Actors have traditionally been a superstitious lot. From warding off bad luck by telling thespians “break a leg” to rituals to calling Shakespeare’s MacBeth “The Scottish Play”, there are a number of little rituals both onstage and backstage. Given the propensity for accidents to be taken as a foreboding of doom, a mystery gets expanded into superstition. Gaston Leroux, the author of Le Fantôme de l’Opéra, based his story on a mystery at the Opéra national de Paris, where a skeleton was used as a prop in a play.
Le Fantôme de l’Opéra was originally serialized in Le Galois from September 1909 to January 1910, then released in one volume in March 1910. The story reveals the secret of Christine Daaé’s success as an opera singer and her relationship with both her Angel of Music and with Raoul, the Vicomte of de Chagny. When Christine and Raoul were young, they used to listen to her father speak of the Angel of Music, and he promised to send the Angel to her after he died. Christine showed great promise, but when her father died, the life went out of her music. But when Christine nails the music in Roméo et Juliette by Charles Gounod, she gains the attention of opera aficionados.
At the Paris Opera House, the retirement of the previous manager brings in M. Moncharmin and M. Richard in as management. Up to that point, anything that went wrong, including deaths, was blamed on the Opera Ghost. M. Moncharmin and M. Richard, though, weren’t familiar with theatrical superstitions. Even when the Opera Ghost himself left notes with demands, they ignored the dire warnings. First, they sold Box Five, the Ghost’s box. No one was ever seen in it, but it was in use by the Opera Ghost. When it was sold to other theatre attendees, they heard the Opera Ghost but did not see him.
The Ghost did provide a way to make peace with him. During Faust, also by Gounod, management needs to do four thing: leave Box Five for the Ghost; have Christine take the role of Margarita in place of La Carlotta, the Opera’s diva; have Mme Giry return as the box-keeper for Box Five; and, accept the conditions set for the Ghost’s monthly allowance as the previous management had. Otherwise, Faust would suffer a curse. La Carlotta, at the same time, receives a letter written in red ink telling her to not sing that night or suffer a fate worse than death. While a mere threat wouldn’t keep the diva away from performing, a hearse going by her window as she read the message added a new level. Being superstitious, Carlotta would have stayed home, but the threat and the visit from M. Richard’s private secretary had her wondering if Christine was trying to usurp her place, so she goes to perform.
Faust starts without problems. Christine appears on stage. On seeing Raoul, she falters, having problem with her minor role. Carlotta makes her grand appearance as Margarita and starts singing without any problems at all. Until she croaked like a toad. She makes an effort, but her voice is gone. To make matters worse, the Opera’s chandelier crashes down, killing a guest of M. Richard’s.
With proof that the Ghost would interfere with the Opera, the new management has little choice. Mme Giry gets her old job back. But Christine disappears. Raoul discovers that she is once again with her Angel of Music, and goes out to find her, only getting a note asking him to meet her at the masquerade ball. Christine finds him and draws him away to talk to him one last time. When she leaves, Raoul finds it within him to follow her, to discover that Christine is meeting with Erik.
Slowly, the truth is revealed. Christine’s Angel of Music, the Opera Ghost, is Erik, who took her in as a protégé. But instead of just teaching her to sing, he fell in love with her, a possessive love where she is not allowed to speak with others. Raoul is in great danger if Christine is seen with him. Yet, Christine betroths herself to Raoul and plans to escape Erik.
Erik, though, catches on to the plan. He strikes first, kidnapping Christine during a performance of /Faust/. The police get involved, as does Raoul, who tries to explain who the Opera Ghost is. Evidence points to Erik having stolen the Count of Chagny’s carriage, racing off towards Brussels. Erik’s Persian henchman, though, knows otherwise and offers to bring Raoul to see both Christine and Erik by travelling beneath the Opera to Erik’s house on the underground lake. Erik gives Christine a choice, agree to marry him or see the Opera destroyed during a performance. Given the choice, Christine does what she can to delay Erik, ultimately choosing to marry him. However, this choice opens a flood which washes Raoul and Christine out, never to be seen again. Erik dies of a broken heart.
The Phantom of the Opera has been adapted before, including the 1925 film with Lon Chaney, the 1943 film with Claude Rains, and the 1974 Phantom of the Paradise with Paul Williams. Andrew Lloyd Webber was looking to put on a romantic musical and was pointed at The Phantom. The novel isn’t so much romantic as tragic, with romance being the key to the Phantom’s fall. Webber watched the 1925 and 1943 films, but didn’t see a way to get the story to translate to a musical. However, he found a used copy of the then out of print novel and read that, leading to the creation of the musical. Webber’s The Phantom of the Opera opened in London’s West End in 1986 and on Broadway in 1988. The musical is the longest running Broadway musical and the second longest West End musical after 1985’s Les Misérables.
The problem when analysing with stage productions is that they can change with each performance. Little things come and go, actors hit marks differently in subtle ways. A long running musical also has cast changes during its run, and The Phantom of the Opera has been on Broadway for thirty years. Musicals based on a novel need to change the approach in two ways. The first is run time. Novels take as long as they need. Le Fantôme de l’Opéra was first serialized, running several months. Audiences are willing to sit through about two to three hours, but the actors also have a limit on how long they can perform.
The second way a musical changes a narrative is that the story is carried by the music. There is still action, still dialogue, but the thrust of the plot is done with music, both the singing and the background music. Different ranges carry different roles; two roles with the same range, ie, two tenors or two sopranos, set up a conflict between the characters. With The Phantom, Christine and La Carlotta are both sopranos and both are in competition to be the diva of the opera being staged.
That out of the way, the Webber musical remains close to Leroux’s novel. Some changes are made – little details such as the operas being put on. M. Moncharmin and M. Richard become M. André and M. Firmin, more to work with the music’s meters. Instead of Roméo et Juliette and Faust, both used by Leroux to foreshadow and set the tone, Webber uses the fictional opera Hannibal and provides a score to the Phantom’s own work, Don Juan Triumphant, then uses that same music as the base for the climax with Raoul, the Phantom, and Christine.
One major change is how Raoul and Christine are betrothed. The novel implies an engagement. The musical has them secretly wed away from the Phantom’s prying eyes. The early part with the young Raoul and young Christine were cut, later added through song as Christine becomes wistful for that happier time. The fates of the three leads, though, is still left in the air. La Carlotta gets an expanded role in the musical. As the Opera’s diva, she acts as a foil to Christine. It’s amusing when the Phantom curses her to croak like a toad, but Carlotta never stops blaming Christine for what happens.
The musical keeps Christine’s introduction as she moves from being in the chorus to becoming a lead singer, much to La Carlotta’s annoyance. Raoul isn’t on the verge of a nervous breakdown; he’s in love with Christine but not to the point that he’s lost his mental faculties. The Phantom becomes a sympathetic character, releasing Christine when all his lost so that she may have her happiness even if he can’t have his. The result is very much a tragedy, with the Phantom an anti-hero.
Other key scenes kept are the masquerade, though instead of the Raoul discovering the secret of the Opera Ghost and Christine’s Angel of Music, the Phantom discovers the secret wedding. The staging of the Phantom’s opera is expanded and leads to Raoul’s pursuit of Erik, this time without the Persian. The ending still has the fates of the three leads left in the air, with Raoul and Christine running away together and the Phantom disappearing.
Given the restrictions of the format, Andrew Lloyd Webber’s The Phantom of the Opera remains faithful to Gaston Leroux’s Le Fantôme de l’Opéra, itself based on rumours and mysteries at the Opéra national de Paris, many still unsolved today. The translation of the tragedy to a musical takes advantage of the music to give depth to the characters and scenes in a way prose can’t.