Phantom Reels
by Dale Crawford with contributions from Thalia

Avoiding controversy within theater circles is more difficult than finding a Shakespearean influence in this summer's Godzilla. But one needn't spill a steaming cappuccino in order to be scalded by the boiling debate over the proposed film of Andrew Lloyd Webber's Phantom of the Opera.

Buzz about the Phantom film increased exponentially last year when John Travolta astonished Hollywood with the claim he'd snagged the role. Phantom fans were insulted with his claim that the role would be "easier to sing than Grease." More recently, Antonio Banderas proclaimed that he had inked a deal to trade the black mask of Zorro for the white mask of the Phantom. So far, both Warner Brothers and Lloyd Webber's Really Useful Group deny that any contracts have been signed.

After nine years of speculation, what's a dedicated theater fan to do? While some find the entire topic dreadfully tiresome, it's nevertheless a mainstay of theater gossip. To the first group, merely broaching the issue is tantamount to wearing cutoffs and flip-flops to the Tony Awards. But they aren't the only ones talking. There's a dedicated legion of fans who think that Corporate America will listen when cash is on the line. That group is determined to show Webber and Warner Bros. that their money comes from the fans.

Regular Rialto readers will remember that a month ago VJ endorsed Michael Crawford to reprise his award-winning performance on film. After all, when Webber first penned the deal with Warner Bros., Crawford was expressly dealt into the game. Like VJ, most theatergoers and Phantom fans have gotten behind Crawford's candidacy. The wide support is evident in theater group discussion and in the results of many polls, particularly the poll Playbill Online conducted early last summer. Crawford's name easily has the greatest international name recognition of any Broadway star. In many circles, Crawford and Phantom are synonymous. With a pre-sold title like Phantom, a well-constructed advertising campaign could easily make Crawford a potent box-office draw. But instead, Warner Bros. is threatening to unleash the "Cast a Name then Shunt the Blame" strategy that led to such mega-hits (cough cough) as Batman & Robin and Sphere.

For years, fans have been trying to communicate their concerns to the powers-that-be. Webber & Warner Bros. have gleefully counted the avalanche of money that fans have spent, all the while unresponsively shoveling away mountains of ignored fan mail. Fans dedicated to seeing Crawford in the role organized a campaign to orchestrate their voices into a chorus that Hollywood can hear. The Michael Crawford Phantom Movie Campaign (TMCPMC) believes that casting Crawford would preserve the integrity of the Phantom himself, despite any other horrors the movie business might inflict on the show.

It looked like nothing short of dropping a chandelier would get their attention. So the TMCPMC formed, guided by their mission statement: "The Michael Crawford Phantom Movie Campaign is an organized group of consumers who want to make a specific purchase: movie tickets to a film version of Andrew Lloyd Webber's Phantom of the Opera, starring Michael Crawford. Like other consumer groups, TMCPMC uses petitions, letter-writing campaigns, and group activities both to grow our membership and to make our desires known to the relevant companies. While matters of taste and emotion are certainly involved, TMCPMC's primary function is to demonstrate the financial viability of producing this film with Michael Crawford in the title role." Their web page, www.av.qnet.com/~smf/phantom.htm, has attracted visitors from all over the world who sign the guestbook, learn what they can do to help, then get involved.

Cynics accuse the campaigners of naiveté; others recommend they take a passive "wait and see" attitude. But these campaigners are not so much naive as resolute. They realize that "fighting City Hall" is an uphill battle, but are willing to stand firm as long as is necessary to prevent this story from once again being as grotesquely disfigured as the Phantom himself. They have learned from the historical record of Hollywood musicals: My Fair Lady, Funny Girl, The Music Man and The King and I, all starring their key originators, were successful films. Paint Your Wagon, A Little Night Music, Mame, and A Chorus Line were critical and popular disappointments, despite starring big Hollywood names. When casting was announced for those films, musical theater fans knew that the end product would be unsatisfactory, but nobody spoke up. Now, probably for the first time in history, a group of theater fans has risen up in an attempt to influence casting of a film musical. Bravo!

And speak they have! They have organized write-ins, compiled statistics, held a rally, created a symbolic five-hundred-panel montage, sent out press releases, distributed flyers, sold T-shirts, forged alliances with sympathetic groups, and disseminated their message: "Anyone for President, Michael Crawford for Phantom". They have managed to do this remaining positive, always promoting Crawford rather than disparaging Banderas, Travolta, or other would-be suitors of the role. Their latest project is to raffle off a dazzling, virtually unique Phantom doll (Crawford himself owns the only duplicate) to raise money for an awareness ad in Weekly Variety (see www.xmission.com/~flogerzi/variety.htm for raffle information). The raffle is proving especially controversial because some people feel the Campaign should spend their money on other causes. While nearly all TMCPMC members are avid Crawford fans who often contribute to Crawford's favorite charities, The Sick Children's Trust and The Lighthouse Foundation, TMCPMC stands by its mission statement: they are a consumer group, not a charity organization.

Will any of this pay off? TMCPMC thinks it will, but who knows? Phantom of the Opera--love it or hate it--has captured the imagination of millions. And some of those millions care very much about the film incarnation, because that will become the standard version for millions more. Crawford fans and TMCPMC represent theater's grassroots. It is good to know that finally someone has taken a stand on behalf of live theater. After all, who knows? Next year the multimegaconglomerates might just decide to mutilate your very favorite stage production into the ghastly entertainment equivalent of Friday the 13th-On Ice!


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