The Phantom Story
Some stories people can't seem to leave alone. They're returned to time after time. They're read. They're written about. Murals are created based on their ideas. Songs are sung based on their emotions. Then the stories are dived into again, people's hunger never being satiated.
One of these stories is The Phantom of the Opera (originally Le Fantôme de l'Opéra) by Gaston Leroux. Phantom has been adapted many times. A simple amazon.com search yields approximately 150 books, 25 movies, and cast recordings of two stage musicals. Many of these adaptations are good, and well worth the time it takes to read, watch, or listen to them.
After having read, seen, and listened to many things based on Phantom I have decided that the first two I ever became acquainted with are still my favorites: the original novel and the musical that is by far the most popular telling of the story, more successful than all of the others combined.
I am referring of course to the musical The Phantom of the Opera, written by Andrew Lloyd Webber, Richard Stilgoe, and Charles Hart. Lloyd Webber first conceived the notion of adapting the story after running across a copy of the novel in a secondhand bookstore. He read it and decided that it would make a perfect premise for the romantic show he'd been wanting to write. He was not the first to think that it would make a great musical (there were at least two other musicals based on Phantom at the time Lloyd Webber's version opened), but he was the one who made it into the story it is now.
Although Lloyd Webber's Phantom took many liberties with the original book, many facets of the story are still in place. Some parts of the show are even an improvement over the novel. Over the course of this essay we will take a look at the two versions and compare some aspects that are key to both versions: point of view, the characterization of the Phantom, and the role music plays in the storytelling. Hopefully when we are finished, a clearer picture will be formed as to which is the greater version of The Phantom of the Opera.
The Opera Ghost Really Existed: The Use of Realism in the Novel and Musical
The novel opens with Gaston Leroux assuring us that the Opera Ghost (the Phantom) was, indeed, real. He spends the prologue explaining that, after exhaustive research, he wrote The Phantom of the Opera, a history of actual events. The book is in fact heavily based on real occurrences. The character of the mysterious Phantom was inspired by a tale, told among the actual ballet girls of the opera about a ghost that roamed the corridors of the opera house. Leroux took this idea and developed it into Erik. Another instance in the book, the Phantom making the chandelier fall, almost really happened.
In 1896 a counterweight from the chandelier in the actual Paris opera house fell into the auditorium resulting in a death. It was caused by a fire in the attic that melted through the steel cable holding down the weight. While writing Phantom Leroux remembered this, and wondered what would have happened if the entire chandelier had fallen. In his book we find out, as the Phantom sends the chandelier plummeting, killing one person and injuring numerous others.
Another example of the realism of the book is highlighted by the Palais Garnier, the opera house where the book (and every adaptation that I know of except the Lloyd Webber musical) takes place. Box five, the box Leroux chose as the Phantom's private box, is large and remote, stuck away in the corner with a very good view of the stage, making it a logical choice as Erik's box. It is also near stairs going both up and down so that the Phantom can quickly disappear from the box at a moment's notice. Leroux clearly did his research.
The musical tries to emulate the book by sending us back in time after a short prologue, much like we are sent back in time at the beginning of the novel. The show opens with an auction that takes place many years after the opera house has fallen into disrepair. Several items from the opera house are auctioned off, including a monkey-shaped music box sold to Raoul, the empty-headed love interest of the story. He reminisces about it as something "she" has often spoken of. We later learn that he is referring to Christine, the singer with whom both he and Erik (the Phantom) were in love.
The next item is a broken chandelier. The auctioneer explains that the chandelier is somehow related to the Phantom. The chandelier is lit, and with a flash of light it rises to the ceiling and the stage is turned into the splendid Opera Populair of old, where the show takes place.
Leroux continues to try to make his novel seem less like a novel and more like a history book by turning the narrative over to other people several times over the course of the book.
There is a character in the novel who is not in the show who plays an important part in storytelling. The Persian is an old acquaintance of Erik's who goes down into the Phantom's lair with Raoul at the end of the story. The Persian takes over the narrative for approximately 45 pages of the book.
This character was replaced in the show by Madame Giry, a box keeper in the book, who in the show has been transformed into the ballet mistress. She has a mysterious past connection with Erik that is never fully explained. It is she who tells Raoul how to get into the Phantom's lair.
Because of the use of such tools as these, the book maintains a more realistic feel. The musical, however, still does enough to maintain the audience's interest and attention.
The Man Behind the Mask: The Character of Erik, the Phantom of the Opera
Another interesting difference between the two versions is how the character of Erik is portrayed. In both he starts out as a mysterious specter, a mischievous ghost. As we begin to learn more about him, he is revealed as a genius disfigured at birth, living a tormented life of seclusion. There are, however, very distinct differences, the most evident being the level of cruelty displayed by the character.
Near the end of the novel Erik forces Christine to make a decision. She has to choose between marrying him and blowing up the entire opera house with everyone inside. In order to save all of the others, Christine chooses the Phantom. Erik, however, still refuses to release Raoul and the Persian, both of whom he has imprisoned.
The musical contains a similar situation. Raoul has just arrived at the Phantom's lair, and begs Erik to let him in. Erik obliges and as soon as Raoul enters, the Phantom ensnares him with a lasso. Christine has to choose between marrying Erik and letting Raoul die.
They are very similar situations, but the book's Erik goes farther, exhibiting far more cruelty. The room in which Raoul and the Persian were imprisoned, a torture chamber that Erik designed, also displays this ruthlessness. The chamber is essentially a hall of mirrors that can be heated to excessive temperatures. The heat drives the occupants of the room mad as they hallucinate. There is also a window in the ceiling so that the torture can be watched by the Phantom.
The Phantom of the book is very like the Phantom of the show, only taken to another emotional level. The musical's Phantom's lower degree of mercilessness makes him a much more human character. This is one of the main reasons for the show's success. We can relate to Lloyd Webber's Erik, and we feel sorry for him. The unappreciated genius. The slave to love. Leroux's Phantom's cruelty makes him hard to identify with. Nobody wants to admit to possessing the darker side that comes out so vividly in the novel's man behind the mask.
The Music of the Night: The Role of Music in the Story of the Phantom
It is true that the book is over-the-top emotionally. One might even call it a little bit cheesy. So why is the show so successful? The answer lies in the music. Music, when harnessed the right way, is the most emotional art form. A simple 2-5-1 chord progression, possibly the most-used chord progression in jazz, creates many emotions. The two chord, being minor, creates a dark feeling of anticipation. You know something good is coming. Moving to the five chord produces a feeling of longing for the resolution that is created when we move to the one chord. The anticipation, hunger, and relief created by this very simple chord progression is very powerful. The emotion created by the soaring strings and pounding organ of Andrew Lloyd Webber's score many times exceeds that of the simple jazz chords.
Because it is the story of an opera house, music plays an important role in The Phantom of the Opera. Making the stage show a musical gave Andrew Lloyd Webber a chance to write some of the music that is pivotal to the plot of book, specifically Don Juan Triumphant, the Phantom's opera. This gives us more insight into the character of Erik. However powerful books are, they can never successfully convey the raw power of music, which is at the heart of the Phantom's character.
<corny>If one ventures to the theater to see Andrew Lloyd Webber's musical, one only has to look around during the final scene to see the effect of the music. The eyes of audience members glisten with silent tears as the Phantom onstage sobs at the loss of Christine, the strings rising up to meet Erik's voice in one last despairing effort.</corny>
The book tries for this emotional effect but grossly overshoots, going past being touching, and into the realm of melodrama. Instead of being touching, it is tiresome. And thus is the power of the Angel of Music.
Because of the musical's powerful use of music and its very human Erik, the show is a more profound experience. You come away from it having felt true compassion for its main characters. The book, while accomplishing a very deep sense of realism, leaves you completely overwhelmed by its onslaught of heavy emotion. In an age in which subtlety is a virtue, the show reaches the modern day audience far better.
But see what you think. Read the book. See the show. (It's running on Broadway and London's West End, plus there's currently a national tour of the United States.) But don't stop there. Check out the other adaptations, because it's been adapted enough that there will always be one more book to read. One more movie to watch. One more play to see. One more chance to relive the Phantom story.
- Charles Hart and Richard Stilgoe, The Phantom of the Opera (Libretto)
- Gaston Leroux, The Phantom of the Opera, published by Signet Classic, 1987
- Josefine Sjöqvist, "…and chandeliers" (http://www.geocities.com/Broadway/1875/chand.htm), Opera Ghost
- Michael Walsh, Andrew Lloyd Webber: His life and works, 1989