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.
The Phantom of the Opera, or, in it’s original French, Le Fantôme de l’Opéra, originated as a serial by Gaston Leroux, appearing in Le Gaulois starting in September of 1909. Since then, it has been collected as a novel, translated, and adapted in many ways, including the 1925 silent film with Lon Chaney, the 1943 film with Claude Rains, the 1962 Hammer horror film with Herbert Lom*, the 1986 Broadway musical by Andrew Lloyd Webber, and the 1974 rock opera horror comedy, Phantom of the Paradise.
Phantom of the Paradise didn’t just adapt The Phantom of the Opera. Writer and director Brian De Palma was inspired by hearing a Muzak cover of a Beatles song in an elevator and wondered what it was like for the original artist. From there, he went to the German legend of Faust, a story that has also been adapted often since Christpher Marlowe’s The Tragic History of Doctor Faustus in the very early 1600s. Let’s sum up both stories.
Faust is the classic story about making a deal with the devil. Unhappy with his life despite being a successful scholar, Faust calls upon the Devil to make a trade. For knowledge and magic powers to let himself discover the pleasures of the world, Faust is willing to sell his soul. Mephistopheles, representing the Devil, agrees but with one condition; Faust has only so much time, the amount varying by telling of the legend, and when time’s up, his soul is forfeit. Mephistopheles performs the magic Faust wants and, time does run out. Depending on the version of the legend, Faust is sometimes saved by striving to be a better man despite the deal with the devil. Most versions, though, see the scholar damned to Hell for eternity, thus showing the lesson of what happens when one sells one’s soul.
The Phantom of the Opera is less about selling one’s soul and more about obsessive love. The Paris Opera House is home to the story about the dangers of obsession and show business. Lurking within the bowels of the Opera House is the near-urban legend Phantom. The Phantom, very much real, hears a singer, Christine Daaé, and falls in love** with her. Christine, though, loves another, Raoul. The Opera House next production is a operatic version of Faust. Christine, however, does not get the lead role. Instead, La Carlotta, a prima donna in both senses of the term, gets the part, upsetting the Phantom, who has taught Christine how to sing. The Phantom insists that Christine marry him, for no one else may have her. Christine tells Raoul about the Phantiom, but the scoundrel overhears and kidnaps Raoul and threatens to destroy the Opera House. It is only through Christine’s pity and empathy for the Phantom that she and Raoul are able to escape and prevent the explosion of the theatre.
Phantom of the Paradise takes both tales. The opening of the movie has a good summary of what it’s about; “This film is the story of that search, of that sound, of the man who made it, the girl who sang it, and the monster who stole it.” The three main characters are Swan, played by Paul Williams, Winslow Leach/the Phantom, played by William Finley, and Phoenix, played by Jessica Harper. Williams also wrote the music for the movie. Winslow is a budding young songwriter hoping for his big break by following the band, the Juicy Fruits. Swan, owner of Death Records, is looking for a new act to christen his soon-to-open cathedral to rock, the Paradise and hears Winslow’s work, “Faust”. Swan, though, wants an ingenue, someone he can guide personally, not a songwriter who does his own work.
Swan isn’t one to have terms dictated to; he does the dictating. Winslow’s “Faust” is exactly what he needs for the Paradise, so Swan acquires the song without letting Winslow know. Winslow susses out that something’s up and goes to Swan’s mansion, where there is a line up of women who want to be Swan’s next big hit. One, Phoenix, is singing “Faust”. Winslow is impressed, and is willing to allow her and just her to sing his work. Still, “Faust” is his, not Swan’s, so he tries to get in to see the elusive artist. Swan, though, arranges for Winslow to be arrested, tried, and sentenced to get him out of the way.
In prison, Winslow is volunteered for experiments, thanks to Swan, and has his teeth replaced. Winslow escapes, but in a freak record press accident, has half his face disfigured and his vocal chords destroyed. He’s reported dead, but Winslow escapes into a theatre. Unseen, he reaches the costume department and takes a costume, including a large bird mask that hides his disfigurement. When the Paradise opens, the Phantom is there to sabotage the Beach Bums, formerly the Juicy Fruits. Swan works out who the Phantom is, though, and makes an offer. In return for re-writing “Faust”, Swan will have Phoenix in the lead. Winslow agrees, and signs in blood. Swan bring Winslow to the recording room and provides a voice box. It works best when Winslow is plugged into the recording equipment at the studio, but gives him an electronic voice otherwise. Winslow works hard to rewrite “Faust”.
Swan breaks the deal soon enough. He replaces Phoenix with his newest act, Beef, played by Garrit Graham. Beef. a glam rocker, doesn’t have the range Phoenix does. The Phantom discovers the duplicity as Swan’s people brick up Winslow’s recording studio. Winslow breaks out, his desire for vengeance. Beef is the first to discover the Phantom on the loose. He hears the Phantom’s anguish. Worse, the Phantom shows up while Beef is taking a shower and threatens him, Swan, and the Paradise if Phoenix is not given “Faust”. Beeef tries to flee, but is forced to stay.
“Faust” debuts, with the Undeads, the former Beach Bums, backing up Beef. The Undeads are in make-up similar to that used by Kiss*** while Beef struts around like a glam Frankenstein****. The Phantom, though, is ready. He throws a neon lightning bolt at Beef, electrocuting the singer. Swan’s assistant, Philbin, pushes Phoenix on stage to keep the crowd from tearing the Paradise apart. Phoenix is a hit.
As Phoenix leaves the stage, the Phantom kidnaps her. He reveals himself as Winston and implores her to leave before Swan can get his hooks into her. Phoenix doesn’t believe him and runs away to Swan. Swan seduces her, where he notices Winslow watching. Winslow tries to kill himself, but, despite the deep stab, still lives. Swan later explains that while he lives, Winslow will live, but once he’s dead, the wound will bleed as it should. Winslow, seeing the loophole, tries stabbing Swan, but Swan has his own contract.
Swan announces, through the cover of Rolling Stone, his upcoming wedding to Phoenix. Winslow, trying to make use of the loophole Swan revealed, goes digging through Swan’s collection of film. One reel gets the Phantom’s interest. On playing the film, Winslow discovers the Swan once tried to commit suicide twenty years before, so that he wouldn’t age. Before he could slice his wrists open, his mirror image talks to him, promising eternal youth for as long the film is safe. On another monitor, Winslow discovers Swan is planning on becoming an early widow, with Phoenix being killed just after the ceremony is complete. The reason? As Swan puts it, “An assassination live on television coast to coast – that’s entertainment.”
The Phantom destroys Swan’s collection of film, including the one that keeps him young, in a fire, then rushes down to stop the sniper from killing Phoenix. The wedding turns into chaos. As Swan’s film succumbs to the flames, Swan ages twenty years in mere moments before dying. Winslow has his masked knocked off, and the self-inflicted wound bleeds out.
As mentioned earlier, Paul Williams wrote the music for the movie. To give an idea of the range of styles involved, the Juicy Fruits were a greaser band, the Beach Bums were in the style of the Beach Boys, and the Undeads were proto-death metal with a goth element mixed with glam. Williams has cited “Our Souls” as his favourite piece of all that he’s written.
Phantom of the Paradise opened to decent numbers in Los Angeles, but flopped everywhere else except Winnipeg, Manitoba. The film remained in theatres in Winnipeg for four months straight, then made regular returns for over a year. The soundtrack went double gold in Winnipeg alone; a gold record in Canada at the time represented 10 000 sales. Winnipeg’s population in 1976 was over 560 000. In 2005, the fan-organized Phantompalooza was held in the theatre where the movie first opened, getting Gerrit Graham (Beef) and William Finley (the Phantom) out for it. The following year, Phantompalooza had as many suriving cast members inviited as the organizers could find and had Paul Williams in for a concert.
Despite being a flop outside Winnipeg, the movie was still influential. Without Phantom, there would be no Daft Punk. The two men who would become Daft Punk met at a showing of Phantom when they were 12 and 13. Their costumes were inspired by the Phantom’s. Guillermo del Toro was also inspired by the movie and would have named a daughter Phoenix if his wife hadn’t vetoed the suggestion.
The movie was ambitious. De Palma used both Faust and The Phantom of the Opera as inspirations, and borrowed from other literary works including Oscar Wilde’s The Portrait of Dorian Grey. During the wedding scene, De Palma had cameras in the crowd just to capture the action happening to make the scene feel more chaotic. Swan’s office and home are filled with mirrors, all the better for him to see the one he loves most. Likewise, the voice Swan gives to Winslow through the voice box is Swan’s own, the perfect voice. The movie reached high, and even with the stumbles, succeeds more than it fails.
For what is now known as a cult film, the movie has a pedigree of award nominations. It was nominated for an Oscar, Best Music Scoring, Original Song Score and/or Adaptation for Paul Williams, who lost to Nelson Riddle and his score for The Great Gatsby. There was a Golden Globe nomination, Best Original Score, which was won that year by Frederick Loewe and Alan Jay Lerner for their work on The Little Prince. The movie was nominated for Best Horror Film for the Academy of Science Fiction, Fantasy, and Horror Films, losing to Young Frankenstein. Phantom and Brian De Palma lost to the same movie and its writers – Mel Brooks, Gene Wilder, and Mary Shelley – for the Hugo for Best Dramatic Presentation. The film also got a nomination for the Writer’s Guild of America for Best Comedy Written Directly for the Screen, losing to Blazing Saddles. Not bad for a film popular only in Winnipeg.
Phantom took a huge risk, adapting both the legend of Faust and The Phantom of the Opera and turning them into a rock opera. As an adaptation, it melds both well. It’s a matter of taste on whether the movie is successful. It’s biggest drawback is that it is not clearly of any one genre. At the start, I called the movie a rock opera horror comedy, the sort of movie that leads to becoming a cult hit. The result, an ambitious, very 70s film that treats its origins and inspirations with respect underneath the outrageous costumes.
Next week, the history of adaptations continues with the 50s.
* The Hammer film used Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D Minor, creating a trope for that piece of music.
** Love, lust, it’s blurry from the Phantom’s view. Not so much from Christine’s.
*** Kiss revealed their make-up first in 1973, but Phantom had been filming since 1972. It looks like parallel development happened, where both the movie crew and Kiss came up with the idea independently.
**** I’d compare Beef to Tim Curry’s Frank N. Furter or his creation in The Rocky Horror Picture Show, but Phantom came out a year prior.