Phantom of the Opera-
Original New York Times Review

The New York Times

Wednesday, January 27, 1988

Stage: ‘Phantom of the Opera' by Frank Rich

It may be possible to have a terrible time at “the Phantom of the Opera,” but you’ll have to work at it. Only a terminal prig would let the avalanche of pre-opening publicity poison his enjoyment of this show, which usually wants nothing more than to shower the audience with fantasy and fun, and which often succeeds, at any price.

It would be equally ludicrous, however – and an invitation to severe disappointment – to let the hype kindle the hope that “Phantom” is a credible heir to the Rodgers and Hammerstein musicals that haunt both Andrew Lloyd Webber’s creative aspirations and the Majestic Theater as persistently as the evening’s title character does. What one finds instead is a characteristic Lloyd Webber project – long on pop professionalism and melody, impoverished of artistic personality and passion – that the director Harold Prince, the designer Maria Bjornson and the mesmerizing actor Michael Crawford have elevated quite literally to the roof. “The Phantom of the Opera” is as much a victory of dynamic stagecraft over musical kitsch as it is a triumph of merchandising uber alles.

As you’ve no doubt heard, “Phantom” is Mr. Lloyd Webber’s first sustained effort at writing an old-fashioned romance between people instead of cats or trains. The putative lovers are the Paris Opera House phantom (Mr. Crawford) and a chorus singer named Christine Daae (Sarah Brightman). But Mr. Crawford’s moving portrayal of the hero notwithstanding, the show’s most persuasive love story is Mr.. Prince’s and Ms. Bjornson’s unabashed crush on the theater itself, from footlights to dressing rooms, from flies to trap doors.

A gothic backstage melodrama, “Phantom taps tight into the obsessions of the designer and the director. At the Royal Shakespeare Company, Ms. Bjornson was a wizard of darkness, monochromatic palettes and mysterious grand staircases. Mr. Prince, a prince of darkness is his own right, is the master of the towering bridge (“Evita”), the labyrinthine inferno (“ Sweeny Todd”) and the musical-within-the-musical (“Follies”). In “Phantom” the creative personalities of these two artists merge with a literal lightning flash at the opening coup de theatre, in which Second Empire glory of the Paris Opera House. Though the sequence retreads the famous Ziegfeld palace metamorphosis in “Follies,” Ms. Bjornson’s magical eye has allowed Mr. Prince to reinvent it, with electrifying showmanship.

The physical production, Andrew Bridge’s velvety lighting included, is a tour do force throughout- as extravagant of imagination as of budget. Ms. Bjornson drapes the stage with layers of Victorian theatrical curtains – heavily tasseled front curtains, fire curtains, backdrops of all antiquated styles – and then constantly shuffles their configurations so we may view the opera house’s stage from the perspective of its audience, the performers or the wings. For an added lift, we visit the opera house roof, with its cloud-swept view of a twinkling late-night Paris, and the subterranean lake where the Phantom travels by gondola to a baroque secret lair that could pass for the lobby of Grauman’s Chinese theater. The lake awash in dry-ice fog and illuminated by dozens of candelabra, is a masterpiece of campy phallic Hollywood iconography- it’s Liberace’s vision of hell.

There are horror-movie special effects, too, each elegantly staged and unerringly pace by Mr. Prince. The imagery is so voluptuous that one can happily overlook the fact that the book (by the composer and Richard Stilgoe) contains only slightly more plot than “Cats,” with scant tension or suspense. This “Phantom,” more skeletal but not briefer than other adaptations of the 1911 Gaston Leroux novel, is simply a beast-meets-beauty, loses-beauty story, attenuated by the digression of disposable secondary characters (the liveliest being Judy Kaye’s oft-humiliated diva) and by Mr. Lloyd Webber’s unchecked penchant for forcing the sow to cool is heels while he hawks his wares.

In Act II, the heroine travels to her father’s grave for no reason other than to sell an extraneous ballad whose tepid greeting-card sentiments (“Wishing You Were Somehow Here Again”) dispel the evening’s smoldering mood. The musical’s dramatic thrust is further slowed by three self-indulgently windy opera parodies – in which the sophisticated tongue-in-cheek wit of Ms. Bjornson’s sumptuous period sets and costumes is in no way matched by Gillian Lynne’s repetitive, presumably satirical ballet choreography or by Mr. Lloyd Webber’s tiresome collegiate jokes at the expense of such less than riotous targets as Meyerbeer.

Aside from the stunts and set changes, the evening’s histrionic peaks are Mr. Crawford’s entrances – one of which is the slender excuse for Ms. Bjornson’s most dazzling display of Technicolor splendor, the masked ball (“Masquerade”) that opens Act II. Mr. Crawford’s appearances are eagerly anticipated, not because he’s really scary but because his acting gives “Phantom” most of what emotional heat it has. His face obscured by a half-mask – no minor impediment – Mr. Crawford uses a booming, expressive voice and sensuous hands to convey his desire for Christine. His Act I declaration of love, “The Music of the Night’ – in which the Phantom calls on his musical prowess to bewitch the heroine – proves as much a rape as a seduction. Stripped of the mask an act later to wither into a crestfallen, sweaty, cadaverous misfit, he makes a pitiful sight while clutching his beloved’s discarded wedding veil. Those who visit the Majestic expecting only to applaud a chandelier – or who have 20-year-old impressions of Mr. Crawford as the lightweight screen juvenile of “The Knack” and “Hello, Dolly!” – will be stunned by the force of his Phantom.

It’s deflating that the other constituents of the story’s love triangle don’t reciprocate his romantic or sexual energy. The icily attractive Ms. Brightman possesses a lush soprano by Broadway standards (at least as amplified), but reveals little competence as an actress. After months of playing “Phantom” in London, she still simulates fear and affection alike by screwing her face into
bug-eyed, chipmunk-cheeked poses more appropriate to the Lon Chaney film version. Steve Barton, as the Vicomte who lures her from the beast, is an affable professional escort with unconvincingly bright hair.

Thanks to the uniform strength of the voices – and the soaring, Robert Russell Bennett-style orchestrations – Mr. Webber’s music is given every chance to impress. There are some lovely tunes, arguably his best yet, and, as always, they are recycled endlessly: if you don’t leave the theater humming the songs, you’ve got a hearing disability. But the banal lyrics, by Charles Hart and Mr. Stilgoe, prevent the score’s prettiest music from taking wing. The melodies don’t find shape as theater songs that might touch us by giving voice to the feelings or actions of specific characters.

Instead, we get numbing, interchangeable pseudo-Hammerstein-isms like “Say you’ll love me every waking moment” or “Think of me, think of me fondly, when we say goodbye.” With the exception of “Music of the Night’ – which seems to express from its author’s gut a desperate longing for acceptance – Mr. Lloyd Webber has again written a score so generic that most of the songs could be reordered and redistributed among the characters (indeed, among other Lloyd Webber musicals) without altering the show’s story or meaning. The one attempt at highbrow composing, a noisy and gratuitous septet called “Prima Donna,” is unlikely to take a place beside the similar Broadway operatic of Bernstein, Sondheim of Loesser.

Yet for now, if not forever, Me. Lloyd Webber is a genuine phenomenon – not an invention of the press or ticket scalpers – and “Phantom” is worth seeing not only for its punch as high-gloss entertainment but also as a fascinating key to what the phenomenon is about. Mr. Lloyd Webber’s esthetic has never been more baldly stated than in this show, which favors the decorative trappings of art over the troublesome substance of culture and finds more eroticism in rococo opulence and conspicuous consumption than in love or sex. Mr. Lloyd Webber is a creature, perhaps even a prisoner, of his time, with “The Phantom of the Opera,” he remakes a La Belle Époque in the image of our own Gilded Age. If by any chance this musical doesn’t prove Mr. Lloyd Webber’s most popular, it won’t be his fault, but another sign that times are changing and that our boom era, like the opera house’s chandelier, is poised to go bust.