The Phantom of the Opera is one of the most beloved and popular shows on Broadway. Moreover, it has the longest-running history of any show on Broadway, surpassing even Cats (Gladstone 38). Even though the opening of the musical dates back to the 1980s, today, twenty-five years later, the show still attracts thousands of viewers annually. The Phantom of the Opera has been seen by 15 million people worldwide, and more than 10,000 performances have grossed over $880 million in the United States. Moreover, the show has been translated into thirteen languages, has been performed in 148 cities across 28 countries, and has brought in more than $5 billion all over the globe (Armstrong 22).
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Such longevity points to the musical’s status as a worldwide phenomenon, and most likely, its days are not over yet. However, what is the key to its success? What helps the show win the hearts and souls of the audience time and time again? This paper will focus on finding the answers to these questions. Specific attention will be paid to the history of the show on Broadway, how it changed over time, and what makes it so appealing.
The Phantom of the Opera musical was written by Andrew Lloyd Webber and Richard Stilgoe. It tells the story of a disfigured man living in a Paris opera house and his relationship with a young singer, Christina. In fact, the storyline is a classic love triangle ornamented with some mystical and gothic details. The story begins when a musical genius named Erik decides to help Christina develop her voice and become a successful singer.
As Erik, who is actually the Phantom, watches Christina become more skillful, he falls in love with her and wants to make her his wife. She appreciates the Phantom’s assistance but, at the same time, is afraid of him and is already involved in a romantic relationship with a handsome man, Raoul. This complicated love triangle, together with the atmosphere of romance and beautiful music, cannot help but engage the audience (Armstrong 22; Dziemianowicz 10).
The idea behind the story of The Phantom came from two sources. The process of its creation began in 1984 when Webber stumbled upon a novel written in 1911 by a French author named Gaston Leroux. This novel, The Phantom of the Opera, inspired Webber and made him want to adapt it to a musical version. Webber’s second source of inspiration was the 1925 silent movie with the same title and themes. Though Webber used these sources to develop his musical, he actually significantly enhanced the plot. The only feature borrowed from the novel and the film was the idea of a disfigured man living in an opera building whose feelings for a young woman grow stronger as he teaches her and turns her into a star.
Webber chose to add more romance by making the Phantom less deformed and more talented than in the original story. This decision was motivated by his desire to add more emotional strain to the story and introduce the love triangle since Webber’s Phantom could serve as the perfect alternative to Raoul. Webber also believed it would be better to make Raoul’s character more endearing to intensify the pressure between the major characters of the musical (Block 396-397).
The musical has become a source of both criticism and inspiration. Several reasons for criticizing The Phantom of the Opera revolve around the image of Webber himself, his political convictions, and the financial success of his project. Because the musical opened first in London and then two years later on Broadway, some critics believed that Andrew Lloyd Webber was trying to make the American musical theater similar to that of Great Britain by incorporating its primary features.
Nearly all reviews of The Phantom indirectly mentioned the fact that Webber had also composed songs for Thatcher’s campaigns, stressing his Conservative conviction (Winkler 273). Another source of criticism was the financial success of the musical, which was seen by some as incompatible with the true essence of artistry. Not only was Webber blamed for his musical itself, but also for the audience loving it and for making it a commercial project.
Critics railed against the musical, saying that there were no aesthetics in The Phantom, just the desire to make money from the theater, and that the primary focus was placed on sexuality instead of love and romance, which cannot be present in true art. However, these criticisms were broadly covered by the press, which contributed to even higher rates of popularity for the musical. As the commercialization of art has become an increasingly common reason for getting involved in creative work, this type of criticism has largely vanished, leaving nothing but the plot and the aesthetics of a musical, theatrical performance as the basis for choosing what to watch and love.
The Phantom of the Opera, coming to Broadway, marked a definite turning point in the history of the musical. Since then, it has been performed all over the globe and translated into many foreign languages, making its audience reach even more spectacular. In 2004, the musical inspired the production of a musical movie with the same title and a plot very similar to the stage version. This movie was directed by Joel Schumacher (Block 398). The primary difference between the film and the musical is that Schumacher decided to switch the scenes, so they appear in a different order from that of the musical. Additionally, the movie version leaves some questions unanswered.
For example, it does not reveal several details about the Phantom’s life. So even though the movie’s plot is taken from the theatrical performance, the musical and the film are not interchangeable. If audiences would like to have the full picture, they should buy a ticket and watch the Broadway performance. The production of the film inspired an awakening of another wave of The Phantom’s popularity on Broadway, which brought even greater financial success to the show.
There are several factors that contribute to the popularity of the show. One of the reasons that people love The Phantom of the Opera is its emotional strain. Because both male characters are talented and handsome in their own ways, it is almost impossible to guess whom Christina will choose at the end of the story. The second reason for the audience’s affection for The Phantom is the music and the way it supplements the atmosphere of the performance.
From the very first to the very last minutes of the musical, the songs are chosen to stress the events of the plot and highlight the primary themes. The show repeats and switches quickly between musical themes with the aim of creating the right mood and atmosphere (Block 405). Moreover, the performance itself can be a valuable source of information suitable for psychoanalysis. The fact that Christina lets the Phantom help her develop her singing skills and chooses him, not Raoul, as her lover is a reflection of women’s desire to involve themselves in relationships with narcissistic and charismatic patriarchal guardians who strive for control over the lives of others (Kavaler-Adler 150).
Because the Phantom is, in fact, the quintessential anti-hero, the musical portrays a woman’s relationship with the stereotypical bad boy. The development of this common romantic theme may contribute to the musical’s long history and popularity.
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Moreover, the musical is constantly changing. The face behind the mask, as well as other key characters, are often recast. New people and new voices bring fresh experiences and emotions, making each production of The Phantom different and opening new sides of the plot with every new cast. Regardless of the specific cast members, the show is always a spectacularly entertaining performance. As time goes by, the musical’s producers have adapted it to the newest trends and developments in entertainment technology.
Nowadays, it is not only a beautiful old-fashioned drama with powerful operatic voices accompanied by choreography and orchestral music; the show also utilizes modern tricks of light. Even though some details of the show are constantly altered, what remains unchanged is the music and the classy performance style. Broadway has witnessed numerous rock and pop musicals in recent days, but The Phantom of the Opera has ignored this trend. The show’s consistency makes it appealing to wide audiences, including even young people, who come to hear something new and different from what they see and experience in their everyday life.
Finally, even though it is a musical, some people confuse The Phantom with opera. Because some people believe that it is an opera, they may go to the show on Broadway to become closer to high culture and more intelligent in the eyes of society (Chandler 155).
From the perspective of musical education, The Phantom is considered to be a high pop theatrical production because it has nothing to do with opera as a genre. Nevertheless, even though there is a gap between the high culture of opera and the pop culture of musical theaters, The Phantom is still a fantastic performance. Because the musical attracts such a wide audience with such diverse motivations and interests, its popularity is deserved and will most likely last.
Historically speaking, The Phantom musical came to Broadway during a period in which people were criticizing the capitalist nature of artistry. Initially, the show was not supposed to be a commercial project because Webber realized that his previous musicals had not been successful. Nevertheless, after the opening of The Phantom, people loved it. As time passed, operatic singers grew older, and entertainment technology underwent many drastic changes, both of which had a significant influence on creative work and the theater. These changes forced Webber to decide what to do with his creation: to follow the trend of modernizing the story or to preserve the classical essence of the musical. The decision was obvious; there were only two details that could be altered—the cast and the costumes.
Webber decided that the music should remain unchanged because it comprises the substance of the performance. This decision is still valid nowadays because The Phantom of the Opera has essentially remained the same throughout the long twenty-eight years of its Broadway history. Of course, some modern light effects have been incorporated into the show, but this was done with the aim of creating a better atmosphere and enhancing the viewer experience. The primary elements of the performance, i.e. the music and choreography, are the same now as they were on the day of the grand premiere.
Tracing the history of The Phantom of the Opera on Broadway, it can be said that the musical was a success from the very date of its opening. Even though the show was harshly criticized as nothing more than a commercial project, it was close to impossible to get a ticket for the nearest Broadway performance in the 1980s and later. The most significant fact about its history is that the popularity of the show has not diminished even after twenty-eight years of performance.
Today, the show’s appeal and visibility can be explained by the attractiveness of Broadway itself as well as the permanence of the show. Every year, thousands of tourists buy Broadway tickets to experience and become a part of the American musical theater culture. It is not a surprise that they choose The Phantom among the great variety of the shows; the music and classy performance can take the viewer back to the opening of the musical in 1988.
The only aspect that changes in the theatrical production is the cast, but this may, in fact be another source of attractiveness because every time people see new operatic singers performing well-known and familiar roles, they dip into the atmosphere of the musical and undergo new experiences. Even though the plot has remained unchanged for twenty-eight years, the essence of The Phantom musical is different with every new face behind the mask, every new Christina, and every new audience.
In conclusion, it is clear that The Phantom of the Opera is truly a phenomenon in the world of musical theater, and its successful history on Broadway is spectacular and exciting. The fact that the show has the longest-running performance in the history of Broadway certainly contributes to its ongoing success. A psychological force seems to drive people to watch the show because they want to find out what is so special about it.
Given its long-standing success, the days of The Phantom are surely not over yet; the show will remain popular because of its atmosphere of constant emotional strain, its operatic nature, and the beautiful story itself. All these factors make the musical really attractive to the younger generations, who will not let the epoch of The Phantom’s popularity end.
The true key to The Phantom’s success may be its unchanging atmosphere and plot, its portrayal of the complicated relationships between the lead characters, its nature as a musical mistaken for an opera, or simply its long history. The fact remains: The Phantom of the Opera is in the midst of the epoch of its success, and it will last. Why change something that has proven so successful at attracting audiences through its old-fashioned and beautiful drama?
Armstrong, Linda. “25 Years on Broadway for ‘Phantom’!” New York Amsterdam News. 2013: 22. Print.
Block, Geoffrey. Enhanced Evenings: The Broadway Musical from Show Boat to Sondheim and Lloyd Webber. 2nd ed. 2009. Oxford, New York: Oxford University Press. Print.
Chandler, David. “”What Do We Mean by Opera Anyway?”: Lloyd Webber’s Phantom of the Opera and “High-Pop” Theater.” Journal of Popular Music Studies, 21.2 (2009): 152-169. Print.
Dziemianowicz, Zoe. “In the Long Run After 25 Years, ‘Phantom of the Opera’ Has Made Its Presence Known on Broadway and Beyond.” New York Daily News. 2013: 10. Print.
Gladstone, Douglas. “Spoofing Broadway.” Ambassador, 26.1 (2014): 37-38, 41. Print.
Kavaler-Adler, Susan. “Object Relations Perspectives on “Phantom of the Opera” and Its Demon Lover Scene.” American Journal of Psychoanalysis, 69.2 (2009): 150-166. Print.
Winkler, Amanda Eubanks. “Politics and the Reception of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s The Phantom of the Opera.” Cambridge Opera Journal, 26.3 (2014): 271-287. Print.