’s a much more open and trusting relationship between her and the Phantom than we usually see. This one also gives the Phantom a father, which is a bit bizarre but kind of works, and the Phantom gets some great dialogue talking to him–as when they overhear Carlotta singing, and the Phantom says, “Good God, the place really is haunted.” One disappointment of this one–we never see under the mask. Christine does, but we don’t get that camera angle. Otherwise, very fascinating portrayals of both Christine and the Phantom.
Susan Kay’s Phantom (1990) is amazing, incredible, mind-blowing…one of my all-time favorite books. Passionate, intense, a deep exploration of Erik and of the people who pass in and out of his life. Read my review for more.
The David Staller Phantom (1991) is a less well-known musical. The music is forgettable, but the Phantom’s character is fascinating. He doesn’t get to talk much in Webber. In this one, there’s some actual conversation, and we see the Phantom’s arrogance, and hear about his history–which is much more accurate to Leroux, and delightful. This one features the Persian, otherwise known as the Daroga, and not only is it great fun to actually see him in a movie, I love hearing Staller drawl, “Da-ro-GA!” There’s also some good humor here. Be warned it completely messes with the ending, but I actually rather like how it did it…
Angel of the Opera (1994) by Sam Siciliano brought together two of my favorite worlds, combining Phantom with Sherlock Holmes, and is strangely enjoyable despite not really portraying either all that well. I can’t explain that. The lonely, thinks-she’s-ugly-but-actually-beautiful, musically-talented blind girl gives me fits (could you BE more obvious when you bring in an extraneous character?) but despite the flaws I really enjoyed reading this one.
Maskerade by Terry Pratchett (1998) is only very loosely a version of Phantom, but it is hysterically, hilariously funny. There’s an Opera House and a Phantom, and he writes notes. In fact, he writes down maniacal laughter, as in “Ahahahahaha!!!!! Yrs, The Opera Ghost. P.S. Ahahahaha!!!!!” Five exclamation points are a sure sign of an unbalanced mind.
The Phantom of Manhattan by Frederick Forsythe (2000) is also only very loosely the Phantom, except that I don’t think he meant it to be that way. This is meant to be a sequel to the Webber play, and it’s just dreadful on pretty much every level–the writing, the POV choices, the plot. The Phantom goes to New York (I don’t know), continues mooning after Christine, eventually becomes a tycoon of business (I don’t know!) and then tries to lure Christine back after he realizes she has his son, product of a scene that was not and could not have been in the Webber musical. I don’t know. Webber himself did a sequel similar to this in 2010, Love Never Dies (I don’t know), and while I haven’t seen it, as far as I can tell that was also a horrible mistake.
More wisely, Webber also did a movie version (2004), with Gerard Butler as the Phantom, which is quite different in staging than the play version. I enjoyed it, though it’s not as good as the play; for one reason, Butler isn’t up to the singing. Although he does look very good in the mask. If you do watch this, I HIGHLY recommend Cleolinda Jones’ Phantom in Fifteen Minutes parody. Just about as funny as Maskerade.
If you can, see the Webber Phantom live. If you can’t see it live, get the DVD of the 25th Anniversary Performance (filmed in 2011, out in February). I saw it in theaters recently. They did a wonderful job with the filming, and the performance is excellent. Counting this one, I’ve seen the play six times in six different venues, and the 25th Anniversary is probably the second best (London was the best; Las Vegas was the worst).
If you’ve made it this far what’s my overall recommendation? If you’re really, really interested in Phantom, watch or read them all. If you’re a little interested, go for the Webber play. If you’re a bit more interested, read Leroux and Susan Kay. And if you’re not interested at all, read Maskerade because it’s hilarious even if you’re not a fan of the Phantom.
From people who have already delved into a version or two, I’d love to hear your opinions too! And…have I missed any?