Stop a person on the street and ask them to name a West End musical, they’ll probably say one of two things: Les Mis, or The Phantom of the Opera. The latter has been impressively running non-stop at Her Majesty’s Theatre for over 3 decades now, but does Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical still have the same sense of wonder as it did all that time ago.
There’s no question that it’s a complete classic: the story tells of the titular phantom who haunts an opera house, the tales of his presence in the building are now common gossip amongst the casts. During rehearsals for the company’s latest offering, an unknown chorus girl, Christine, is forced to thrust into the lead role, with the producers assured she has been taught well. Taught, it turns out, by the ‘Angel of Music’, the Phantom whose voice rings around in her head.
During her triumphant performance, an old friend Raoul rekindles his love for Christine, while the Phantom reveals himself to Christine, luring her to his underground lair. As he tells her how she’s been chosen to perform his work-in-progress opera, she lifts his mask to reveal his gruesomely disfigured face, and this begins a tale of jealousy and control.
While its reputation as the ultimate romantic musical precedes it, watching the show in the #MeToo era throws up for a few uneasy moments. As the Phantom’s manipulation and desire to control Christine become more and more apparent – through some pretty no-nonsense lyrics like “You will curse the day you did not do /All that the Phantom asked of you” - it’s difficult not to feel for her as she is trapped and manipulated by a selfish, jealous man.
It did create two of the most desirable roles for any musical theatre performer. Originated by Michael Crawford and Sarah Brightman, the production currently features an excellent leading cast of Ben Lewis and Kelly Mathieson. Lewis commands every corner of the stage with the menace of the Phantom, while treating his more tender moments with the deluded pain the character demands. Mathieson plays Christine with the kind of innocent naivety that makes the part convincing, and nails some of the most challenging songs written for the stage.
There is still something special about Lloyd Webber’s score. Its songs were revelations that shook musical theatre, standards that entered the public consciousness. The ‘80s synth-opera fusion might seem a little dated, but there’s no disputing that descending motif still conjures goose bumps. At the heart of “The Point of No Return” - the Phantom’s composition – are the satisfying resolved phrases that are a trademark of the score.
In 2018, it’s difficult for one to imagine the reaction this production would have received in the ‘80s. It’s wildly over the top - complete with its iconic set pieces, fireballs, and an elephant - and some of these elements raise a chuckle or two at the confidence it must have taken to pull them off. Some of the tricks wouldn't look out of place in Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, while others laid the groundwork for a show like Bat Out of Hell to exist at the heightened level it does.
While we could dissect the reaction the show would get if Phantom was presented as a new work today, there’s no question that it’s still wild, it’s still joyous, and it’s still deserved of its place as the pride of the West End.