Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Broadway: Revisiting the Phantom of the Opera

Norm Lewis as the Phantom of the Opera. Photo: Matthew Murphy

The Phantom of the Opera
By Gaston Leroux
Music by Andrew Lloyd Webber
Lyrics by Charles Hart (with additional lyrics by Richard Stilgoe)
Book by Richard Stilgoe and Andrew Lloyd Webber
Directed by Harold Prince

Sometimes It’s Worth Going Back to a Classic Musical
By Lauren Yarger
When you see as many theater productions as I do, there has to be a special reason to see one more than once. One musical that recently got me back again – and I have seen it quite a few times actually – is The Phantom of the Opera.

Phantom is the longest-running show in Broadway history and the most successful stage musical of all time. It has been running over at the Majestic Theatre for almost three decades and is nearing its 11,000 performances. You might also have seen it one of the times the tour has stopped at The Bushnell.

The score has been a favorite of mine since I first heard Andrew Lloyd Webber’s haunting tunes (sung by Michael Crawford as Broadway’s first Phantom with Sarah Brightman as Christine.) I loved the swelling organ with a rock beat, the unbelievably high notes hit by Christine and the sad, yet surprisingly sexy Phantom. It brought Gaston Leroux’s tale of a disfigured man who hides underground at the Paris Opera House, haunting its inhabitants and falling in love with ingénue Christine Daae to life for me in a way the novel never did.

The production, directed by Hal Prince, with its opulent opera settings (Production Design by Maria Björnson) and thousands of candles lighting the way as the Phantom brings Christine to his lair via a boat on an underground river changed the face of musical theater on Broadway for years. 

I went back and saw it on a number of occasions, mostly to take out-of-towners to experience a Broadway show. On some occasions, I felt like it lived up to that original production. One production, probably about 10 years ago, was terrible. I thought the entire cast and crew should be fired. It looked like an amateur high school production.

So what prompted me to go see the musical again? The casting of Norm Lewis, one of my favorite singing voices on Broadway, as the Phantom. In 1990, Tony Award nominee Robert Guillaume (another favorite actor and singing voice) played the role when he succeeded Michael Crawford in the Los Angeles production, but Lewis was to be the first African-American to play the role on Broadway. Joining him is Sierra Boggess as Christine. He took over the role in May.

I went with a lot of excitement. Favorite show plus favorite actor equals great experience, right? Well, yes, but maybe night quite as much as I expected. I enjoyed seeing the show again – it is much cleaned up since that awful production 10 years ago. It seemed to me that some little bits had been added to give minor characters something extra to do. The 27-piece orchestra (large by some modern standards) still sounded great on the opening number in particular, but I felt that arrangements (Orchestrations by David Cullen and Andrew Lloyd Webber) let me hear individual instruments rather than a blend (Sound Design by Mick Potter).

Vocal arrangements also left me hearing single notes rather than crescendos of individual voices coming together as one (Musical Direction and Supervision by David Caddick). I also was disappointed to hear some of the Phantom’s songs rekeyed, though Lewis sings them well (I still got goosebumps on “Anywhere you go let me go too” from “All I Ask of You.”

Overall I liked Lewis, but he didn’t wow me as the Phantom. He didn’t seduce me like some other Phantoms have (or like Lewis did when he played Porgy a couple of seasons ago in in Porgy and Bess, for which he earned Tony, Drama Desk and Outer Critics Circle awards). Lewis is one of Broadway’s solid leading men, however, and is always worth seeing. He also starred as Javert in the 2006 Broadway reimagining of Les Misérables and played the role in the original record-breaking West End production of Les Misérables and the all-star 25th Anniversary Concert at London’s 02 Arena.

Boggess, who returns to the role (she was one of the youngest actresses ever to play Christine Daaé, which she originated in the hit, revised Las Vegas production in 2006) gives a really nice – and different—characterization. Usually the young soprano is portrayed as naïve and unaware of the depth of the Phantom’s feelings toward her, but this Christine is stronger, more aware and truly torn between the Phantom, for whom she obviously has compassion, and Raoul, her true love. Well done.

For me, this time around, the stand-out performance was a bit of a surprise, given my pre-performance assumption that I would be blown away by Lewis. Instead, I loved Jeremy Hays as Raoul. Beautiful voice, charming good looks and a nice take on the childhood friend of Christine’s who falls in love with the grown-up woman. The character can sometimes seem undeveloped and a bit wimpy, but not here. I totally was rooting for him.
If you haven’t seen this staple of the theater, this production might be the one. Certainly, it’s the choice if you find yourself in New York with out-of-town guests.

Phantom Fun Facts:
  • The Phantom Of The Opera became the longest-running show in Broadway history on January 9, 2006 with its 7,486th performance, surpassing the previous record-holder Cats, also by Andrew Lloyd Webber and also produced by Cameron Mackintosh
  • On Jan. 26, 2013, the New York production reached another historic, unprecedented milestone: becoming the first and only Broadway show ever to celebrate 25 Years. Previously, in February 2012, it became the first and only Broadway show ever to reach milestone performance 10,000. 
  • Since its debut on January 26, 1988, the Broadway production has grossed over $950 million with total attendance nearing 16 million. Even now, it is consistently among Broadway’s highest-grossing shows and remains a box office champ. Earlier this year, the production shattered the house record at The Majestic by having its best weekly gross in its entire 26-year history.
  • With worldwide grosses estimated at more than $5.6 billion, Phantom is the most successful entertainment venture of all time, with revenues higher than any film or stage play in history, including Titanic, Star Wars and far surpassing the world’s highest-grossing film Avatar (at $2.8 billion). Worldwide, more than 65,000 performances have been seen by 130 million people in 29 countries and 150 cities in 13 languages. There are seven productions around the world.\
  • The musical has won more than 70 major theater awards, including seven 1988 Tony Awards (including Best Musical) and three Olivier Awards in the West End. The original cast recording, with over 40 million copies sold worldwide, is the best-selling cast recording of all time. Since September 2010, thousands of high school and college student productions of Phantom have been licensed through R and H Theatricals.
Phantom plays at the Majestic Theatre, 247 West 44th St., NYC. Performances are Monday evenings at 8, Tuesday evenings at 7, Wednesday through Saturday evenings at 8, with matinees Thursdays and Saturdays at 2. www.PhantomBroadway.com.

Christians might also like to know:
-- No production notes, but I recommend it for older children.

**Note: The press representative for Phantom informs me that even though it sounded like it to me, none of the music has been written in a different key for Lewis. The only musical difference, he said,  (aside from sound design) is the addition of a trio in the Graveyard scene. While on the original London cast recording, it was never performed in its entirety until it was put in for Norm and Sierra’s opening night. (essentially it was a Phantom/Christine duet, with Raoul entering later without singing).

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Our reviews are professional reviews written without a religious bias. At the end of them, you can find a listing of language, content or theological issues that Christians might want to know about when deciding which shows to see.

** Mature indicates that the show has posted an advisory because of content. Usually this means I would recommend no one under the age of 16 attend.

Theater Critic Lauren Yarger

Theater Critic Lauren Yarger

My Bio

Lauren Yarger has written, directed and produced numerous shows and special events for both secular and Christian audiences. She co-wrote a Christian musical version of “A Christmas Carol” which played to sold-out audiences of over 3,000 in Vermont and was awarded the 2000 Vermont Bessie (theater and film awards) for “People’s Choice for Theatre.” She also has written two other dinner theaters, sketches for church services and devotions for Christian artists.

Yarger trained for three years in the Broadway League’s Producer Development Program, completed the Commercial Theater Institute's Producing Three-Day Training and produced a one-woman musical about Mary Magdalene that toured nationally and closed with an off-Broadway run.

She was a Fellow at the National Critics Institute at the O'Neill Theater Center in Waterford, CT. She writes reviews of Broadway and off-Broadway theater (the only ones you can find in the US with an added Christian perspective) at http://reflectionsinthelight.blogspot.com/.

She is editor of The Connecticut Arts Connection (http://ctarts.blogspot.com), an award-winning website featuring theater and arts news for the state. She is a contributing editor for BroadwayWorld.com and is a theater reviewer for the Manchester Journal-Inquirer. She previously served as Connecticut theater editor for CurtainUp.com and as Connecticut and New York reviewer for American Theater Web.

Yarger is a book reviewer for Publishers Weekly and freelances for other sites. She is a member of the National Book Critics Circle.

She is a freelance writer and playwright and member of The Drama Desk, The Outer Critics Circle, The American Theater Critics Association and The League of Professional Theatre Women. She served as a judge for the SDX Awards presented by the Society of Professional Journalists. She also is a member of the Connecticut Critics Circle and the CT Press Club.

A former newspaper editor and graduate of the University of Missouri’s School of Journalism, Yarger also worked in arts management for the Bushnell Center for the Performing Arts, the Hartford Symphony Orchestra and served for nine years as the Executive Director of Masterwork Productions, Inc. She lives with her husband in West Granby, CT. They have two adult children.

Copyright

All material is copyright 2008- 2017 by Lauren Yarger. Reviews and articles may not be reprinted without permission. Contact reflectionsinthelight@gmail.com

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Key to Content Notes:

God's name taken in vain -- means God or Jesus is used in dialogue without speaking directly to or about them.

Language -- means some curse words are used. "Minor" usually means the words are not too strong or that it only occurs once or twice throughout the show.

Strong Language -- means some of the more heavy duty curse words are used.

Nudity -- means a man or woman's backside, a man's lower front or a woman's front are revealed.

Scantily clad -- means actors' private areas are technically covered, but I can see a lot of them.

Sexual Language -- means the dialogue contains sexually explicit language but there's no action.

Sexual Activity -- means a man and woman are performing sexual acts.

Adultery -- Means a married man or woman is involved sexually with someone besides their spouse. If this is depicted with sexual acts on stage, the list would include "sexual activity" as well.

Sex Outside of Marriage -- means a man and woman are involved sexually without being married. If this is depicted sexually on stage, the list would include "sexual activity" as well.

Homosexuality -- means this is in the show, but not physically depicted.

Homosexual activity -- means two persons of the same sex are embracing/kissing. If they do more than that, the list would include "sexual activity" as well.

Cross Dresser -- Means someone is dressing as the opposite sex. If they do more than that on stage the listing would include the corresponding "sexual activity" and/or "homosexual activity" as well.

Cross Gender -- A man is playing a female part or a woman is playing a man's part.

Suggestive Dancing -- means dancing contains sexually suggestive moves.

Derogatory (category added Fall 2012) Language or circumstances where women are referred to or treated in a negative and demeaning manner.

Other content matters such as torture, suicide or rape will be noted, with details revealed only as necessary in the review itself.

The term "throughout" added to any of the above means it happens many times throughout the show.

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I receive free seats to Broadway and Off-Broadway shows made available to all voting members of the Outer Critics Circle and The Drama Desk, the two professional critics organizations with journalists covering NY theater. Journalistically, I provide an unbiased review and am under no obligation to make positive statements. Sometimes shows do not make tickets available to reviewers. If these are shows my readers want to know about (I review all Broadway shows and pertinent Off-Broadway shows), I will purchase a ticket. If a personal friend is involved in a production, I'll let you know, but it won't influence a review. If I feel there is a conflict, I won't review their portion of the production.

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