Whatever one’s opinion of Andrew Lloyd Webber, it is likely that his three main collaborations with Tim Rice (Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, Jesus Christ, Superstar and Evita) are likely to be best remembered. Since then he has written a number of other shows with various lyricists, some of which will be fondly remembered, particularly Cats (basically an old-fashioned dance/review show) and Tell Me on a Sunday (although one of the best numbers, ‘Unexpected Song’ is not in the original show). There are others that will be less fondly remembered: Starlight Express (some fun tunes but cannot get over the silliness of the original concept), Aspects of Love (so dull I never finished listening to the soundtrack), Sunset Boulevard (apart from the title song there is not a single memorable tune, some of it is simply amateurish and the strong story weighs heavily on the weak music) and Whistle Down the Wind (Lord Lloyd Webber and Jim Steinman? That had to have been a 3am-after-a-heavy-session idea!)
Arguably the only fully successful non-Tim Rice show Lloyd Webber has been responsible for is The Phantom of the Opera. It was inevitable that eventually this would be adapted for film (with an early attempt starring the original cast allegedly scuppered by the composer’s divorce from his leading lady). The film has now finally reached the screen, directed by Joel Schumacher.
However, this is not principally intended to be a look at the film but rather a review of the ‘Special Edition’ CD. To give this review some context: I have never seen the original stage production and at the time I wrote my notes for this review I had not yet seen the film, so my comments are based purely on the audio experience.
The Special Edition CD is nicely presented in a ‘booklet’ style package with stills from the film, some behind the scenes photographs and a short ‘puff’ piece about the making of the film.
The first thing to note once the music itself starts is that the orchestration is excellent: rich and lush. The filmmakers have obviously taken the opportunity of a film-sized budget to expand on the stage version.
The key music in the film remains so familiar that is difficult to find anything much to say. The title song is a totally over-the-top piece of scene setting, and ‘All I Ask of You’ is a competent romantic ballad. The highlights remain the Phantom’s seductive ‘The Music of the Night’ and the plaintive ‘Wishing You Were Somehow Here Again’, sung by Christine at the grave of her father.
‘Prima Donna’, sung by the owners of the theatre to try and persuade Carlotta to return to the stage, is a fun comic waltz. The other key piece is ‘Masquerade’, sung in full during the masque which starts the second disc. Through a music box in the Phantom’s lair, this becomes a recurring theme throughout, being given particular poignancy as the broken-hearted Phantom sings along to it at the end.
With one exception (on which more later) the voice cast are generally impressive. Obviously the casting of Christine is key: she needs to be a skilled light soprano and must be a contrast to the more theatrical Carlotta. The youthful Emmy Rossum fills this requirement well. Her voice is sweet and clear and innocent – showing talent and training, but not experience, as the role requires.
Raoul, the hero, is not a big singing role (mainly the romantic ballad ‘All I Ask of You’, plus a few other fragments elsewhere) but Patrick Wilson has a nice clear tenor which suits the part well. The only role where the rule that the cast member sings their own part (apparently established by Lloyd Webber during auditions) is broken, is that of the aging prima donna Carlotta, here played by Minnie Driver but sung by Margaret Preece. I have no idea why the exception here. Maybe in a cast mainly of relative unknowns it was felt that a ‘name’ was required for this key part. That aside, Preece captures the required idiom well: obviously a good singer but required to ‘overact’ the singing in a fake Grand Opera-ish manner, often for comic effect. (Incidentally, Minnie Driver does have a perfectly acceptable, if non-operatic, voice, which is proved in the pretty, but insubstantial ‘Learning to be Lonely’ which she sings over the end credits. The cynical part of me assumes that this is the ‘must have an original song for the awards circuit’ tactic. As the song already has a Golden Globe nomination the tactic seems to have worked!)
Simon Callow is surprisingly rich and tuneful as André, one of the new owners of the theatre, while Firmin, the other owner (played here by Ciaran Hinds) is a little more rough and ready. Since these are primarily comic roles this is not a problem. There are two other surprises: Miranda Richardson, as Madame Giry, also turns out to have a good singing voice, while Victor McGuire, as leading man Piangi, is astonishingly good. McGuire is someone I am familiar with as a TV comedy actor and his singing ability here is a revelation. Ex-soap star and pop princess Jennifer Ellison is perfectly tuneful and competent as Meg, Christine’s best friend, although clearly lacking the operatic training of Rossum.
So this clearly leaves the exception, mentioned earlier, to be Gerard Butler as the Phantom. Make no mistake, the Phantom is a difficult role to sing, requiring a good range (particularly in ‘The Music of the Night’) and Butler is really not good enough. His singing is tuneful enough and at no point does he actually miss any notes, but his voice lacks warmth and tone. This is particularly obvious when asked to sing loudly; at this point a harshness breaks in. More than anything else Butler sounds like a rock singer who has been asked to sing ‘operatically’ (he would probably make an acceptable Judas in Superstar). This is confirmed by the sleeve notes which describe him as having had no training, although he has sung in a band. This is unfortunate as an otherwise excellent recording is spoiled by one rather strange piece of casting.
The CD also includes some of the dialogue from the film, I assume as a way of making some of the action clearer to those that have not yet seen it. In some places this is helpful, although it does not help to clarify the confused emotional ups-and-downs of the last 10 minutes.
So what of the film itself? Well, as a fairly straightforward adaptation of a stage play it fills its two-plus hours entertainingly enough. There is a nice Titanic-esque opening sequence in which the aging Raoul revisits the opera house for an auction and as the broken chandelier is lifted up the dust of the past blows away and reveals the opera house in all its former glory. Some of the other ‘flash-forwards’, however, work less well and distract from the drama.
The sets, particularly the Phantom’s lair, are wonderfully over the top but perhaps take less advantage of the budget and scope of a movie than one would expect (Christine’s journey to the lair during the title song reminded me of nothing so much as the original pop video that went with the song).
Most of the cast are fine with Rossum particularly shining in what is ultimately a rather passive role – being torn between two men but seldom making her own decisions. Wilson looks a little wet behind the ears but fulfils the heroics well enough.
Once again, it is Butler who lets the cast down, at times seeming a little too young for the part. The Phantom has to be sinister, seductive and yet ultimately should evoke pity. Butler manages the former and latter but that vital seductive charisma is missing.
The directing is a bit hit and miss. There are some nice touches but also some miscalculations. For example, the ‘Masquerade’ number particularly mentions the variety of colours of the masks in the lyrics, so why was everyone dressed in black and white and everything given a sepia tinge? Again, there is a rather pointless swordfight between Raoul and the Phantom at Christine’s father’s grave. A good swordfight sequence should be shot like a dance. Watch dance sequences in Fred Astaire/Ginger Rogers movies and they are almost always filmed in static two-shot so that the grace and joyousness of the dance can be seen in its entirety. (This is notwithstanding some of the great swordfights in movies, such as Errol Flynn in The Adventures of Robin Hood or Stuart Granger in Scaramouche.) There is some cutting, but in general the audience is getting a clear view of the action. Unfortunately Schumacher has chosen to film the fight in Phantom in the usual pop-video style common to so many modern action films – lots of very short cuts which leave the viewer in total confusion as to what is going on.
There is a lot of fun to be had in the film but it is a bit of a missed opportunity. It is certainly not in the same class as Alan Parker’s Evita.