Friday, 24 April 2015

The Phantom of the Opera: Or How I Learnt to Appreciate Musicals

I have always thought of myself as someone who was never into musicals. Musicals were just something that I was never into. I thought they were too theatrical or showy which is probably because I was never a theatre kid and therefore didn't quite appreciate or understand a good stage performance.

Also, musicals often have a stigma associated with them and are dismissed as being silly or superfluous. I have no idea how much this stigma did or did not influence my own opinion of musicals. I would like to say that it didn't but it's hard to say when so much of our thoughts can be influenced by so many different things, even if it is on a subconscious level.

Moreover, that sort of stigma can often be why people feel the need to justify or defend the things they like if they have a similar stigma associated with them. And I hate that. Like with superhero movies. Even though they are massively and crazily successful and popular, there are still people who look down on superhero movies as being juvenile or not art despite all evidence to the contrary.

"I can't imagine why."

Often people fixate on the worst elements of a genre or medium they either don't like or aren't that familiar with and therefore dismiss the genre as not worthy of their time or attention. And I can understand that to a degree since there is a lot of stuff out in the world and it's impossible to absorb it all. Therefore, we create filters to discount the stuff we don't like or haven't gotten into, just to streamline all the stuff out there into something more manageable.

Anywho, lots of people claim not to like musicals and that they can't get into them or the heightened theatrical element ruins the experience of the story or something similar. Perhaps that is because of the lavish productions with overly theatrical acting and melodramatic stories.

Since most of us grew up on television and movies with close ups and a more 'realistic', or at least less overly theatrical forms of acting and set design, the more exaggerated expressions in theatre can seem a bit too much.

On a completely different note, musical theatre has given us Wolverine dancing in shiny pants with rainbow maracas.
With that alone, musical theatre has given us too much and somehow just what we always wanted but never knew we did.

Also, people seem to have a negative reaction to the fact there are, shock, musical numbers in musicals. That somehow having the story stop for a song and dance number is automatically stupid and makes little sense. That expressing a character's emotions, thoughts and/or actions through song is intrinsically ridiculous or flawed.

The fact music is intrinsically linked to the human experience and most songs explicitly are supposed to express emotion or convey a thought probably has nothing to do with people writing stories where characters express themselves through song.

And it's not like dance has anything to do with expression either. Makes all those song and dance numbers in musicals seem rather silly in context really. I mean, who has ever felt like dancing when they're happy or something? That's just silly.

Gene Kelly should have expressed his utter happiness in this scene with voice-over narration rather than with one of the most joyous song and dance numbers of all time.

Now, with all that said, everyone loves Disney, right? We all grew up with Disney animated movies and they have become an integral and vital part of many of our childhoods. Movies like Beauty & the Beast, Snow White and the Seven DwarfsThe Lion King, The Little Mermaid, Mulan, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, and so on. They are all so much a part of our childhoods they are their own form of nostalgia really. Disneystalgia.

Another thing they all are is musicals. All of those movies listed and the many other Disney classics we grew up watching and loving are musicals with songs which we can recall in an instance once the first few notes begin. So howcome Disney musicals get a pass?

Since we don't often refer to Disney animated movies as musicals even though that is what they clearly are. And people who claim they hate musicals often still love Disney movies with five plus songs in them which um kinda definitely makes them musicals...

Simba literally sings a Broadway number with a complicated dance sequence and a spotlight.

So obviously that stigma comes with some glaring exceptions. Exceptions which call into question the stigma itself. Which kinda makes it dumb or ignorant (due to lack of experience or knowledge), like most stigmas. It also means I was dumb for casually dismissing musicals, particularly theatrical performances, out of hand. Or if not dismissing them outright exactly, then not quite giving them the chance they deserved like all genres do, at least until I had done the proper research and made an informed decision.

What got me thinking about all this musical stuff was when my girlfriend recently made me watch the 25th anniversary performance of The Phantom of the Opera at the Royal Albert Hall. And I really enjoyed it. A huge part of that is because of Ramin Karimloo who played the Phantom and is utterly fantastic but also the music and the theatricality of the performance.

Seriously though, she wasn't the only one Ramin had that effect on.

While I'll talk more about my recent love for all things Phantom below, this really got me thinking of musicals. And I realised that my favourite Johnny Depp/Tim Burton movie of the past 15 years has to be Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street. By like a lot. It blows all the other movies they've made in the past decade and a half so far out of the water, they're wondering how the hell they landed in a dessert.

Depp and Burton have worked so often together with neither one challenging the other that their work has become incredible boring since their shtick is so well-worn. Where great creative relationships may become comfortable over the years with each partner able to bounce of the other and create great art, in the case of Depp and Burton they merely become complacent since neither one seems to inspire the other to move outside their comfort zone.

The only movie they've made together since their glorious collaborations in the mid to late 1990s that this doesn't seem to be true of is Sweeney Todd, based off Stephen Sondheim's musical of a murderous barber dedicated to revenge and very close shaves.

 "To slit a throat, or not to slit a throat... Slit a throat. The answer is always slit a throat."

Now to be fair, this is obviously a movie version of a musical theatre production but it is still obviously a musical. Depp has a surprisingly good voice, maybe not ideally suited for a theatre hall since it isn't super powerful but he has perfect pitch and an emotive voice that is slightly reminiscent of David Bowie at points, which really brings Sweeney Todd's songs to life.

And Burton's gothic visual aesthetic, which has been rather uninspired in some of his other films, really works with the macabre nature of the musical. London in Sweeney Todd is dark and twisted, truly a hole in the world like a great black pit and the vermin of the world inhabit it.

But my point here is that my favourite Depp/Burton film of the past decade and a half is a musical. And like so many people, I love the Buffy the Vampire Slayer musical episode, and recent movie musicals such as The Muppets. All of this further illustrating that my strange reluctance to openly declare that I like musicals really seems to be a result of the stigma musicals seem to have for some reason.

"You don't say."

Now on to Phantom. Well, obvious I was aware of its existence. My childhood sweetheart back in high school loved it so I've known about it since at least around then, although considering its impact on pop culture I probably was aware of it before that, subconsciously if not consciously.

And I have to say, watching it in its entirety for the first time, I can see why it had such an impact. It's grand and dramatic, with some elements of horror but epic in scale and wholly romantic in scope. Also, the songs are great. So catchy and memorable. Yes, a number of pieces are repeated throughout but that makes sense for an opera-centric musical since operas often repeat certain musical themes. Just ask The Who.


But the story is also perfectly suited to capture the imagination. A tragic love story in the vein of Beauty & the Beast or Quasimodo and Esmeraldo, between a monster/disfigured man and a beautiful woman where the monster has some innate talent or kind nature which endears himself to the beauty despite his offsetting appearance.

Add the theatrical elements, striking visuals such as the Phantom's half mask, and one of Andrew Lloyd Webber's best scores and tightest songs that showcase the voices of the actors, it's little wonder Phantom is the most successful musical of all time.

And to be honest, I totally have a man-crush on Ramin Karimloo at the moment. The man's voice is incredible. I've heard that Phantoms usually are tenors and listening to the original cast recordings with Michael Crawford, that does seem to be the case but Ramin's rock baritone is beautiful, adding real power and oomph to the Phantom's songs.

Furthermore, his performance as the Phantom is really impressive, conveying his anger and sadness in equal measure with real conviction. The moments that highlight his abject loneliness and longing for companionship are actually quite moving.

"FEEL! FEEL FOR ME!"

You almost forget that the Phantom is a typical nice-guy-who-was-only-being-nice-in-order-to-get-something-from-the-person-he-was-being-nice-to, holds the opera house in the grip of terror, and he legit kidnaps Christine trying to force her to be with him. Not to mention he casually murders people just because.

The Phantom really is a sheltered man-child with little real experience or knowledge of what love or a romantic relationship is. Like a teenage boy, he has false expectations of how Christine should feel or do for him. With the bravado of a child in a superhero cape, he brashly makes demands and appears apposing but as soon as his mask is removed, he is little more than an insecure and scared boy desiring some form of affection or acceptance.


But that is the strength of Ramin's performance, he makes the Phantom a really sympathetic character despite his anger and villainous acts since you understand where it is coming from, from that fear of rejection and insecurity about his disfigurement.

I'm sure other actors have given other takes on the Phantom with their own merits but Ramin really seems to make the character even more enchanting, romantic, and tragic in a striking performance...

So yeah, I guess I openly like musicals now, converted by the power of the music of the night or something. Funny, I don't seem to mind in the slightest.


References:

The Phantom of the Opera (1986 musical) Wikipedia page

The Phantom of the Opera at the Royal Albert Hall

Phantom Reviews Podcast - ALW 25th Anniversary First Thoughts (2011)
Musical Theatre Wikipedia page

Let's hear it for musicals! They're uplifting, entertaining and make us forget all our woes - whatever the snobby critics might say

Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (2007 film)

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