Loathsome gargoyle deep dive special edition
Here's a little change of pace, since I'm so behind on sending these things. I wrote this back in May 2020 and stuffed it in a folder. Today, though, I saw something about Phantom closing on Broadway after its 35-year run, so I thought I'd share this long read with you on the off chance that any of you have embarrassingly sincere entanglements with this musical too. Enjoy.
It’s 1995. I live in a small southern town with a population of 10,000 or so, and sixth grade has started getting weird for me. There are popular kids at school now, and I’m not one of them. I’m tall for my age, with Coke bottle glasses, snaggly teeth, and a newly horrified awareness of my own body—a lumbering, bearlike encumbrance at total odds with my increasingly non-reality-based interiority. Clothes don’t fit me right, my jokes never come out the way I mean for them to, and my general sense of belonging in the world is rapidly eroding under my feet.
Tonight, I’m trailing behind my parents, wide-eyed at the sight of big city streets but mindful of the need to act unimpressed in front of my little sister. After all, right now an awful lot of my self-worth depends on the complete fiction of being the cool, worldly big sister.
We arrive at our destination, the Fabulous Fox Theater. For me, St. Louis might as well be Paris, and the Fox, a renovated movie palace whose ostentatious style Wikipedia describes as “Siamese Byzantine,” might as well be the Palais Garnier. We’re all here now because we’re scoping out the prestigious theater conservatory program my brother will be attending in the fall. I myself have been lurking around the edges of community theater production crowd scenes for years. Unlike my two tremendously talented siblings, that’s about as far as my theatrical ambitions are going to take me, but I don’t know that yet. Still, I’m not a total theater novice.
Nevertheless, I am entirely unprepared for the hormonal baptism-by-dry-ice that is Andrew Lloyd Webber’s The Phantom of the Opera.
My breath catches in the opening scene when the auctioneer cries, “Gentlemen!” and the broken chandelier behind him suddenly blazes to life. A synthesized pipe organ blasts a bombastic minor chord and then gallops up and down the show’s signature chromatic riff. I am entranced.
But things really go off the rails about twenty minutes later. Our heroine Christine, fresh off her first big break on the opera stage, is engaged in a rapturous duet with her mysterious invisible vocal coach. “Angel of Music, hide no longer / Come to me, strange angel!” she beseeches him. Her back is to the audience; we see her reflection in her mirror. The Phantom responds by bellowing triumphantly: “Look at your face in the mirror / I am there insiiiiiiiiiiiiide!”
And then the Phantom appears in her goddamned mirror!
Look, this is not the most visually impressive special effect in the world, particularly in an effects-driven vehicle like Phantom. Regardless, it completely shorts out my still-developing brain. My id slides confidently into the driver’s seat and stomps on the accelerator while my superego throws up its hands and clocks out for the night.
And THEN the Phantom extends his hand and pulls her straight through the mirror. My throat goes dry. Just before they disappear into the frothing smoke machine together, he possessively swirls his sparkly black cape around her shoulders.
The onset of puberty is typically understood to be a gradual process. However, it is at this precise moment that it slams into me like a runaway eighteen-wheeler.
Phantom's critical reception has been mixed, to put it politely. It’s been described as a suburban pest and a testament to the degradation of theatrical taste. Comparing the two-bar phrase in “Music of the Night” with its counterpart in Puccini’s La Fanciulla Del West is pretty damning, even if the lawsuit was settled out of court. And let’s all take a moment to appreciate this quote from Roger Waters of Pink Floyd regarding the similarities between “Echoes” and Phantom’s main theme – “Life's too long to bother with suing Andrew fucking Lloyd Webber. I think that might make me really gloomy.”
So what, then, is responsible for Phantom’s undeniably commercially viable appeal?
Phantom, like any megamusical worth its salt, is enormous, strange, and fun to look at, and its music burrows into your brain like a virus’s spike protein. Like most musicals, its plot is on the thin side, but that’s not necessarily a value judgment in this medium. Musical theater storytelling (and operatic storytelling, for that matter) hinges on audio cues and allusions to tropes and culturally understood narrative rhythms. The audience has to meet the show halfway to construct and enjoy its sketched-out narrative. It may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but there is real art to it.
That said, there is nothing else remotely minimalist about Phantom. This is high-eighties power theater. Every scene with more than four people on stage feels like a scene with hundreds of people on stage, every one of which is draped in about a million yards of brocade, feathers, gold beads, and face paint. There are not one but three embedded and fully cast operas inside this beast, one of which involves an onstage elephant. There are also fireballs, walls of flame, hurtling chandeliers, 500 pounds of dry ice, and about eighty billion fake dripping candles in play.
The music itself is more than up to the task of supporting this aesthetic of excess. Faux-Bach-toccata counterpoint to a snarling synth bassline melody? Done. Les Mis-style scene involving multiple characters simultaneously screaming totally different lyrics at each other in a cemetery? Mais oui. A drum machine that practically deserves star billing? Bet your ass.
But all those soaring melodies, deliciously Gothic set pieces, and jaw-dropping special effects can’t entirely cover up Phantom’s central problems. The plot romanticizes a deeply toxic figure who stalks the female lead and flies into violent jealous rages that leave people dead. On top of that, he’s an abject narcissist hellbent on inflicting his terrible self-written opera on the good people of Paris. This is the guy who drags you into his dorm room to play his guitar for you writ large.
None of this is romantic. Men who feel entitled to women’s affections can and do become violent. Real-world narratives involving powerful men and underage and/or under-agencied women are not sexy.
It would be more than a decade after the first time I saw Phantom that I learned the words “incel” or “men's rights activist.” However, it wouldn’t be long at all until I met those loathsome gargoyles’ misogyny face to face, well before I had the vocabulary to articulate the experience. I know those words now, and it’s impossible to think about Phantom without them. It's also hard not to run through a mental slideshow of every time I defaulted to accommodate, flatter, or reassure a boy when those weren’t the kind, appropriate, or safe responses.
These are the memories I flash on when I think about how the Phantom’s ultimate redemption is dependent on Christine being nice to him. In the show’s climax, her boyfriend Raoul is strung up by his neck, and the Phantom demands Christine pledge herself to him in order to save Raoul’s life. It’s worth noting that Puccini’s heroine Tosca, a celebrated opera singer like Christine, finds herself in a very similar lopsided triangle situation in her own eponymous opera. However, Tosca handles it by stabbing Scarpia in the heart while snarling, “Questo è il bacio di Tosca!” (“This is the kiss of Tosca!”).
In other words, there are always options.
But in Phantom, Christine instead acknowledges how hard things must have been for the Phantom. Then she gives him a passionate, protracted kiss while the orchestra swells.
This is a terrible definition of kindness, let alone love.
And let’s talk about Christine. It’s hard to tell if she’s supposed to be a human woman or a Tennessee fainting goat. At one point, she hints that she may be a little confused about whether or not the Phantom is actually her dead father’s ghost. This, while disturbingly incestuous, is easily the most interesting thought she manages to piece together.
There are less passive women in this play, but they’re relegated to the background. I’d love a revisionist take on the minor antagonist diva Carlotta, for example, whose concerns about her work environment are pretty well-fucking-founded. [note from 2023: hi, welcome to my current novel-in-progress.]
But all of these are easy and obvious criticisms. And to be fair, quite a bit of classic musical theater is chock full of hair-raising gender atrocities. Don’t believe me? Take a gander at Seven Brides for Seven Brothers (or Mozart’s Così fan tutte, while we’re at it). Yikes.
Despite all this, there's no denying Phantom’s overwhelming mass appeal. The show has gone up in 35 countries in 15 different languages, generating more estimated international revenue than any play or movie in history. In 2012, about 40% of Phantom ticket buyers were repeat customers. There are millions of people in the world who passionately love this show, and surely they can’t all be written off as simple-minded tools of the patriarchy.
At least I hope not, since apparently, I’m one of them.
Twenty-five years later, I’m wading through the miserable, stagnant, shelter-at-home days of the early COVID-19 pandemic. I’m currently losing my mind trying to juggle parenthood and remote work, while mostly failing to cope with all of the chest-crushing anxiety of the current news cycle and the oppressive uncertainty of the future.
A co-worker mentions via IM that The Phantom of the Opera will be streaming for free for the next forty-eight hours. I make some self-deprecating jokes about my preteen phandom stint (yes, that is the preferred nomenclature) and move on.
The next day is Saturday. My daughter is napping. Someone on Twitter mentions Phantom. I absently click the YouTube link.
Onstage, the auction begins, and I unconsciously mouth the words. “Lot 666, then. A chandelier in pieces…”
My plan is to watch the chandelier fire up, chuckle at the overture, and then get on with the laundry. I’m too old for this nonsense. I’ve certainly wised up to the entrenched misogyny of Beauty and the Beast stories, right?
You know where this is going. Of course I watch the whole damn thing. And later, while my daughter is asleep and my husband is in the shower, I huddle under the blankets and watch the "Angel of Music/Phantom of the Opera/Music of the Night" sequence on my phone. Again. And again. And again.
I have better taste than this, I think furiously. I know better. They play this song at Trump rallies. The Phantom is literally wearing a fedora, for fuck’s sake.
But God help me, it’s a darkness I know I cannot fight, this cheesy darkness of the music of the night.
It’s not much of an exaggeration to say the Phantom was my first love. I was obsessed after that show in St. Louis. I logged a lot of hours crouched prayerfully before my boom box, switching out the two discs of the original cast album. I wore my glow-in-the-dark mask shirt until it fell apart. I feverishly studied George Perry’s The Complete Phantom of the Opera and even took a stab at Gaston Leroux’ pulpy 1910 architectural-noir novel. The source material was disappointingly unsexy, if you haven't read it.
While my eighties childhood and nineties adolescence may have been somewhat lacking in complex female characters with agency and narrative velocity, it certainly delivered on brooding antiheroes. The Phantom’s cohort rapidly expanded to include a passel of mopey Byronic eye candy—Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails, Gary Oldman’s Dracula, Brad Pitt's Tristan Ludlow, and, predictably, Jareth the Goblin King, back from my childhood in a new, confusing capacity.
I don’t think this was an unusual fixation, a least for straight, cisgender, white women of my generation (I do want to be clear that I’m writing from a limited perspective here). When I was a teenager, there was a raunchy, immediately accessible cultural script for the emergence of desire in boys—a harsh and limiting one, for sure, but one that we were all aware of. For girls, it was crickets. The one thing the dominant messaging of the time was crystal clear on was that female desire was wrong—a punch line in a comedy, a quick signifier of villainy in a drama, a guarantee of an early death in a slasher movie.
No one was talking about how overwhelming desire could be for girls, and I think it led to a lot of us enduring the onslaught of the hormone hurricane in severely freaked-out silence.
And that’s where the Phantom and his ilk step in—they’re dark, tortured, appetizing proxies that offer permission for forbidden feelings. After all, it wasn’t your fault you got yanked through a mirror and spirited away to a misty subterranean lair to be adored and ravished, right?
But, and this is crucial (CRUCIAL), this archetype is also emphatically a fantasy. Most women, including teenage girls, are perfectly aware of the distinction between this and reality. We want partners in our real lives, not vampires.
So, sure, I can understand why I fell for the Phantom as a preteen. But why am I still finding something that speaks to me in this ridiculous spectacle of a musical? Why am I admitting this? Why am I letting anyone read it, for that matter?
I'm writing this May in 2020, as my world, like everyone else’s, keeps contracting painfully. At this stage, I’m focused on grieving a world I had no idea I was about to lose.
I know I’m lucky. My version of this crisis is very different from many people’s realities. I still have a job. Because of other people’s labor, I can have groceries delivered to my house and pick up restaurant meals curbside. The people in my home are people I enjoy being with. I started this catastrophe with a lot of privilege, and I’m carrying even more throughout it right now.
Still, I am struggling. Before this, I had achieved an almost-alchemical life balance. I’d developed perfectly serviceable compartments for every role I wanted to play in my life—spouse, mother, professional, writer, private oddball. Maybe I couldn’t always find enough time to feed every single box each week, but it was a functional system, and I felt fulfilled and happy with myself and my life most of the time.
But now I don’t have childcare. Work and home overlap. All of my carefully separated and labeled boxes are spilled all over my filthy kitchen floor, which I don’t have time to mop. This is the first thing I’ve written in weeks. My relationship with the weirder, less presentable compartment of myself where I keep all the dry ice, motorized gondolas, and candelabras is not always an easy one. Still, it’s a self I miss when I don’t have time to indulge it. In other words, like everyone else, I’m not doing so great.
When I watched The Phantom of the Opera over the weekend, I didn’t want to be romantically spirited away to someone else’s secret underground lair; I wanted to plunge down once more into my own.
There are lairs, and then there are Lairs. The Phantom is most definitely in possession of the latter. It sits on the far shores of a mist-enshrouded underground lake (this is a real thing, but it’s more of a concrete tank than an atmospheric symbol of forbidden desire). To get there, you have to traverse an interminable series of catwalks, probably with a creep in a fedora swinging a lantern around and hollering about how his power over you grows stronger yet. Next, you have to hop in a gondola full of tasseled black pillows, again with fedora dude towering over you loudly crooning that he is both man and mystery. You’ll just have to hope someone got there ahead of you to light a million candles so you can find your way around.
I had my own Lair growing up. My bedroom was a pretty sizable basement. I burned a lot of candles and incense, had my own fireplace, and painted my nails and my walls black. I was narcissistic, horribly shy, occasionally full of false bravado, and desperate to find someone who wouldn’t mind what I thought of as my bone-deep weirdness, while simultaneously terrified that anyone might catch an uncontrolled glimpse of it. I could also be pretty toxic.
This, of course, is a pretty serviceable character description of the Phantom.
And so after a quarter of a century, we finally arrive at Phantom’s real hold on me. Like me, it’s tacky, but it’s earnest. It’s nowhere near as deep or as dark as it likes to think it is. And it really does want to love and be loved.
I’m not comfortable being unmasked either.
If (and this is a massive if) you can put aside all the show's baked-in toxic masculinity, maybe there’s something redemptive in this narrative after all. For me, there's something painfully relatable about a total weirdo in a fabulous silk tux getting candle wax and glitter everywhere, banging out an opera no one's buying, howling about art and ego, and desperately hoping someone out there thinks it's worth their time.
Say what you want about this show—God knows there’s plenty of valid criticism to be made. I’ll probably even agree with you. But despite its many serious flaws, there is one moment that still genuinely, unabashedly resonates for me: the first time Christine sees the Phantom clearly, she’s looking in the mirror.
Love you all and I hope you're having a wonderful Sunday afternoon.