General 12-7-2004

Letters from a Writer: The Quiet Phamily

Jean Sramek does research.

Jean Sramek

I finally saw the touring company production of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Phantom of the Opera. Frankly, it was a disappointment. It was not disappointing in the sense of “the acting was wooden and cartoonish,” or “the special effects were more interesting than the plot,” or “it looked like they were all lip-synching.” Technically, it was all those things, since the acting was wooden and cartoonish, the special effects were more interesting than the plot, and it did look like they were all lip-synching. But it was more than the sum of the disappointments. For most people, it would have been disappointing in a “I can’t believe I shelled out $72 plus exorbitant Ticketmaster processing fees for this overrated crap” kind of way, but for me it was tax-deductible research and therefore highly entertaining and valuable by very reason of its multiple disappointments.

I’m co-writing the script and libretto for a comic opera which will premier in April and which is loosely based on POTO. I’ve spent the last year jello-wrestling in a pool of research materials. The pool is bottomless because my definition of “research” is broad. In fact, slutty. A schlocky Asian-pop version of POTO called The Phantom Lover is research; so is a middle-grades mystery novel called Real Phantoms Don’t Drive Sports Cars. Seeing the Webber/Hart production was de rigueur.

Woe to the POTO-goer with no prerequisites. I’ve read the novel, snacked on the films, listened obsessively to the music, even read Charles Hart’s book and lyrics; I was not confused. Accompanying me to the show were two people from my theatre group: Tyler, our composer, and Bruce, our technical director. They were not confused either, since we spent the 2-hour car ride to Minneapolis in anticipatory conversation about the show (plus, Tyler shares my perverse love of weird POTO-inspired movies). Margi, my writing partner, had seen the show the previous evening and reported that the plot, such as it were, was incomprehensible and the show may as well have been sung in Klingon for all the sense it made, but that there was liberal use of flash paper, fog machines, and flying apparatus—the raw materials that make generic theatre critics write things like “A FEAST FOR THE SENSES!”

As the house lights darkened, the couple next to me whispered. She asked, “So do you know the story?” and her soon-to-be-confused boyfriend answered, “No—actually I don’t know anything about this play at all.” I said a silent prayer for him.

We were seated directly under the chandelier—the one that crashes onto the stage at a certain point in the play—but when the giant mass of beads and wire descended towards us, it didn’t crash. It sort of floated. In fact, it didn’t make any sound at all. Inexplicably, the whole audience gasped “ooooh” and “ahhhh” anyway. They may have been saying “Ahhhh” and thinking “awwww,” but it was hard to tell without thought balloons. Bruce and I poked each other and made mental notes: in Phantom of the Norshor Theater, the chandelier will make noise. No wait, make that chandeliers, plural. I could use the maxim “bang for the buck” here, but I have just enough pride not to.

Our friend Sarah, who is in the POTO touring production, met us for drinks afterwards. She had arranged for a dozen of the cast and crew to be at the restaurant so we could ask questions. We immediately pounced on Justin, the propmaster: “How come the chandelier doesn’t make any noise? Was that on purpose? Or was the microphone turned off?” He shrugged and agreed that it was curious that the biggest moment in the show, SPFX-wise, was silent. We offered to make him a crash box. This drew a belly laugh from Justin but raised eyebrows from the cast. Their expressions hardened when we explained that our satirical opera is based on POTO. When they told us their least favorite song in the show is “Wishing You Were Somehow Here Again” (it is a thankless number: Christine is alone on stage, the narrative is pointless, and there’s no flash paper) we suggested they might prefer our version, “Wishing I Could Drink a Beer Again.” Only Justin laughed.

It turns out that the POTO “family” takes the show pretty freaking seriously. Seriously, as in “I’ve wanted to be Christine since I was eleven years old and it is a dream come true for me to sing these insipid yet addicting songs twice a day, seven days a week, even though I don’t understand the plot.” Oddly, few in the cast knew the back story of Erik and Christine, nor did they care. Leroux’s novel, Lon Chaney’s classic silent film, Julian Sands’ or Claude Rains’ Phantoms—nada. For the Phamily, there is only the Phantom who sings “The Music of the Night” and brings a chandelier crashing, um, floating, down. Maybe Julie Andrews and Audrey Hepburn never heard of George Bernard Shaw either; maybe it was easier to just sing beautiful notes and not think too much.

For POTO audiences, there is even less awareness. My new favorite field research method is to ask informants whether they have seen POTO. They answer, “Oh yes, in London, Montreal, Milwaukee, and twice in Seattle.” Then I give a pop quiz: “At what point in the show does the chandelier come crashing down, and for what reason?” No matter how many times or in which impressive-sounding metropolitan locations they have seen the Phantom unmasked, they always get it wrong. The correct answers are “at the end of the first act, before intermission” and “because Christine’s rival Carlotta has been given the lead in the opera,” but even diehard ALW fans blow the quiz. Then they blow the bonus question: “What is your favorite song in the show, and what is it about?” The answer is generally along the lines of, “Um … the one about how he loves opera? Or something? It kind of goes … la la la, something in the night. Right?”

Most popular musical ever, its fans are legion, soon to be a major motion picture. And no one knows what it’s about.

Personally, I blame the quiet chandelier. Did I say our chandeliers were going to make noise? Make that a disproportionate, nauseating, tsunami-like amount of noise.