Thursday, October 11, 2012

Everything I Need to Know I Learned from Phantom of the Opera

Life Lessons from Andrew Lloyd Webber

My wife and I have an online Netflix account --- we don't get magic movie gifts in the mail, but occasionally when we boot up the system to download another episode of Dr. Who, the log-in page tells us that something new has been added to the available choices. Last night it said, surprise, you now can see Phantom of the Opera, recorded live at Royal Albert Hall in a special 25 Year Anniversary performance.

Since she and I both have lived in London, various UK venues have a place in our hearts, so as much for the theatre as for the program, we said sure, give it a go.

Now it bears revealing that prior to the Netflix version, I already had seen the play live four times, and I even have endured the movie version too, and in each instance I have come away thinking, "Ummm, so what's the big deal?"

I just don't get the enduring appeal. The problem seems to me that Phantom of the Opera violates the usual laws of story telling.

In a regular hero quest, we have a princess in a tower or enchanted sleep, and to earn her love, the questing knight has to overcome a series of obstacles, usually by combining courage and mental agility with a spiritual purity. He is supposed to be rich and handsome, but that's not why he gets the girl: it's because he tracks down the Holy Grail or locates a Horcrux or blows up a Death Star or two. Society is better off with the hero around: fewer dragons, more talking donkeys.

Phantom violates this. I don't get it. The hero who gets the girl doesn't do much more than stand around and look pretty, and once in a while sing something or other. He is rich, but that's as far as it goes. It's the Phantom himself who solves puzzles, writes operas, overcomes adversity. And apparently he's a hell of a music teacher to boot. He's the force of creative energy, yet in every single production, the creative, ambitious genius is killed (mostly for the crime of being ugly as a baboon's backside) and the standing-around-with-hands-in-his-pockets schmuck wins the princess.

I don't get it.

Of course Andrew Lloyd Webber himself doesn't really need me to get anything. As the man behind Evita, Jesus Christ Superstar, Joseph and the Technicolor Dream Coat, and Cats, he can laugh all the way to the bank. He owns Watership Down (famous for a novel about rabbits) plus has almost as much money as J.K. Rowling --- and a better art collection.

Even in the 25th Anniversary version the audience was weeping with joy when he came out and strutted around the stage. He got more applause than the main actors of that performance.

True, if you Google "I Hate Andrew Lloyd Weber," you will get a long list of hits. That does not negate the enduring appeal of this particular musical.

If you can't beat em, join 'em. So I have decided to embrace my inner Carlotta and live life according to the morals modeled in Phantom of the Opera.

Lesson 1
Never Take Off Your Mask

Phantom's downfall begins when he takes Christine to his secret lair the first time and, ungrateful wench that she is, she rips off his mask. At the end, a second mask removal brings down an angry mob and the end of the Phantom empire, if not his life. (Phantom's final fate remains ambiguous. Perhaps he escapes to Argentina with Evita.)

Moral of the story? Never let anybody see inside your mask.

Even the lead stars know this, during the curtain call. KEEP THE MASK ON.

Do not let people know who you are: always hide your true motives, your real self, the inner you. This is true even while rock climbing, as this shot of a mystery guest below reveals. This is one of the star teachers of the AVC Language Arts team --- but who, who, who is it? Wisely, he does not take off his mask, and all we can do is admire his masculine hands in their athletic tape, and the colorful patterns of his mask. Never let anybody ever see the real you, or they will reject you, marry a dork, and call down an angry mob to defile your secret lair.

Lesson 2
Like Toddlers, Women Need to be Watched Closely

Phantom reminds us that women need to be protected, even duped if necessary. Men need to watch over women, control them, plan their lives for them. Women can be laughed at if necessary and made to croak like frogs but always have to be managed or manipulated. A woman is never intact on her own or allowed to be an autonomous free agent. A woman is never to be trusted.

The Phantom trusted the stern ballet teacher, who initially (since she wears black), seems to be on his side. Nope, in the end, for no particular reason, she betrays him. Typical woman!

Christine Daae (please insert an imaginary accent mark over the final "e" of her name since Blog Spot won't do it for me) has her life managed by a series of men, each in turn. Her dead father has told her she needs an angel of music (presumably, a MALE angel of music), which, luckily for her, the Phantom himself agrees to be. He in some slightly devious, unexplained way can appear to her in her mirror, and without any sexual hanky panky (we assume he is a gentleman and averts his eyes when she's adjusting her nether garments in that same mirror), is able to give her voice lessons. And boy, they really have worked --- Christine can just about sing the chandelier off the ceiling.

Is she now set up, ready to become the next Sarah Brightman and maybe even marry Andrew Lloyd Webber himself? Or maybe she likes girls, plans to run off with the ballet-meister, Miss Giry. Alas no, since the play insists she can't have the world-class performing career the Phantom has prepared her for. Why not? I guess he won't be able to manage her affairs well enough, since he can't go to Wal-Mart in the daylight. (He has to wait until after dark, like the other zombies.)

So instead of a partnership with the angel of music, and instead of, say, a solo career, the plot wants us to think that Christine needs a husband, and so it's implied, once Raoul marries her, she will disappear into the vast kitchens of his presumed estate and then spend the rest of her life in pearls and heels, perfecting her meatloaf recipe. (Rocky Horror Picture Show fans can insert her the famous audience tagline, "What, Meatloaf again?")

The death of the Phantom and the utter ruin of the opera house is somehow the desired goal of the production, the thing we all applaud. That it will put all the ballerina girls out on the streets and deprive the Parisian audiences of a venue for public entertainment is no matter. So long as we get Christine safely busied with Tuperware and tykes, that's all that counts.

Gentlemen of AVC, take note. Andrew Lloyd Webber has sanctified it: the 1950s were right, and whatever happens, keep your wife off the stage, don't let her hang out with creepy older men, and if you meet overweight divas with foreign accents, it's okay to mock the pants of of them.

Lesson 3
It's Not Okay to Kill People, But if You Do Kill People, Kill Fat People

Excluding the Phantom himself, whose fate we are not sure about, in this musical two people die. In the old World War II movies, if there was a squad of soldiers, usually it was the African American soldier who would die first. If that racial profiling is not followed (since this is play without people of color), next on the usual list are social deviants --- foreigners, people of more than acceptable weight, loners. The first death in the play combines a figure who embodies all three deviations from the norm. Alone in the flies, the overweight props guy has been dismissing the possibility of the Phantom being real plus annoying the ballet girls with his hangman's noose antics. He is alone, probably unshaven, and in the productions I have seen, not slim and young but pot-bellied and older.

That's it. He's doomed. If you're not going to be one of the beautiful people, singing on the stairway in a glittery costume in the "Masquerade" sequence, at least try to be FRIENDS with beautiful people. Otherwise, it's a pauper's grave for you.

The other murder victim is Carlotta's partner, the fat and foreign Ubaldo Piangi. His first name even sounds like Pig Latin for somebody who's bald --- another social crime.

So that's it, ladies and gents, that is the moral universe of Phantom of the Opera: keep your mask on, control your women folk, and drink your Slim Fast.

For this we each dressed up fancy and paid a hundred bucks a seat?

Call me Old School, but I am going to stick to the true heroes in this world... people who know their left hands from their right, who live by a cuticle code of honor, and whose light sabers are always ready and bright. Yes, I am talking that most significant of cultural icons, Thumb Wars.

1 comment:

  1. You make some good points here. However, I feel that saying the story violates the "laws of story telling" because of the fact that it doesn't have a typical good guy, villain, and a maiden that makes it sound like all stories must have the same plot. The Phantom may have had good intentions, but the fact that he had gone through his life being hated by everyone and living in isolation I'm sure would make his personality not one that Christine would find very pleasant to have as a husband. So while the phantom is not intentionally bad, he can still come off as a bad person. It's similar to how in the movie, "Thor" how Loki simply wants to prove to his father that he can be just as good f a ruler as his brother and even shows to be a much kinder and clever person than his brother, Thor. As the movie progresses, we start to notice that Loki is becoming obsessed with his quest for power, but all in order to gain praise from his father. He still gets labeled as the bad guy despite this and honestly, it's unfair. But this doesn't make it a bad story just because the hero has an overbearing ego and the villain is smart and has good intentions.

    Another example would be in Doctor Who. While the Doctor is ultimately the hero of the story, he still has his moments where he forgets when to stop and you start to question whether he is truly good.

    Something we should also pay attention to when watching the Phantom of the Opera is the time period. It may seem a bit old fashioned that Christine marries a rich man with no particular talents, but that's how it was in the 19th century. Money was really the deciding factor in a marriage and the fact that Raul and Christine were attracted to each other was probably for superficial reasons. We should actually be praising Phantom for creating characters that so well represent the people of it's time despite the fact that our morals of how women and other minority groups who have suffered from discrimination have changed for the better.

    Perhaps this is why people find Phantom of the Opera to be such a great play. It isn't the fact that it has a happy ending or that the characters are particularly exciting themselves, but the fact that Andrew Lloyd Weber is able to transport us into a different time period in a way that is able to keep us entertained is a work of art in itself. It wasn't written for us to learn life lessons from, it is simply telling a story.