Auditorium Theatre

Near the end of act one of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s The Phantom of the Opera, a man is killed. His garroted corpse, hung from a long rope, drops down into the middle of a performance at the Paris Opera. After an interval, during which the romantic hero and heroine sing their big love duet, the Paris Opera performance continues, only to be interrupted again by a chandelier crashing to the stage, bringing the play to intermission.

When act two begins, there is much talk about the chandelier, virtually none about the hanged man. There, in a nutshell, lie the priorities of Lloyd Webber’s lavish, lumbering, phenomenally popular musical. The insignificance of the man’s death is right in line with the emotional and moral emptiness of the piece, as well as with the sloppiness that pervades its narrative reworking of Gaston Leroux’ much-filmed 1911 novel. The important thing is the chandelier–both in the opera and as a factor in the overwhelming hype that has stirred $15 million in advance sales for the show’s Chicago run.

You can’t separate the schlocky musical and theatrical craft that pervades the show from its popularity. Andrew Lloyd Webber didn’t name his production group the Really Useful Theatre Company, Inc., for nothing: everything bad about the show, as well as everything good, is calculated for maximum box-office response. This isn’t a show about art, or romance, or mystery–all elements in the original Leroux story that were preserved in its numerous movie versions, even when they strayed far from the original plot. Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Phantom is about money–your money, folks, and how to part you from it.

There are, as I indicated, good things about the piece. Maria Bjornson’s costumes are really marvelous, contrasting the elegantly austere black-and-white motif of the Phantom’s opera-opening formal wear and ivory mask with the elaborately colorful outfits worn in the several spoofs of 19th-century operatic excess that give the work its only moments of fun, heavy-handed though they are. (One sequence from a fictitious opera called “Hannibal” features an armor-clad tenor standing atop a mechanical elephant as a corps of slave girls pirouettes to the crack of an overseer’s whip.) Bjornson’s heavily draped sets, too, are lovely, especially under the shadow-sensitive lighting designed by Andrew Bridge.

And no doubt about it, the production features strong musical values. The lead vocalists–Mark Jacoby as the Phantom, Karen Culliver as his beloved protege Christine Daae, Keith Buterbaugh as Christine’s lover Raoul, and Rick Hilsabeck, David Huneryager, Donn Cook, and Olga Talyn in smaller roles–may act like department-store mannequins, but they have top-notch voices. (Ironically, the only performer who brings an ounce of humanity to her role is Patricia Hurd, in the buffoonish supporting role of the temperamental diva Carlotta.) The rich choral singing and lush, sonorous orchestral sound (credit is due to musical director Jack Gaughan and musical supervisor David Caddick) are almost good enough to disguise the absence of musical substance in Lloyd Webber’s writing.

In fact, they do more than disguise it; they enhance it. Because in Lloyd Webber’s work, absence of substance is the point. There’s not a fresh idea or an unusual sound in the score–nothing, in short, to threaten the vast majority of the ticket-buying audience. Lloyd Webber’s success is due to his understanding that the more banal and bland pop is, the less personality the composer invests in his writing, the more people will listen to it.

Similarly, the libretto by Charles Hart, Richard Stilgoe, and Lloyd Webber isn’t merely sloppy in its narrative structure (full of gaping holes) or simpleminded in its imagery; it deliberately, aggressively drains from the Gaston Leroux story everything that might be considered thought-provoking or poetic–anything that might make an audience (gasp!) think about the implications of this most theatrical of all the great horror legends.

The only thing I really don’t understand about the show is the praise given its special effects. The rowboat on a lake of candles, the Phantom’s voice echoing from the back of the theater, the hidden doorway in the dressing-room mirror, the sparks of fire the Phantom shoots out of his cane, the split-second burst of flame that erupts from the sides of the stage, the chandelier (which doesn’t look at all like glass) that shakes and then drops, obviously suspended by wires, in a ridiculous arc that leads it to the stage (an effect stolen from Ken Hill’s lower-budget Phantom, seen earlier this year at the Chicago Theatre)–these are all simple tricks. Like the stadium rock concerts whose sensibility Lloyd Webber has so successfully transferred to the musical-theater stage, The Phantom of the Opera is done with smoke and mirrors and lots of reverb. And hype–the kind of hype that pushes audiences into the trap of convincing themselves that if they’ve paid this much money, this stuff must be good. It isn’t.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Joan Marcus.