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Andrew Lloyd Webber’s ‘music of the night’ has been thrilling audiences around the world for almost two decades. Now, 15 years after it was first discussed, The Phantom of the Opera gets the film version it deserves, thanks to its composer teaming with Joel Schumacher. Sam Connolly reports.

In a career in which success has been measured in millions, The Phantom of the Opera has been Andrew Lloyd Webber’s crowning glory. Since opening at Her Majesty’s Theatre in London on October 9, 1986, the show has had 65,000 performances in 18 countries, and taken over $3 billion at the box office. The Phantom has won three Oliviers (the West End’s top award), seven Tonys (Broadway’s equivalent) and is now the second longest-running musical in the history of the Great White Way (Lloyd Webber’s Cats still holds first place). In a little over a year, a $25-million theatre will open at Las Vegas’ Venetian Hotel, purpose-built to run a special, 90-minute version of the show, on the assumption that tastes may come and tastes may go, but The Phantom will run and run. And all this for a musical whose basic theme is lost love and loneliness.

"a heart-breaking character"

“One of the reasons this tragic love story has been part of our culture since Gaston Leroux wrote his novel is because we identify with the Phantom,” declares director Joel Schumacher, as he puts the finishing touches to the movie version of the show, which he wrote along with Lloyd Webber himself. “The Phantom is a physical manifestation of whatever human beings feel is unlovable about themselves. He is a heart-breaking character – much like the hunchback of Notre Dame and the Beast in Beauty and the Beast.”

Gaston Leroux was a former journalist (and, in later life, a fledgling movie producer) who went on to win fame as a popular novelist. The Stephen King of his day, he wrote mysteries with hints of the supernatural which were swiftly adopted by the movies, an art form then in its infancy. The Murders in the Rue Morgue was filmed four times, while a remake of another Leroux favourite, The Mystery of the Yellow Room, was a hit in France as recently as last year. But it was with The Phantom of the Opera that he really tapped into the public imagination.

Drawing on one of those urban myths about a mysterious figure who haunted the huge Opéra Garnier in the centre of Paris - a building which does indeed have subterranean caverns and an underground lake - he created one of literature’s great monsters. Leroux’s Phantom is a figure like Frankenstein’s monster who simultaneously engenders terror and pity and he has, over the years, been played on screen by Lon Chaney (1925), Claude Rains (1943), Herbert Lom (1962) and Robert Englund (1989).

As recently as 1998, Italian horror maestro Dario Argento produced a gory version of the classic tale with Julian Sands as the disfigured hero.

But, for Lloyd Webber - who recently returned to a story which fuses romantic love with the supernatural in his current West End hit, The Woman in White - it was the romantic potential of the Phantom that really got him going. Here was a character condemned through no fault of his own to a solitary existence who is suddenly offered the chance of being redeemed by the love of a beautiful young singer after taking her career under his wing. Lloyd Webber’s version, unlike the preceding movies, was no horror show.

"a tragic lover and a sensitive romantic"

“Andrew presents the Phantom as more of a tragic lover and a sensitive romantic, not just a creature of horror to be feared,” insists Schumacher. “He also made the Phantom’s relationship with Christine much more of a love affair than it is in the original story.” Indeed, the composer describes the story as “a very personal piece”, perhaps because the role of Christine was written for and played in the original production by Sarah Brightman, Lloyd Webber’s then wife and muse.

Plans to film the musical began to be developed in 1988, when the show was still at the height of its success on Broadway, and it was Lloyd Webber himself who initially approached Schumacher, having seen and been impressed by the latter’s 1987 film, The Lost Boys. It may have seemed an unlikely recommendation, but the theme of The Lost Boys was also the loneliness of the monster, in this case the group of young vampires who give the film its title.

Initial discussions began shortly after the first meeting between Schumacher and Lloyd Webber in New York. “I thought Joel had an incredible visual sense and his use of music in the film was exceptional,” recalls the latter. “One of the great joys of collaborating with him is that he has a great ear for music. He really gets it; he understands how the music drives the story.”

But, for a variety of reasons, plans for a screen version of The Phantom of the Opera were put on the back-burner, where they remained until just before Christmas 2002, when he and Schumacher had dinner in London. The timing turned out to be perfect for both men, especially Schumacher. “I had just done a series of gritty, more experimental films than the mainstream blockbusters I’d been associated with in the past,” says the director, citing movies such as 8mm, Flawless, Tigerland, Veronica Guerin and Phone Booth, the last of which he shot in a mere 12 days. “Phantom seemed as far from 12 days in a phone booth as I could get. I’ve done so many different genres, but never a musical. It seemed like a huge challenge and I like that.”

"the intensely human story"

Central to the way the pair planned to bring the musical to the screen was the balance between the spectacular - which the movie has in spades, having been shot on eight sound stages at Pinewood studios, with all the mind-boggling statistics that such an undertaking brings (92 miles of timber, 15,000 litres of paint, 73 tons of steel…) - and the intensely human story at the heart of the film.

If the latter was to work as it should, the film’s casting was crucial. For Christine, the young singer wooed simultaneously by the Phantom and by a smitten aristocrat, Raoul, Schumacher and Lloyd Webber chose Emmy Rossum, a young actress who had trained at the Metropolitan Opera in New York, but had just had an important role in a major Hollywood movie: that of Chris Penn’s murdered daughter in Mystic River. “Part of the beauty of the character is her innocence,” says the director. “We needed to find a young woman who could exude a genuine youthful innocence and longing.” But she also had to be able to sing.

“The preparation I had from the Metropolitan Opera was invaluable,” says Rossum, who began training there at the age of seven. “I couldn’t have done it without the discipline that was instilled in me at the Met.” But she also instinctively understood the central theme of the film, which is the conflict between the ‘safe’ attraction of Raoul, the Opera’s rich and titled new benefactor, who is wooing her, and the ‘danger’ of her love for the Phantom.

“I think Christine’s relationship with Raoul is her romantic awakening as a teenager, but her pull towards the Phantom is a very sexual, very deep, very soulful union,” explains Schumacher. “If he wasn’t disfigured and hadn’t become as violent and as insane as he became, perhaps some day they could have been together. What Emmy does so beautifully in her performance is that she always meets his disfigurement with compassion.”

For the role of the Phantom, meanwhile, they needed “somebody who has a bit of rock and roll sensibility in him,” says Lloyd Webber, explaining the choice of Scottish actor Gerard Butler, who had once sung in a band, had a strong baritone voice and had just been on screen opposite Angelina Jolie in Lara Croft Tomb Raider: The Cradle of Life. “He’s got to be a bit rough, a bit dangerous; not a conventional singer. Christine is attracted to the Phantom because he’s the right side of danger, so we had to find an actor who could deliver that vocal quality.”

For Butler, unlike Rossum, the theme was not inner conflict, but the turmoil of being an outcast, a monster even, while still having the same human emotions and desires as everyone else. “I think that’s why Phantom is such a powerful piece, because people identify with his pain,” he says. “The older you get, the more you develop baggage in your life – things you don’t want to let go of, things you fear that if you open them up to the world, the world will find you repulsive and ugly.”

"the ugliness and the beauty that exists within each of us"

But it wasn’t until the end of the first four-and-a-half hour session of applying his prosthetic make-up, conveying the disfigurement that had made him the Phantom, that Butler truly understood the character’s nature. “I was amazed and upset by the looks I got just walking around the studio,” he remembers. “I wanted to say ‘What’s your problem? What are you looking at?’ It illuminates the ugliness and the beauty that exists within each of us, and that’s what this story represents to me.”

To turn the stage hit into the film, Schumacher and Lloyd Webber stayed true to the nature of the show. But there were areas that could be better explored on the screen than they could have been in the theatre, and so the composer wrote several lengthy pieces of ‘underscore’ (essentially, background music for the scenes that they had added), plus one wholly new song that plays over the film’s credits.

They also adopted a new approach to filming the musical numbers. “On every other musical movie I’ve made, you rehearse, then pre-record the whole soundtrack and shoot from there,” says music co-producer Nigel Wright, who has worked with Lloyd Webber for 15 years. “What we did with Phantom was stay just one step ahead of the shooting schedule, so that the playback tracks could accommodate performances that were growing and developing during rehearsal.” 

A recording studio was set up in Lloyd Webber’s office at Pinewood, so that actors could record a new vocal and so the playback track could be altered for the next scene. It was a totally organic process for the actors and the music team alike – but this didn’t come without its difficulties. “When we started production, we were three weeks ahead of schedule,” says Wright. “But, by the end, we were three hours ahead of what was being shot! It would be six in the morning and we would be pre-mixing something that was going to be shot at nine.”

Production designer Anthony Pratt likewise created a horizontal, widescreen equivalent of the towering spaces of the Opera, and particularly focused on the idea of the depths beneath the building, which become more and more threatening as Catherine descends towards the Phantom’s lair. The deeper she goes, the richer and stranger the setting becomes. “My concept for their journey was to start off by being fairly architecturally straightforward and then get stranger and more bizarre the deeper we go,” explains Pratt. “The challenge was to try and make it be a summation of the strange aura of the other parts of the theatre, so that the final icing on the cake is the Phantom’s lair.”

"a filmic equivalent"

In the end, however, what Schumacher and Lloyd Webber have done is create a filmic equivalent of the intense emotion and soaring ambition of the original musical. Not surprisingly, Lloyd Webber pays tribute to Schumacher for achieving this. “The film looks and sounds fabulous and I think it’s an extraordinarily fine document of the stage show,” he says. “But while it doesn’t deviate much from the stage material, the film has given it an even deeper emotional centre. It’s not based on the theatre visually or direction-wise, but it’s still got exactly the same essence. And that’s all I could ever have hoped for.”

Schumacher, meanwhile, pays tribute to the original show, and reckons that the film’s main role is to make it accessible to an ever wider audience. “There are millions of people who cannot afford to see Phantom in a legitimate theatre, and many people don’t live in an area where they can get to a theatre where the musical is playing,” he says. “Think about films like The Sound of Music, West Side Story and Chicago: how many people have actually seen The Sound of Music on the stage, compared to the millions who have seen the film?

“There are people who love Andrew’s music,” he concludes, “and people who have always wanted to see Phantom on stage. Now they’ll have the opportunity to see a version of it.”

Published December 23, 2004

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