The Phantom of the Opera

Starring David Staller as the Phantom

Herschfeld Broadway Productions,
Waterbearer Films, 1990, Musical Comedy

Why do people so fear their passions? They are the source of all things truly beautiful.

Our eyes are often traitors betraying their higher senses.

I am whatever you want me to be!

~the Phantom

Don Juan Triumphant!

This is a made-for-video production filmed live at the Hirschfeld Theater. The music and lyrics are by Lawrence Rosen and Paul Schierhorn. It has all of the quirks that come with a low-budget production that has been filmed live on stage yet I enjoy watching it very much. That is a lot, coming from me, because I normally do not like watching films of this sort. The feel of the live show is lost. I think a film adaptation should be a film adaptation. This was done for the musical by Yeston and Kopit, and later for the musical by Andrew Lloyd Webber. Yet, again, I find this one fun to watch.

In many ways, this movie has to be one of the most loyal to Leroux's original story that I have seen to date. On some key points, it is even more loyal than the 1925 silent movie starring Lon Chaney as Erik. Like any other movie, however, there are some major deviations from the novel. The infamous chandelier scene is written off, most likely due to the constraints of a low-budget filming of a live show. There is also no mention of a torture chamber in the Phantom's home, nor of his Punjab lasso. Joseph Buquet, an obnoxious drunk, is killed by a hatchet to the back during the Masquerade (instead of being found hanging by a noose). It is most likely planted there by the Phantom himself after Buquet finds a tunnel under a secret trap door and tries to incite others to find and raid the Phantom's lair.

The Phantom (David Staller) this time is a passionate, seductive, and dangerous prodigy whose ideas flirt with madness when compared to conventional wisdom. He is a man whose emotions run high and his home is a lair in which passion reigns. Unlike any other movie to date, this time the Phantom's skills and genius are not delegated only to one (or maybe two) areas of expertise. As in the original story, he is a widely accomplished prodigy with many skills. He is musician, magician, soldier, inventor, architect, poet, and more. Even during regular dialog between song numbers, he sounds like he is reciting poetry or singing. He has a very graceful walk, almost like he is floating. His face - covered by a black mask (as described by Leroux) - during the famous unmasking scene is extremely loyal to the original story, with the exception of the half-mask, half-facial deformity formula used in the musical composed by Andrew Lloyd Webber. If anything, what it does is to give an idea of what a "normal" Erik would have looked like.

Christine Daaé (Elizabeth Walsh) is not the empty-headed, melodramatic, wide-eyed damsel in distress portrayed in the silent film. She's outspoken with the Phantom even though she both fears and pities him. While the Phantom is a prodigy in several disciplines, he considers himself a musician first. His attraction to Christine is about the music. He loves her voice and hopes she can join him in his quest for perfect music. He first speaks to Christine from behind her dressing room mirror. Christine is struggling as she rehearses a musical piece. He begins coaching her on how to sing this piece. She asks who he is to which he replies, "I am (pauses) whatever you want me to be." She becomes afraid and asks him to go away, unless he is the Angel her father promised to send. The Phantom pauses, then replies, "I can be." They resume lessons.

Madame Giry enters the dressing room. She is styled after Andrew Lloyd Webber's portrayal as a younger but very stern dance instructor. (There is something disorienting about her hairline.) She seems knows about "him" and warns Christine to be on her guard. She may not be ready for where "he" might want to take her. Why Madame Giry knows so much confuses me a bit within context of this story. It makes sense within context of the Andrew Lloyd Webber version and in Leroux's book (where she is the boxkeeper for Box Five), but seems awkward here.

Later on, the ballerinas see a mysterious figure run by and begin their phantom stories. Some claim he has two heads, others three, stil others six. Madame Giry gets the girls back into ballet practice. Meanwhile another mysterious figure appears. He keeps writing notes in a booklet while he sneaks around as though looking for something. He tells Joseph Buquet and another stage hand that he is an insurance agent of sorts. Later on, he reveals to Christine that he is the daroga.

Carlotta (Beth McVey) is all fuss and feathers. She refuses to sing for a charity performance because the mere thought of poverty makes her whoozy. When Christine peforms in her place (and faints), she seems hurt to be so easily forgotten. The Phantom torments her at her next performance with falling props and by terrorizing Joseph Buquet to run screaming across the stage. She tries to sing later at the masquerade, where she becomes the victim of his ventriloquism. Instead of a toad, however, she is made mostly to sound like a baritone and at one point a donkey. Carlotta is a bit freaked out, even crosses herself at one point, but it is the first time I've seen her finish her aria after his joke on her. The Phantom does not seem to hate her all that much, because he dances with her right afterwards and she seems quite taken by him. (She leans back, eyes closed, as he looks down her cleavage. Oye...)

The portrayal of the managers follows what seems to have become a popular Phantom tradition. They serve as comedy relief. There is a scene with the Phantom hiding behind a picture in their office, using ventriloquism and small trap doors to play his usual tricks on them. At one point, the Phantom somehow hands each manager a note through two different trap doors at opposite sides of the office.

This movie is extremely true to Leroux's description of the aristocrat Raoul de Chagny. He is young, naive, and well-meaning; but he is no "heroic" match against a man as experienced as the Phantom. His relationship with Christine begins as a childhood friendship and grows into adulthood as true love. He is willing to sacrifice himself for her safety when she is taken by the Phantom. He accepts the assistance of the daroga, who has been able to trace the location of the Phantom's Lair. Raoul is able to convince the Phantom to allow Christine to choose freely. The Phantom is certain he will be chosen, especially after she sang from his Don Juan Triumphant, and seems hurt when Christine runs to Raoul instead.

This is the only movie (besides the low-budget animated children's adaptation) that keeps the daroga in the story. Even in the loyal 1925 version, the daroga is re-written as Inspector Ledoux. It is the daroga that comforts the Phantom after Christine chooses to be with Raoul. The Phantom, once again, feels alone in his quest for perfect music. He had hoped Christine would be different. The daroga offers to be his audience, and tries to reason with the Phantom. He says that "the world up there" is not ready and that too much chaos would erupt if everyone gave in too deeply their passions. The daroga, it seems, is the Phantom's quirky friend and number one fan. It turns out, they like to spice up each other's lives by playing Road Runner games. They each claim they could easily take the other down, but things would not be fun anymore if that happened. The Phantom laughs as he disappears into a puff of smoke.

In the spirit of a light-hearted musical comedy, the Phantom does not die. After Christine leaves, he approaches a lone ballerina, possibly Little Meg, who is practicing. He begins coaching her and when she asks who he is, he gives her the same answer as he did with Christine....

"I am," (pauses and twirls his cape), "whatever you want me to be!" (It's not all in what he says, but the way he says it.)

The Music

Song list of musical numbers is in the works. In the meantime, the real operas used in this production are as follows:

The aria Carlotta is trying to sing while Buquet chronically interrputs is "Ah! je ris de me voir" (The Jewel Song) from Gounod's Faust.

The song playing during the dance at the Masquerade is "Danse Macabre" by Camille Saint-Saëns.

The aria that Carlotta tries to sing during the Masquerade when the Phantom makes her a victim of his ventriloquist pranks is "Der Hölle Rache" (Hell's Vengeance) from Mozart's Die Zauberflöte (The Magic Flute).

My Own Comments and Musings

This is a musical comedy that appears to follow the spirit of certain re-tellings of the Don Juan legend as "The Tragi-Comic Tale of a Trickster in Search of the Ideal Woman" (Encyclopedia Brittania). The famous Don Juan of legend - the central figure of Erik's Operatic Masterpiece - was notorious for his hedonism, rebellion against the moral pieties of conventional life, and especially for his womanizing ways. Why did Erik have a second bedroom in his House on the Lake? Why did he sometimes request a lady's footstool for Box Five, according to the boxkeeper Madame Giry's testimonial?

This is not the dark, tortured soul of Webber's Phantom, Chaney's criminally insane genius, nor Englund's horrific immortal slave to the devil. This is not even Lom's misunderstood, persecuted Professor. He is a "Phunny Phantom," a mischievious, decadent trickster who likes to play practical jokes and flirt with women. Not since the Robert Englund film have I seen "phans" get so upset over that last one, but I think they take this way too seriously when they should not. I think they should have fun with it and enjoy the fun, flirty phantom for who he is.

I respect diverse opinions, especially on a diverse character such as the Phantom. However, I did crack a smile when I saw one viewer online who claimed to be a Leroux fan yet decried this film as insulting to "Eric." Same person was upset that the daroga and "Eric" would fight in this film when they are friends per Leroux. First off, Leroux spells the Phantom's name as "Erik" and Christine herself per Leroux makes issue of it. (She asks if he is Swedish because of the spelling, to which he replies that his name was given to him by accident.) This may sound petty to a reader who is new to the story, but anyone who claims to be dedicated to Leroux's Erik understands this point. As for his "fight" with the daroga, I do recall certain incidents per Leroux concerning a torture chamber, barrels of gunpowder, deep water, and the Siren. Erik insults, assaults, and threatens the daroga multiple times per Leroux. The Persian likewise constantly refers to Erik as "monster" and Erik has quite a few rude remarks in return. Their "skirmish" in this musical film is done in jest and they are quite chummy compared to Leroux. (Yet per Leroux, I get the impression they do have a great friendship even through the fights. Thus the beauty of the story.)

With the exception of "Perfect Music" and a few others songs, most of the music just does not "stick" to me. As a low-budget production, there are technical problems; most notably the "crackle" from the microphones that I kept hearing from time to time. The lack of funds also did not allow much room for lavish stage props, and so many things have to be left to the imagination. It is a PBS type of film, thus I would recommend it either as an educational video or for PoTO discussions about Don Juan and the Phantom. If you are a completist like me, I would also recommend it. It is too bad it did not have the financial backing like other versions, because I enjoyed this light-hearted version in spite of these personality quirks (and of course I emphasize once again this has to me the most eloquent Phantom in all the movie portrayals I've seen).

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