General 8-23-2004

Letters from a Writer: I Kid! I Kid Because I Love.

Jean Sramek lets us in on the breadth of her affections.

Jean Sramek

I have seen, to date, six film adaptations of The Phantom of the Opera. There are a total of eleven versions (that I know of), including a hard-to-find animated children’s POTO and a 1974 glam-rock version called Phantom of the Paradise starring formerly famous pop composer Paul Williams. I have read Gaston Leroux’s 1911 novel, which would have sunk into blessed obscurity had it not been adapted into the silent film classic starring Lon Chaney as Erik (that’s the Phantom’s real name, Erik). Last weekend, I saw the touring company production of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s POTO in Minneapolis.

I’m not an Andrew Lloyd Webber kind of gal. My theatre company, Colder by the Lake, is writing a satirical opera called Phantom of the NorShor, which has as its subject the grand old dilapidated movie theater in downtown Duluth and which involves parodying the songs of ALW—or more accurately, of librettist Charles Hart. Consequently, I am gorging myself on the story(s). This is my favorite research method: soaking in it until I become a know-it-all. It’s the only way I can fall in love with POTO. My love is crucial to the creative success of this project, and I’m not quite there yet.

My first mistake was starting with the POTO original cast recording. I hated the songs on the first listen, and on the second, and on the tenth. They sound almost identical at first, and even when one is familiar with them, they’re interchangeable, like Mexican-American cuisine: burrito, taco, enchilada, tostada, chimichanga … call it what you want, it’s still got the same five ingredients as everything else on the menu. If you’re going to write a good satire—if you’re going to make art in the manner of someone else—you have to love your subject more than you love crappy food from Taco Bell, otherwise it won’t work.

Ten years ago, NPR did an interview with the producers of If I Were a Carpenter, the 1994 compilation tribute to Karen and Richard Carpenter. The producers’ second-biggest problem (the biggest was that everyone wanted to do “Superstar”) was finding musicians who took the project seriously. They asked indie-rock songwriter Liz Phair to do it, but she turned them down because she hated the Carpenters. She did them a favor.

Colder’s last project of this size was an original comic opera. As a librettist, I felt as though I were having flying dreams—I could feel and see the rhythms of my lyrics, but when I would try to hear the melodies, I would wake up before I fell to earth. When our composer, Tyler, set everything to music, I loved the songs unconditionally and felt grounded again. It was thrilling and difficult. On the other hand, making up new, goofy lyrics to existing songs is something I could do all day long, so I figured Phantom of the NorShor would be easy. I was wrong. In my quest to get back that loving feeling I had as a first-time librettist, I’ve listened to the cloying original cast recording of POTO about a million times. I have memorized the songs and caught myself humming “Music of the Night” or “All I Ask of You” while in the grocery store or on a bike ride, except that my lyrics are about tap beer and the local preservation alliance.

Song parody is harder than it looks. Keeping the framework of the original song intact, you have to chisel at your words until they “sing” like the original and yet reach out and make your satirical point. When you are writing for the stage, you must allow for adequate room between phrases and syllables, so that both your meaning-jokes and music-jokes will be clearly understood, laughed at, and recovered from quickly enough to make way for the next joke.

POTO’s greatest hits are corny, love-rhymes-with-heaven-above stuff, but they’re deceptive. Underneath bland and filling lines, Webber/Hart have tucked couplets within couplets, layers of echoing lyrics, rhyming pop-ups, deliciously gratuitous dangling endings and cheeky little phrasings. Those bastards—no wonder they’re famous. They’ve turned a rather grim story line (“Phantom meets girl, Phantom repulses girl, Phantom drops chandelier on those who get in girl’s way”) into a mainstream love story complete with an overture. It’s genius.

One day I realize that this popular version of the story is actually very faithful to the original novel, that the songs are quite tender and beautiful in their narrative. I excitedly call Margi, my writing partner, with the good news.

“I love this music,” I tell her. “I think I finally love it. All those ‘Phans’ are right—Andrew Lloyd Webber is a god.” I tell her my theory of how you have to love something to adapt it or even make fun of it. She doesn’t agree. She says, “Nope. You don’t have to love it, just appreciate it.” Margi is a better writer than I am for many reasons, not the least of which is that she is right about this. I decide to call it love anyway, even though my new feelings for POTO more closely resemble arranged marriage or chemical dependency than love.

In my quiet neighborhood, people move in a constant stream past my house: families with strollers, joggers with dogs, senior citizens and kids in sneakers. My home office faces the street, it’s summer, and I’ve had the window open. Dozens of people have heard me play “Point of No Return” over and over and over again, giggling loudly while I sing odd words over the recording like some demented karaoke contestant. Maybe my neighbors are thinking, “That woman is a brilliant satirist and someday this house will be turned into a museum, like Graceland.” Maybe they’re thinking something else.

What I got in the mail yesterday, ordered from eBay: a battered VHS copy of Phantom of the Mall: Eric’s Revenge, starring Morgan Fairchild. I can’t wait. I know I’m going to “love” it.