What can possibly be new with Andrew Lloyd Webber’s “Phantom of the Opera,” the indestructible hit that’s been running since 1986 in London and since 1988 on Broadway, where it’s one of only three shows to gross $1 billion?
It turns out that the touring version (directed by Laurence Connor) enjoying a six-week stint at the Kennedy Center, which officially opened Friday night, features a whole new design, the better to tote this pioneering megamusical to more points on the North American map. It also turns out that Washington Post critics Anne Midgette and Philip Kennicott had never before really dug into this cultural cornerstone. With theater critic Nelson Pressley, they weigh in at last.
Nelson Pressley: It seems late in the day for first thoughts on “Phantom,” but Anne, somehow you’ve never been.
Anne Midgette: I cut my teeth on musicals, which is what led to my love of opera — though I’ve never been a big fan of Andrew Lloyd Webber. Still, I was unprepared for how much I disliked “Phantom.” Webber, post-“Superstar,” has a knack for writing great sweet tunes that stick in your ear but don’t follow through into a satisfying song (witness “Memory” from “Cats” or “Don’t Cry for Me Argentina” from “Evita”). With its emphasis on spectacle and size, “Phantom” certainly reflects a particular era of musical theater (“Les Miz,” “Miss Saigon,” etc.): the stage equivalent of 1980s-style big hair. I did enjoy the opera sequences: The jokey pastiches of 19th-century opera tropes helped leaven a long evening.
I would have enjoyed the show more had it been better staged, better cast, or presented without that particularly awful amplification — now I see why people complain about musicals in the Kennedy Center Opera House. I kept looking up for supertitles (which the opera regularly uses) to help me understand the words. Kaitlyn Davis, who sang Christine on Thursday night (Julia Udine will take the role for much of the run), was a little too credible in the role of an immature ingenue, and Storm Lineberger sang choppily as Raoul. Chris Mann, of “The Voice” fame, didn’t have much stage or vocal presence; I will charitably ascribe that to his recent appendectomy, which forced the premiere back by a week. Most of the leads had trouble finding the right pitch.
Philip Kennicott: I agree with what Anne said about the problematic Kennedy Center amplification, though after spending the evening with the score of “Phantom,” I can say it’s a significant blessing not to understand the doggerel of Charles Hart’s lyrics. Amplification dematerializes the theatrical experience and divorces the louds and softs of the performance from genuine intimacy or physical exuberance. The result is an experience closer to watching a screen than an actual living, theatrical performance. The singers might as well be automatons.
But of course, they are automatons, and it’s impossible to care about any of these characters, all of them cobbled together from a superficial trawling of 19th-century theatrical and literary archetypes. Raoul is the stock Handsome Heroic Figure, the Phantom is the Tortured Genius, Christine is barely fleshed out beyond the Ingenue and Carlotta is a flimsy Temperamental Diva. You can’t engage these paper figures in serious dramatic interaction. And that’s why amplification is so fundamental as a part of Lloyd Webber’s creative act. If he can’t turn up the volume, he can’t create tension.
Nelson Pressley: Philip, you’re close to where I was when this appeared in the 1980s with its huge scale and spectacle. Lloyd Webber was my bête noire: I intensely preferred Stephen Sondheim, who created rich humans while Lloyd Webber drew cartoons.
Now I sort of like the kitsch. When Lloyd Webber powers up his pop-romantic instincts and sends Christine down to that creepy underground lake — okay, got me. Definition of guilty pleasure.
My problem on Thursday, though, is that I don’t think it’s being performed at top-notch levels. A natural challenge, no doubt, after nearly three decades. Live theater shouldn’t have to try to live this long, should it?
It is possible to be dashingly frightening as the Phantom, pitiable as Christine, etc. But after the original cast, with Michael Crawford drawing wide praise as the Phantom, the actors have never been the stars. It seems that megamusicals endure because the ride is technically reliable.
That’s almost still true. This new set by Paul Brown is less glossy than the Maria Bjornson original. It embraces a more authentic 19th-century stagecraft, with transparently flat backdrops for the operas-within-the-musical, and with a great spinning slab of a building foundation that actually has a nice surprise during the underground descent. The performance is at its pulpy best here, with the score in pop-chug mode. The chandelier dances around differently, but it still dances.
Even so, there was a persistent dark sex appeal to the original that’s lost in this earthier approach — along with a lot of dramatic tension, surprisingly, regarding the Phantom’s nastier acts.
Midgette: There was certainly no sex appeal to this anodyne staging — Paul Brown’s sets had a lot of moving parts, but it felt like everything and everyone was simply going through the motions — or to the Phantom, who, despite the best efforts of technology, never came across as particularly sinister. I kept being aware of the relative smallness of the stage, which isn’t small by Broadway standards). Even the chandelier was anticlimactic, hanging over the audience when we came in, so that there was no surprise when it began to do its stuff.
As to your observation about the piece’s shallowness, Philip: Yes, some of these characters are paper-thin, but so are some of the characters in opera — which is, of course, the source of these stereotypes. To me, the problem is that none of the cast really had the personality to make much of the roles, with the arguable exception of Phumzile Sojola, who at least got across the trope of the temperamental tenor Ubaldo Piangi. (Jacquelynne Fontaine sang decently as Carlotta.) But there are plenty of incoherent and shallow operas, even in the canon of “great works.” For me, a far bigger problem is that it just doesn’t have much musical muscle tone, and a lot of flab.
Kennicott: I actually saw the original “Phantom” years ago and didn’t like it much better. I would say it’s not “some” of the characters that are paper-thin, but all of them, and unlike some operas with famously awful libretti, there isn’t anything in the music to redeem the piffle of the flimsy drama, cliched lyrics or incoherent book in “Phantom.” We’re trying to understand why this musical has been so phenomenally successful, so I’m not sure comparing it to the worst of opera yields any insight. I’ll end with a happy endorsement of Nelson’s observation that “Phantom” looks better today than it did when it was new, thanks to a general decline in musicals since then. “Phantom” seemed to me then as it does now a testament to the degradation of theatrical taste.
Pressley: A last note about the music itself — the “muscle tone.” The current orchestra features six string players, five winds/horns, and three keyboards; the mad “Phantom,” built on excess, wants more. It’s roughly a third of the size of the orchestra that played the score on Broadway’s opening night; that makes it even tougher for “Phantom” to put its best face forward.
The Phantom of the Opera, music by Andrew Lloyd Webber, lyrics by Charles Hart, additional lyrics by Richard Stilgoe, book by Stilgoe and Andrew Lloyd Webber. Directed by Laurence Connor. Choreography, Scott Ambler; set design, Paul Brown; costumes, Maria Bjornson; sound design, Mick Potter; lights, Paule Constable; video and projection design, Nina Dunn; musical director, Dale Rieling. About 2½ hours. Through Aug. 20 at the Kennedy Center Opera House. Tickets: $25-$209. Call 202-467-4600 or visit kennedy-center.org.