Stranger Than You Dreamt It: Writing, Muses, and “The Phantom of the Opera”
I am just back from a night seeing The Phantom of the Opera with my mother. Like many sensitive and creative angst-ridden teenagers, I went through an intense Phantom phase when I was fifteen. I’ve read the original 1910 novel by Gaston Leroux. I’ve seen every film version from Lon Chaney in 1925, to Phantom of the Paradise (1974), to the abysmal adaptation of the stage musical (2005). The stage musical itself…well, I won’t admit to how many times I’ve seen that. Mostly because I’ve lost count, so I can admit nothing! Ha ha!
Basically, I know my Phantom.
The version my mom and I saw tonight was a new production of the 1986 Andrew Lloyd Webber musical. Same music, same costumes; new set, new director. My opinions on this production could be an essay in itself. For now, suffice it to say that I wholeheartedly agreed with two decisions; liked 2-3 in principle, but wish they’d been better executed; and mostly disagreed with the rest.
It’s still a good show, though. Of course it is. It’s the musical equivalent of Grandma’s chicken soup. Grew up with it. Loved it for years. Not the most sophisticated thing, but it’s what I turn to. Though I prefer the 1986 staging on the whole, this production gave me a lot to think about.
Let’s start with the Phantom himself. When I was 15, the Phantom was the hero. No question. Sure, he murdered a few people along the way, but he was misunderstood. He was sensitive. To quote Gaston Leroux…
…with an ordinary face, he would have been one of the most distinguished of mankind! He had a heart that could have held the entire empire of the world; and, in the end, he had to content himself with a cellar.
You see why the Phantom appealed to a creative-but-socially-anxious teenager.
Watching as a young adult, I’m more struck by the muse-artist relationship. Different actors give you different angles. Honestly, in this production, it was hard to tell which came first: the Phantom’s love for Christine, or his love for her voice. I think particularly of the few lines following the title song.
I have brought you
For one purpose and one alone
Since the moment I first heard you sing
I have needed you with me, to serve me, to sing
For my music…
They stood out more this time. Look – he’s not saying he fell in love with her at that first encounter. He’s saying that he heard that voice and said, “I need that.” Which begs the question – does he love Christine for her, or for what she can do for his art?
Here’s the thing: as artists, we’re constantly drinking in the world around us. Anything has the potential to inspire, to become art through us. This concept of muse is a sticky question, and yes, it’s one that makes me deeply uncomfortable. There is something wonderful about collaboration. There is something wonderful about someone who is very good at their art igniting in you the passion for your own.
Muses are different. If you’ve not read Christina Rossetti’s poem In the Artist’s Studio, take a break and do that now. So yeah, that’s part of it—that’s why, I suspect, Christine spent half of this performance looking like a deer in the headlights. She’s the Phantom’s idée fixe: she doesn’t get much of a chance to be Christine, a character in her own right. If they spent more time exploring her grief and father issues, that would help, but alas. Phantom fails the Bechdel Test hard. Some of that is source material, some of that is adaptation. But there’s something else, something the Phantom runs into…
You alone could make my song take flight,
It’s over now, the Music of the Night!
How sad is that? A brilliant composer—done. No more art. No more beauty. No more Music of the Night. It scares me. This notion of becoming so dependent on another person that in a sense, your art isn’t your own anymore. If everything you create is for them, to them, then really, it belongs to them. When they leave, you lose yourself.
It scares me because I can see how it might happen.
Teenage Me raged against the injustices wrought on the Phantom. He could have loved, and loved well, if only he’d been given the chance. But he wasn’t, and look at him now. It wasn’t fair. I felt his pain.
Adult Me smiles nervously. Yes, I can empathize—the creative figure behind the scenes, isolated by something that can’t be helped, something that is strange and different. I’m not a Christine: not in the spotlight, not terribly interested in it. I lurk in the basement, write the stuff, pull the strings.
But there’s a darkness and possessiveness to the Phantom. He’s better than Edward Cullen, but it’s a difference of degree rather than kind. Which is obviously problematic for multiple reasons, but we’re talking about art and muses. Muse relationships work best, I think, when there is some distance. You’re creating art partly to fill in that gap, but once you get too close, the art doesn’t work anymore, and neither does the relationship. It’s the Icarus Paradox.
So the Phantom tried to touch the sun. Should he be faulted for that? Not that, I don’t think. Murdering, yes. Threatening, yes. Blackmailing, stalking, keeping people against their will. None of that is good.
But reaching for just a little more? Falling in love?
I don’t think so. In the end, I still consider The Phantom of the Opera a tragedy. If Christine had felt the same; if he’d stuck to giving music lessons and writing avant-garde operas and learned to love her in an artistic, mentor-like way; if there’d been someone else; if, if, if…
For me, the saddest part of the musical comes just before the end of Act I. The Phantom emerges on the empty rooftop, after seeing Raoul and Christine’s makeout session.
“I gave you my music,” he whispers. “I made your song take wing.”
He gave the most important, deepest, and truest part of himself: his art. And she couldn’t—through no fault of Christine’s, it doesn’t work out. Sometimes life is like that.
It’s still awfully sad.
What I’m Listening to This Week
I just saw an Andrew Lloyd Webber musical. Obviously, I’ll be singing it for days. Even the baritone parts. Especially the baritone parts.
I couldn’t pick between “The Phantom of the Opera” and “The Music of the Night,” so here they both are. This is the original London cast, with Michael Crawford and Sarah Brightman. The 25th Anniversary cast runs a close second, but these two are still my favourites. Michael Crawford has the perfect voice for the Phantom: something just a little…different. And unlike Phantoms who simply stalk and shout, he actually shows us the Phantom’s whole emotional range: from grief to amused irony. Also, his high notes in “The Music of the Night”? Divine.
(Also, this version of “The Music of the Night” comes with an 80s-tastic music video!)
And Sarah Brightman…well, the role was written for her. Enough said.