Monday, December 21, 2009

Could have been worse

Sheldon Harnick, beloved Broadway lyricist of Fiddler On The Roof was famously quoted as he watched a terminally bad scene being polished during an out-of-town tryout, "The problem with washing garbage is that when you're done, it's still garbage." The Andrew Lloyd Webber popera Phantom of the Opera is not precisely garbage, but it's not actually very good. To begin with, the source story is a ridiculous mess, an opinion shared by the authors of the musical, according to interviews. To take the simplest point, the title character lives in catacombs below the opera house which no one can find. Until they actually try at the end of the story, when they find them rather quickly. Because the author needs them to. This is the sloppiest kind of story-telling. (By the way, what makes the Phantom's basement pipe organ operate--water power?) But to take apart this dreadful story at this late date is like kicking a cripple; the fact is that Lon Chaney made the story compelling back in the mid-1920's.

The musical takes the weaknesses of the story and makes them weaker. The title song, setting the stage for an 1870 story, sounds like disco. The most famous song, "Music of the Night" is a re-working of the melody of "Come To Me, Bend To Me" from Brigadoon. "Angel of Music" borrows heavily from "Chanson" from The Baker's Wife by Stephen Schwartz. Scraps of melody, such as "Angel of Music" and "I Remember" are endlessly re-cycled in the Webber way until one is nauseated. When he does write an attractive and semi-original melody such as "All I Ask of You" it is saddled with a diffuse and generalized lyric in which Raoul promises to be the heroine's freedom, her light, her shelter, someone to share her life. What is this song actually about? When Marian sings about "My White Knight" in The Music Man, we know what she wants. When Fred Astaire sings "They Can't Take That Away From Me," we get that single, strong unified idea. "All I Ask of You," says Christine in this slop-pot of a lyric, is to be every freaking thing the lyricist can think of that rhymes.

The fact is that Lloyd-Webber's shows will not be produced fifty years from now because the man couldn't tell a good or a bad lyric if either one slapped him in the face. He steamrollers over new lyricists for each show because his sheer lack of respect for the craft. Any old thing will do, and other than enjoying huge paychecks, there is nothing for a self-respecting lyricist to enjoy in this process.

At least the film version of Phantom of the Opera (2004) doesn't make anything any worse. Former costume designer Joel Shumacher was a canny choice as director, since he is bound to pay lavish attention to the lavish decor (which seems spot-on) and will not be handicapped by considerations of quality or skill in the script. The backstage atmosphere and Minnie Driver's over-the-top diva are quite enjoyable. The crashing chandelier has little of the effect it has in the theater, but that was to be expected. Emmy Rossum, the Christine of the moment is not unpleasant, but hardly the kind of singer to rivet anyone's attention or command devotion. Gerard Butler sings no worse than any other Phantom, which is to say, not very well.

One of the film's mistakes actually contains the kernel of an interesting idea. Out of fear of frightening its pubescent audience (physically and/or mentally immature), the Phantom's disfigurement, so ghastly (and based literally on the novel's description) in the Chaney version (Lon, that is, not Dick) now looks the result of a slightly distressing kitchen accident. It is as though the Phantom has exaggerated his grotesquerie in his mind as a metaphor for all men, who believe there is something ugly about themselves which they must conceal in order to be loved; a thing which, while perhaps unattractive, would hardly scare a robust woman away. That idea, alas, is not taken up, and it is probably merely my own projection, so you can take from that whatever you wish.

For a property which aspires to the heightened state of opera, it does emulate one aspect of the parent art form very well: everything takes way too long. But I can't imagine anyone who likes the play seriously disliking the movie; it feels as though it used a fansite bulletin board for a screenplay.

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