What's New on the Rialto
From Stage to Film
Late last week Matthew Murray was dispatched to the Majestic Theatre and then to a private screening of the new Phantom of the Opera film to give us a report on the differences between the two versions.
We've passed the point of no return: The film version of Andrew Lloyd Webber's The Phantom of the Opera has finally hit the silver screen in what is a remarkably faithful adaptation of one of the most successful stage musicals in history. Fans of the stage version can at least rest easy in the knowledge that the movie takes its source very seriously.
The respect the film's director, Joel Schumacher, shows for the epochal stage production is impressive; fewer changes were made to the structure of this film than were necessary to accommodate 2002's Chicago. Of course, much detail had already been laid out by the stage production's director, Harold Prince, so the film's fidelity isn't particularly surprising, though Schumacher's own dramatic point of view and sense of visual style give the film a different - but equally valid - feel from Prince's.
But whether this ambitious and expansive film will appeal to diehard fans of the stage version - which just surpassed its 7000th performance on Broadway, and is holding up splendidly - remains to be seen. Some compromises have been made in the transfer, and this is likely to rile the purists. However, other changes aimed apparently at clarifying the work for the screen might make this version worth a look for those who found the stage musical impenetrable, incomprehensible, or flat-out turgid.
Most notable is the expansion of the show's prologue into a continuing throughline for the film. An aging Raoul, the Vicomte de Chagny, attends an auction (set in 1919 in the film, 1911 in the stage version) at the opera house, at which he purchases a papier-mâché music box in the form of a monkey clashing cymbals (which serves as an important recurring symbol throughout the story). A number of additional scenes taking place after the auction - depicting Raoul's state of mind in the decades following his battle with the opera house's once-resident ghost for the love of the young singer Christine Daaé - are sprinkled throughout the film.
Otherwise, there are few outright additions. Some dialogue has been added during "Angel of Music" to clarify the title character's role in Christine's life, and Madame Giry later explains at length her own complicity in the Phantom's acts of terror and her personal history with him. (These moments are, however, suggested in the stage musical.) The scenes with Joseph Buquet, chief of the flies, have been augmented to better highlight the Phantom's cruelty. And a brief new sequence containing almost no dialogue finds Raoul chasing the Phantom through a maze of mirrors after "Masquerade." (Giry mentions the maze in a different context in the stage version.)
The most notable excision is of the second-act rehearsal scene of the Phantom's opera, Don Juan Triumphant; the only significant effect is that when Christine's nemesis, resident soprano and diva Carlotta, appears in that opera later, she's inexplicably docile (the original scene shows her frightened into submission). Other minor cuts include parts of the Hannibal rehearsal scene, some lines in "Prima Donna," and the short "in-one" scene immediately following it. Detractors of the stage version will be delighted to know that much of the business with the Phantom's magical Punjab Lasso has been downplayed and rethought entirely for the finale.
Most other changes involve the re-ordering of scenes to highlight certain dramatic moments differently. The second-act incarnation of "Notes" is folded into the Phantom's appearance after "Masquerade," and Christine sings her tortured "Twisted Every Way" to Raoul alone, in a slightly different place in the story's second half. Raoul and the Phantom now engage in a swordfight at Christine's father's tomb (onstage, the Phantom shoots at Raoul with fireballs). Perhaps most notably, the show's famous first-act chandelier now occurs after "The Point of No Return" as the Phantom's method of drawing attention away from his escape to his underground lair.
While a couple of changes are curious missteps - a brief scene of Carlotta encountering enthusiastic fans of Christine's gala debut; the addition of black-clad background dancers to "The Point of No Return" - the story's spirit remains intact throughout.
So does most of the music. In a number of cases, recitative passages have been converted to spoken dialogue, with the rhyme scheme maintained, if not emphasized. And though some lyrics (by Charles Hart and Richard Stilgoe) have been altered, and some un-altered to match what's on the show's best-selling original cast recording rather than what's currently on Broadway, most other musical changes are minor at best. Only one song was added, "Learn to Be Lonely," sung over the movie's end credits in the style of Chicago's "I Move On."
Likewise, almost all the songs' original keys are used. The only transposition I noticed was for Phantom's introduction to perhaps the show's most enduring song, "The Music of the Night." That rangy section has been lowered noticeably to better suit the vocal abilities of the film's Phantom, Gerard Butler.
Butler, it should be noted, proves a fine Phantom, possessing the dramatic intensity needed to cut a threatening, brilliant, disturbed, and romantic figure. While Butler's voice is unlikely to satisfy those desiring a vocally superlative Phantom, it does match the role nicely, and Butler's overall performance strongly centers the film. Butler reads slightly younger than is typical for stage Phantoms, but works it to his advantage, highlighting what was lost by the foul treatment the Phantom received early in life. Actors have played the Phantom as everything from a monster (Peter Karrie) to an immature adult (the excellent current Broadway Phantom, Hugh Panaro); Butler plays him as a man, not always in control of his emotions, but aware of what he can give - and receive from - others.
The other roles are fairly traditionally played. Emmy Rossum, now just 18, is an extremely youthful Christine, but also an innocent one, believably caught between her love for her dead father and her burgeoning romantic feelings for both Raoul and the Phantom. She's impressive vocally, having complete command over Christine's difficult notes, though her voice is likely not robust enough to allow her to essay the role onstage. Patrick Wilson likely could play Raoul onstage if he chose; he sings strongly, and is passionate and convincing in a role that many actors struggle to make interesting.
If Minnie Driver's Carlotta is campier than in the stage version, she's nonetheless very funny. She doesn't sing, though - she was dubbed by stage Carlotta Margaret Preece, which makes the character seem less bitchy and threatening than is often the case onstage. (Driver does, however, sing "Learn to Be Lonely" in her own voice, and sounds quite good.) Simon Callow and Ciarán Hinds do fine comic work as the two opera house managers, André and Firmin; Miranda Richardson comes across as a younger, warmer, and more maternal Madame Giry than is usual onstage. (This change, however, greatly reduces the importance of Christine's friend and confidant, Meg Giry - played by Jennifer Ellison.)
The film does not borrow excessively from Maria Björnson's stage set and costume designs, though many of Alexandra Byrne's costumes are somewhat similar in look and feel. Production designer Anthony Pratt eschews Björnson and Prince's use of darkness, suggestion, and shadow, bringing a gritty elegance to the opera house. While this is often effective, particularly in the large-scale opera scenes, the scenes set in the Phantom's lair and the surrounding underground lake are too brightly lit to be credible. Most of the other new choices are no better or worse than what Björnson and Prince devised, though the predominantly black-and-white "Masquerade" is often at odds with the song's many references to colors.
But the movie as a whole seldom lacks color, maintaining much of the excitement and thrills that the stage show can generate at its best. The mostly minor changes aside, if this is not the best imaginable film that could be made of the stage musical, this Phantom of the Opera is nonetheless very good, and will likely prove capable of satisfying filmgoers willing to tackle a dense, serious musical and theatregoers interested in assessing an adaptation of a landmark contemporary title.
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