Saturday, Aug. 8, 2009

Phantom: The Fan Effect

By Russ Bickerstaff
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My wife and I saw Phantom of the Opera last night. We’re not fans. Prior to last night, she’d seen it once before . . . and remembers very little of it. I’ve been hearing about the show for twenty years now. Even hearing about the show on TV back in the mid-‘80’s when it first came out and tickets were impossible to come by, I understood the show was very popular. Seeing the show over two decades after hearing how incredibly good it is . . . the actual show is a bit of a let-down. In all fairness, no show could possibly live up to the hype of being one of the most succesful entertainment ventures of all time. Anything with the kind of popularity of the Andrew Lloyd Webber musical isn't going to be nearly as impressive as its hype. Like anything with that kind of poularity, it's only really going to be satisfying for fans.

Andrew Lloyd Weber’s fan base is huge . . . and the show’s marketing plays on the fan-base that will come, see the show, buy the merchandise and issue a pretty standard standing ovation. (There was one last night.) The ever-creepy tagline “Remember Your First Time,” is a bit sinister, but nowhere near as silly as “The Night Belongs to Phantom.” (And as anyone who grew-up watching TV in the ‘80’s knows this isn’t true: “the night belongs to Michelob.” Why? I believe Patty Smith said it best in 1978 when she explained it like this, "Because the night belongs to lovers/because the night belongs to us.")

The marketing of the show plays on The Phantom's success as part of its appeal, which is the exact same way that Hollywood markets films. In this respect, the appeal of Phantom isn’t all that different from the appeal of Harry Potter.  Fans of Webber’s immensely successful popera will continue to make it very successful so long as there’s a Broadway stage for it . . . and everyone who loves Broadway will continue to make the touring show successful. But for those of us who are on the periphery of the Phantom phenomenon—those of us who have only heard how good the thing is supposed to be . . . those of us seeing it for the first time—or the first time we can remember . .  . for those of us who aren’t fans, this is just a musical blended with an opera . . . and having seen actual opera on the stage of the Marcus center, I have to confess that I don’t really personally feel the appeal.

Years ago, I remember the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra opening a season with a concert performance of Bizet’s Carmen. There was no set. There was no costuming. It was all about the music and the story. And it was phenomenal. Greer Grimsley was captivating as the Escamillo. Give me five minutes of intense emotion in a complex story with no significant staging over any two hours of a huge-budget semi-opera with flashy pyrotechnics. As much as I tried to find the passion in The Phantom, it felt flat—the emotion felt kind of shallow and sentimental. And I know that there are fans of the show who would disagree with me . . . as fans of anything from Star Trek to Batman to Harry Potter are able to get emotionally invested in characters that capture their imagination. The rest of us don’t have that kind of emotional investment. And a guy with a portion of his face allegedly disfigured who still looks pretty good from row U in the orchestra section just doesn’t seem all that compelling . . . to the rest of us, it all just seems kind of silly.  That being said, I’ve seen a piece of stage history. I’m kind of glad I did. Webber continues to work on the musical's sequel, set on Coney Island (I believe the working title is Love Never Dies) in spite of perfectly valid criticism on the part of his cat Otto a couple of years ago . . .

The Phantom sequel is set to debut on London’s West End next spring. 

The touring production of The Phantom runs through August 28th. A concise review of the show appears in this week's Shepherd.

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