But that’s misleading. I’m no stranger to The Phantom of the Opera. In fact we’re old friends, the Phantom and I. Along with Les Miserables, this was one of the musicals to capture my fancy at 13, and I more or less spent the next few years walking around listening to the songs on my portable cd player (remember those?). Over and over and over and over. “Julia’s LOST in the Phantom,” I recall my sister Ann saying one night when I decided to listen to the cd rather than talk to my family. I remember buying the tickets months and months in advance of its visit to the Fox in St. Louis, and when the night finally came and I got to see the touring production, I thought it was the greatest night of my life. I can’t really overstate how wrapped up I was in this show. I think I even wrote fan letters to Michael Crawford. Only Les Miz and Sunset Boulevard had the same kind of impact on my imagination. My sister Clare once told me I’d outgrow it someday, and I was actually insulted that she’d even suggest such a thing.
Of course I outgrew it, so much so that it never even occurred to me to see it on Broadway — even though I worked across the street at the St. James for the better part of a decade. Why would I go see Phantom when there were tons of newer and more interesting shows to see? Still, I always had fond memories of this, one of the shows that really introduced me to theater in the first place.
There were several reasons I decided to go visit the Phantom:
- To begin with, Norm Lewis is an actor I’ve admired for several years — “his voice is like velvet!” as I told a friend yesterday — and is now the first black actor to play the Phantom on Broadway.
- Christine too: I’ve thought for awhile now that Sierra Boggess should be a big Broadway star. My enthusiasm for her is based entirely on her terrific performances at the BBC Proms. I’d never actually seen her onstage.
- I read in an article somewhere that Phantom’s orchestra has 29 musicians. Wow. I don’t know there there will ever be another Broadway show with so many musicians in the pit, and I wanted the opportunity to enjoy it.
- I realized earlier this year that I’ve been to almost every Broadway theater; the Majestic was one of only a few exceptions and I decided to work on completing my “punch card” as I’ve heard you get a prize when you do. (Ok, you don’t, but wouldn’t that be nice? I want a Broadway punch card!)
So my friend Joann and I got tickets and spent the week prior gleefully announcing our plans to everyone in sight. And now that I’ve spent several paragraphs trying to justify my purchase, should I actually talk about the show?
It’s incredibly well-sung: both Mr. Lewis and Ms. Boggess sound terrific, and are as committed as you’d hope for. We were seated a little too far back in the orchestra for me to sense much depth in their performances (Note: If you go see Phantom, do NOT forget your binoculars), but the idea of the Phantom as a black man was intriguing and I think it worked well.
More than that, it was simply fascinating to see this show after so many years, and ponder what has made it so popular for so long. I suppose it’s got to be that Andrew Lloyd Webber really found the right material for his talents, and hired the right director (Hal Prince, of course), and the right designer (Maria Bjornson). The score is still beautiful, though I think the amplification was maybe a bit louder than it needed to be. It’s an absolutely gorgeous show, with drapey sets and beautiful costumes popping up everywhere, and the special effects were still pretty wonderful (though that chandelier does come down a bit slow. I wonder if they could speed that up with today’s technology?). Mr. Prince really knows how to put together a dazzler. That overture alone (when the theater slowly comes back to life) is still spine-tingling.
But man, oh man. There is absolutely no irony and very little wit to be found anywhere. (Certainly not in the lyrics!) I was amazed during the first act when I realized there were so few jokes in this show. Soaring ballads, passionate love affairs, creepy heroes? Yes. But laughs? No. Subtlety? No. (Just the fact that whenever the Phantom does anything spooky, Meg actually walks to the front of the stage and sings “He’s here, the phantom of the opera” will give you a sense of what I’m talking about.) No wonder people got grumpy about the British megamusicals when they came out. Imagine this after years of being spoiled by Sondheim’s wit and sophistication.
The other thing it doesn’t have is a fabulous choreographer. The faux-ballet sequences are really pretty dull, and in the past 25 years directors and choreographers have really gotten a lot better about fluid choreographed transitions between scenes. (I’d love to see Susan Stroman tweak this choreography; she really knows how to make a show flow.)
All this to say I found myself getting bored in the first act. My teenage self would be shocked and appalled, and perhaps since I moved to New York I’ve become too versed in the trappings of a traditional Broadway show. I go see a show like Phantom and think: where’s my ‘I want’ song? Where’s the comic relief? Where’s the dialogue? Not to mention my dramaturgical nitpicks about the plot and characters’ motivations. But really, what I look for these days in a Broadway musical is joy. That’s the reason I keep coming back: this art form is, I think, strongest when it’s joyous and exuberant, and Phantom’s strengths lie elsewhere. 20 years ago, however, I was far more interested in heightened emotions, in romance, in tragic stories. If you’re looking for that, this show is just about flawless.
The house was packed (and I was astonished at how big the Majestic is), which makes me wonder just how long this show will last. It does seem like smash hits come and go, and the Phantom stays right in his lair on 44th Street. On the other hand, it did seem like most of the people there had rarely if ever been to the theater before. Lots of whispered conversations, cell phones buzzing, even texting. I glared at them all: the usher in me will never die. Just like the Phantom never dies.
My Grade: B
Running time: 2 hours, 30 minutes:
TIcket price: $47 (TDF)
Worth it: Well, when I think about whether or not I should have paid $47 to see a 26-year old Broadway show, the obvious answer is “uh, no”, but just for this one time, and since the show is in good shape, I’ll go with yes.
Standing ovation watch: Yep