After 33 Years The Phantom of the Opera Remains The Greatest Musical of All Time
Surrender to the Music of the Night
Thursday was a special anniversary in London’s West End. It was the 33rd birthday of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s The Phantom of the Opera. In January it will hit 31 years on Broadway. It’s a record that no show can even hope to break. For one, the closest contenders, Chicago and the Lion King are a decade behind and for another, Phantom will probably never close…because it’s the greatest theatrical achievement in history.
Now, this is a qualified distinction. There’s a reason I’ve said “greatest” and not “best.” I don’t think that we can truly measure the quality of art. What’s perfect to me might be cheesy to you and what’s moving to you might be pretentious to me. I know there are people that don’t like this show (some of them write for The Mary Sue even). But we can’t argue with the numbers. Phantom has been running for decades. It’s been seen by over 140 million people in 35 countries and it’s made over SIX BILLION DOLLARS. It’s wildly successful and remains so.
Still, despite the Tony awards and eternal run and worldwide icon status, the Opera Ghost has his detractors. And I get that. Phantom is not a perfect show, and I say that as someone who deeply loves it and has seen it many many times. But it’s because it’s such a strange and unique show that it represents the highest triumph of musical theater.
Phantom is great theater. The Broadway show combines everything that makes theater great. Phantom should not work, honestly. It’s music is beautiful but it doesn’t have many high energy show stoppers. The actual story of the show is very basic and not a lot happens (compare it to Hamilton or Les Miserables where everything happens). If you need evidence of how bad The Phantom of the Opera can be, look no further than the 2004 movie directed by Joel Schumacher. It’s awful because it lacks talented singers yes, but it also doesn’t have the magic of theater. Because the combination of sets, costumes, music, story and the quiet, collective wonder of live performance make Phantom into a miracle.
The half mask. The candles rising from a misty lake. The masquerade. The frickin’ chandelier. Phantom of the Opera, the show, is iconic. And it’s conscious, hard-won iconography created by the best; designer Maria Bjorson, the late great director Harold Prince, lyricists Charles Hart and Richard Stilgoe all worked at the height of their powers to make this strange show succeed when it really shouldn’t. Everything you see on stage in Phantom is unique and evocative and beautiful. And then there’s the music.
Phantom is weird. Musically and structurally, it’s closer to well, an opera than a traditional musical. It’s almost entirely sung and the vocal and musical styles are closer to Puccini than they are to Gershwin. Think about it: “Prima Donna” is a complex, operatically inspired septet that has more in common with Mozart than anything else. This is a conscious choice by Lloyd Webber, because he uses musical styles and languages to tell his story in beautiful, subtle ways.
Sondheim and Schwartz get credit for their complex composition, but I don’t think we acknowledge enough the genius it took Lloyd Webber to not just emulate various operatic composers, but the musical elements he uses to distinguish the Phantom’s own compositions. This is getting deep into the music nerd weeds here, but the Phantom himself uses both whole tone and chromatic scales in his music – so it’s neither major nor minor. It was a subversive, revolutionary musical language in the late nineteenth century and it’s a perfect choice for Erik. (Yes his name is Erik, it’s not that weird).
Let’s talk about the Phantom. The star of Phantom is Christine. She’s on stage for almost the whole show and the role is so demanding the actress has an alternate for two shows a week. But the attention goes to Erik because he’s the icon. A classic monster that’s entirely human, a figure that has fascinated for over a century. He’s barely on stage, actually, but he owns the show because he’s the one that sings “The Music of The Night,” a song which epitomizes the show and so much more.
Phantom, like many great shows and movies is about…itself. It’s a show about music and illusion, that takes place in the dark corners of a theater where ghosts lurk and any dream can come alive. It’s about how music can express that which words cannot, and thus reveal beauty in the deepest ugliness. And it is the music that makes Phantom work, not just the show but the character. He’s an ugly, stalkery murderer but we feel for him because of music. And that’s the whole point of the show.
We sympathize with Christine because we are her, drawn in by the magic of theater and the music of the night, seduced by this man in the shadows we should run from. But we’re also Erik. Yes, there are all sorts of problematic elements to this archetype, but there’s also a reason the beauty and the beast story persists, because we all know what it’s like to feel alone and to long for connection and love – and we feel that hope that with the right song or right mask, someone will break through the dark and love us.
Phantom is about the transformative power of compassion and how that can be awakened through art. It’s a big theme but opera is all about larger than life stories that get a fundamental emotional truths. The Phantom doesn’t just want love – when he gets a taste of it, it changes him. And that’s why he’s not a monster or an incel icon in the end – because he loves selflessly and lets Christine go. That’s why it’s okay to feel for him and like him, because love and music aren’t just his motivators, they’re what help him to be better.
Phantom is still around because it’s elemental. It’s entertaining spectacle, yes, but it takes more than spectacle or fun to be a hit on Broadway, let alone an icon that runs for decades. Phantom is still running after 33 years because it’s everything great about theater and it’s about our deepest desires and even fears when it comes to art. You may not like it, but you have to at least respect it’s endurance. It was complete lightning in a bottle that can never be truly replicated – and believe me, Andrew Lloyd Webber tried. He put his own fanfic on stage in Love Never Dies and it was terrible. But nothing will ever be like Phantom and for now, the Music of the Night will play on.
(Images: Matthew Murphy/The Really Useful Group)
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