What is your first thought when you hear the phrase “the phantom of the opera?” Unless you’re an unabashed bibliophile or literary-minded Francophile, it’s almost certainly not the novel, Le Fantome de l’Opera, written by Gaston Leroux in 1910. Still, that early 20th century flight of fancy introduced the world to the grotesquely deformed music lover and catacomb dweller, Erik, he of the half mask and three-quarters madness.
Erik, known decidedly more widely as the Phantom, has become one of the most enduring characters in modern pop culture. No one can mistake the Phantom masks that crop up each Halloween, and every TV show from The Simpsons to South Park contains at least one allusion to the mad maestro. Not content merely to be referenced, the Phantom has made merry mayhem, sought sweet song and longed for love in no fewer than eight film and television adaptations of his own.
Since 1986, there have even been two big-budget musicals based on Leroux’s little book. Sure, most people are only familiar with Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Broadway blockbuster, The Phantom of the Opera, with its crashing chandelier, wildly popular title song and movie adaptation starring Gerard Butler and Emmy Rossum, but there is another version — often referred to as “the other” Phantom — that for many will always be the superior theatrical experience.
Phantom, by Maury Yeston and Arthur Kopit, was first produced in 1991, and though it premiered after The Phantom of the Opera, it was actually written a few years prior to Webber’s opus. Aside from being based upon the same source material and debuting around the same time, the two versions of Leroux’s old tale couldn’t be more dramatically or thematically different. Where Webber’s version goes for over-the-top theatricality — not too surprising given its place alongside Cats, Evita, Jesus Christ Superstar and the rest of Webber’s musicals — Yeston and Kopit’s Phantom focuses on the characters, their histories and their relationships to one another.
As Phantom opens, Christine Daee (Maggie Sczekan) sings and sells her original songs on the streets of Paris. Every franc she earns is bread in her belly, but, more importantly, every verse sung and copy sold is another chance that someone will recognize her natural talent and give her the opportunity to pursue her dream of becoming a professional performer. Count Philippe de Chandon (Brian Jackson), a prominent patron of the Paris Opera, sees the beauty both in Christine’s face and voice and refers her to Gerard Carriere (Brian Norber), the manager of the opera company.
As bad luck would have it, when Christine arrives at the opera house she learns that Monsieur Carriere has recently been let go by the new owner, Alain Cholet (Scott Beyette). Cholet’s wife and resident diva, Carlotta ( Joanie Brosseau), immediately senses the threat the younger, prettier and more talented Christine poses and promptly banishes her to a non-singing job in wardrobe. But faster than you can say fromage, Erik the Phantom (Markus Warren), hears Christine sing and offers to train her in secret to become the chanteuse they both know she can be.
As the rest of Phantom unfolds, we learn to what lengths Carlotta will go to keep Christine out of the spotlight and the Phantom will go to protect his muse and burgeoning love. We also learn more about the Phantom himself than in any other version of the story with which I am familiar, and that is what makes Phantom such an emotionally resonant work. Rather than remaining a cipher, Phantom’s Erik is a fully fleshed-out character with a history and motivations that allow the audience to connect with him in a singular way.
Though it may be less glitzy than the other one, Phantom packs a much stronger emotional punch. On the night I attended, a boy around 6 years old at the next table began to cry during the second act. It quickly became clear that he was not crying because he was tired, bored or spoiled. He was simply overwhelmed by the love of Erik for Christine, the tragedy of Erik’s existence and the beauty of the show’s presentation. He probably couldn’t have conveyed or, perhaps, even conceptualized it, but he was weeping for all that is wonderful and beautiful and painful in the world. What better recommendation could a musical have?
On the Bill: Phantom plays through Feb. 18 at Boulder’s Dinner Theatre. Tickets are $35 to $56. 5501 Arapahoe Ave., Boulder. For tickets or information, call 303-449-6000 or visit www.bouldersdinnertheatre.com.