The Phantom of the Oooooperaaaaa: A Reflection on my inability to appropriately assess musical theater

I feel as though I begin a lot of these posts with a reference to my childhood and here is yet another: the first time I saw Andrew Lloyd Weber’s The Phantom of the Opera was also the first time I had ever heard of it — after the cinematic adaptation, starring Gerard Butler as the phantom, had been released on DVD and we watched it as part of my middle school music class. Now, being well-versed in Disney movies (as I still am), I believed myself a connoisseur of musicals and I was thoroughly unimpressed with this story. In my well-educated and informed opinion on musical theater, there was entirely too much singing in this musical. The sung conversational exchanges between characters, especially during the songs “Notes” and “Prima Donna,” seemed entirely unnecessary and I thought they should have been spoken. I believe I also thought that there simply wasn’t enough spoken dialogue in general. For some reason the plot, songs, and talent involved in the making and performance of the musical had no bearing on my opinion. I stayed away from Phantom of the Opera and nursed an obviously brilliantly conceived and supported dislike of the musical.

About a year later I met my best friend and she absolutely raved about Phantom. She loved it. It was her favorite musical. I simply didn’t get it and I still refused to sit through it again even with the powerful influence of best-friend-puppy-dog-eyes to compel me. Nearly a decade after my first exposure to Phantom I find myself engaged to a man who absolutely loves the musical and has seen it performed in the theater several times. There is also a fateful show date for our local Broadway theater that is the day before our first anniversary and only a week after my friend’s birthday.

courtesy of
courtesy of

Unsurprisingly, I found myself preparing to see it yet again. But there is something different and exciting about going to see a live performance and I was looking forward to it. (I may also have recognized that my preteen self could possibly have judged on less than artistic bias). I did not listen to the music or watch the movie again before going to see it. I remembered very little of it, in fact, and simply wanted to allow myself every possible opportunity to enjoy the experience.

In all honesty, I enjoyed the play immensely except that our seats were poor and the acoustics were poorer. As I noted as a child, much of the conversation is sung and so much of the plot is tied in with these moments and the poor acoustics made it hard to follow along (later I learned that the theater we attended is known for its incredible acoustics, so it turned out the singing just wasn’t as clear as it ought to have been). But the set was incredible, the singing was (I thought) great, and the atmosphere was quite fun. Overall, I left the theater with a completely different idea about the musical. Though, to be fair, I still found the choppy conversational singing a bit trying (I think it’s the small-town Missourian in me, that little bit of my soul that can never be cultured, no matter how hard I try). But my fiance was not impressed. He had seen the play performed on the stage it was written for in London and felt that this performance fell quite short. He loved the set but felt that the singing simply did not do justice to the characters as they were written and performed in the original and he proposed that we rent the movie and compare.

So here I was, watching The Phantom of the Opera for the second time in one day. And I was shocked at the difference and at my obvious idiocy as a child. I really loved the movie and the singing was incredible. Far different from what we had experienced in the theater that afternoon. It was beautifully sung and articulated and Andrew Lloyd Weber held full creative power over the film and was thus able to cast his perfect Raul, Christine, and Phantom. My fiance pointed out the clear difference between Christine’s voice and that of Carlotta, the fussy and demanding prima donna of the theater. Christine’s voice is meant to be pure and clear whereas Carlotta’s is shrill and somehow grating. It is meant to be evident that Christine’s voice is the superior of the two. In the theatrical version we saw, though, their voices were almost indistinguishable and in hindsight, this took a lot away from the performance. though I never would have picked up on it myself.

Also in hindsight, I realized that I am no fit judge of musical theater. A book I can assess. I could tell you if your sentence is grammatically correct or if your story is well-written. I am not, however, a performance critic. I started this post with the intention of writing a review and slowly came to realize that I am not qualified to give one. I do worry about the day when I actually choose to acknowledge that I am not as clever as I think. Until then, I think I’ll continue to enjoy what are apparently mediocre performances and call myself easily pleased. Here’s to having no clue what you’re talking about but trying to sound smart anyway.

Try The Intuitionist by Colson Whitehead. It’s not an easy read but it is surprisingly compelling. Happy reading!


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