Saturday, September 28, 2013

Celebrate Musicals Week - Comparing the Past to the Present

There are many differences between The Phantom of the Opera (2004), and the original Broadway musical by Andrew Lloyd Webber.  One of the differences between the two that is especially noticeable, is how the main characters are portrayed.  I am going to compare the Phantom and Christine of the 2004 adaptation to the Phantom and Christine of the original musical from 1986.

Gerard Butler vs. Michael Crawford

Gerard Butler.
I like Gerard Butler, I really do.  He seems like a very nice person, and he is definitely a talented actor.  However, even his awesome Scottish-ness can't make him a good Phantom.  In fact, it hurts him rather than helps him - at some moments in the 2004 movie I can hear a hint of his Scottish accent, which is weird, since The Phantom of the Opera takes place in Paris, France.  But then, the original musical from 1986 was British (Andrew Lloyd Webber is English, and most or all of the original cast were British as well), so none of it makes sense anyway.  In the movie, Madame Giry has an over-the-top French accent, while a lot of the other people in the cast have a British accent, which only makes it all more confusing.

Some prefer Gerard Butler's singing to Michael Crawford's, because his voice has a darker and deeper quality.  Gerard Butler can sing well, but his singing style is not meant for the role of the Phantom.  Being in a band does not provide the kind of experience needed to play a major role in Musical Theatre.    The Phantom is supposed to be the angel of music, and Christine Daae's teacher.  The decision to cast Gerard Butler was made by marketers and producers to draw in the masses, rather than being driven by the artistic vision.  The role of the Phantom requires a breadth of soul and depth of human experience, that is lost on such young and pampered actors as Gerard Butler and Emmy Rossum.  Michael Crawford betters Gerard in this respect, because he brings a certain maturity to the role.

The Phantom is supposed to be capable of sounding like an angel, and sounding like a demon.  I think of him more as an angel living in hell, or someone whose soul has become corrupt and disfigured because of the mistreatment they have suffered.  He is an angel corrupted by his Faustian zeal.  Like in the British film, The Red Shoes (1948), by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, the Phantom's artistic ambitions have a demonic quality.  In Romanticism, people strive to reach for the sublime.  In The Red Shoes, the ballet dancer strives for perfection in her art form.  She becomes possessed by the spirit of her art, and must sacrifice to achieve artistic perfection.

The Phantom should have a hypnotic and angelic voice, like in the song "The Music of the Night", in order for Christine to be deceived by him, and to fall under his spell.  In "The Music of the Night", the Phantom wants Christine to be blind to his disfigurement, because he wants her to fall in love with his soul, not his body.  He wants her to "learn to see, to find the man behind the monster".
"Close your eyes for your eyes will only tell the truth 
And the truth isn't what you want to see 
In the dark it is easy to pretend 
That the truth is what it ought to be..."
Michael Crawford.
The important theme of appearance versus reality in The Phantom of the Opera, and the concept it contains of a many layered reality of subterranean depths and soaring artistic heights, is completely lost on these two young and inexperienced actors.  Butler's and Rossum's characters are too superficial, more Romeo and Juliet than the Phantom and Christine, but its more than that.  The society that finds this empty headed, clean cut, pretty-boy quality appealing has remade this story in its own image.  

Gerard Butler's Phantom is less versatile than Michael Crawford's.  He just doesn't seem as convincing to me as Michael Crawford's Phantom.  If Gerard Butler's Phantom showed up in my mirror, I would be less compelled to follow him to his lair.  His singing voice is uni-dimensional, while Michael Crawford's is far more developed, and in my opinion, much more Phantom-like.

Physically, Gerard and Michael's Phantoms differ from each other, as well.  When the facial disfigurement of Michael's Phantom is revealed, it is more distinct and dramatic, and actually has an effect on the audience.  Gerard's Phantom, on the other hand, has a sunburn on one side of his face instead.  That takes so, so, so much away from the story.  One wonders why Christine chooses Raoul over him in the end anyway, if his disfigurement is so minor, and after all he is the more handsome of the two.  Well, we all know that Christine is not so shallow as all that, but wouldn't the story have been far different if the Phantom had not been disfigured?  There wouldn't be a story if he wasn't.  He would never have become a murderous Phantom; he would just be Erik.  Everything meaningful about The Phantom of the Opera has been dissolved and stripped away from this production.  It has been eviscerated.

This all brings me to something I have observed in our society - we are pretty-ifying everything.  The vampires of folklore were dark and frightening:


...but now they look like models...

Edward Cullen.

Look at what's happened to the Phantom.  Once he was visibly frightening, like Lon Chaney's Phantom from the 1925 horror film, based on Leroux's novel.  His Phantom was so frightening, that during the unmasking scene, many of the women in the audience fainted.

Lon Chaney as the Phantom in The Phantom of the Opera (1925).

Now, the Phantom looks like this...

Gerard Butler as the Phantom in The Phantom of the Opera (2004).

...and Gerard Butler is a very handsome guy.  That's the problem.  The Phantom is not supposed to be a very handsome guy, even with the mask on.  Michael Crawford is a very handsome guy too, but when he is unmasked, he actually looks deformed, while Gerard's Phantom doesn't really have a deformity at all.  I find that this strongly and obviously contradicts one of the messages that can be taken away from the story - that we are beautiful if our soul remains untarnished, even if we are tarnished physically on the outside.

Emmy Rossum vs. Sarah Brightman

Sarah Brightman.
I think that people over-react when they go on about how scary Sarah Brightman's eyes are, or that she doesn't blink enough, or that she can't act or emote feelings, blah blah blah.

Okay, I'll try to put it more lightly...let's just say, I strongly disagree with the idea that Sarah Brightman does not make a good Christine Daae.

Although, however much I love Sarah Brightman, I will admit that I prefer Sierra Boggess's performance of "Wishing You Were Somehow Here Again".  Sierra didn't just perform that song, she felt it.  Just look at the tears in her eyes after she has performed the song.  She put so much feeling into it, that I was impacted emotionally.  I could feel her pain, and the emotion that mounted up during the song.  I always feel a sense of emotional fulfillment after listening to it, like I could let go and allow myself to feel sad, and grieve with Christine, despite not experiencing what she has experienced.  She forced me to feel empathy.

As I stated in my previous post, Sarah Brightman's Christine embodies the dark Romanticism of the Gothic genre.  The Phantom of the Opera is very much a Romantic story.  Not in the romantic way, with a little r, although The Phantom of the Opera has romance too.  I mean Romantic, with a big R, as in the Romantic Era, or the Romantic Philosophy of Byron and the other Romantic poets (John Keats, William Wordsworth, Percy Bysshe Shelley, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and William Blake), the Brontës, and Mary Shelley, and the Romantic music of Ludwig van Beethoven and Robert Schumann, etc., etc..  People of the present day seem to shy away from anything real, dramatic, or Romanticized.  We've replaced the vampires of old folklore with a model, and Lon Chaney's Phantom with Gerard Butler's.  We are down-playing everything, and as a result, characters and stories have become more stale, and are limited to the constraints of what we're comfortable with.

Emmy Rossum.
I like many of the portrayals of Christine Daae that other women have to offer - Sarah Brightman's portrayal is not the only one I like.  But the other Christine Daae's are all very different from hers.

Take Emmy Rossum's Christine.  Emmy Rossum can act well enough, but her Christine is very bland and forgettable.  There's no soul in her performance - she only presents to the audience what she feels she is expected to present, and nothing more.  She can show emotion, but I never feel like she's really feeling it.  She never really becomes Christine.  I'm always aware that she is acting.

The 2004 adaptation sterilized the story of The Phantom of the Opera to the point that its meaning was removed.  It was too timid to keep to the intrinsic artistic vision of the original story, and instead conformed to the usual generic formula in film making today.  We should allow art to reveal, not manipulate it to hide and suppress.  When compared to the original musical, the movie is superficial and reduces the story to something cheap and shallow.  This process of evisceration is common in today's culture.  In The Other Boleyn Girl (2008), for example, one of the most significant happenings in history is reduced to a cheap titillating tale, a tale which ignores all the mysterious and wondrous aspects of the true story of Anne Boleyn, and her pivotal and captivating role in the struggle for religious and social reformation in England, that had been going on since Wycliffe and the Peasants' Revolt.  Why does our society strive to cover up the meaningful with the meaningless, the significant with the insignificant?

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