Magazine article The Spectator

Promise Unfulfilled

Magazine article The Spectator

Promise Unfulfilled

Article excerpt


Promise unfulfilled

The Phantom of the Opera

12A, selected cinemas

One of the great pieces of good fortune in my life was that my parents despised pantomime. Instead, the theatrical excitement of my childhood was anticipating the arrival of the next big American musical. If I were lucky, I might get to hear the Broadway cast recording; one, perhaps two, of the songs - probably a big romantic ballad - would be in the hit parade. Finally the show would arrive, quite often be badly reviewed and run for a year or two. Considerably later would come the film, which I would judge much inferior. I started with Oklahoma! but am really thinking of Pal Joey ('Bewitched, Bothered And Bewildered'), The Pajama Game ('Hey There'), Damn Yankees ('Whatever Lola Wants'), and many more.

Times changed. Popular music changed dramatically and the hit parade, which had something mildly mysterious to do with sheet music - that is to say, people playing the songs on their pianos - disappeared. Stephen Sondheim seemed almost alone in writing shows I wished to see. Musical films bombed and then ceased. Then Chicago won Oscars and made money, and Hollywood became interested once more. Meanwhile, independently, Andrew Lloyd Webber had forged his spectacularly successful career. I wanted to cheer on a British boy, but there was little dancing, not much comedy; somehow his musicals were not, for me, the real thing. There were huge hits, which now ran much longer (indeed interminably, it seemed) - Cats and, by others, Les Misérables and Miss Saigon - but they were not filmed. This was for a good reason: they depended on spectacle, barricades being stormed, helicopters landing - thrilling in the theatre, commonplace on the screen. Biggest of all these is The Phantom of the Opera. With productions all over the world, it has made more money than any play or film ever. So there are two questions: is the film version any good? Will it be a financial success, leading to more musical films?

We start in black-and-white at an auction - 'A collector's piece indeed', 'Lot no. 666, a chandelier in pieces.' Actors in aging make-up look sad, remembering something we do not know about (I was reminded of Titanic - for me, not a good sign). Almost immediately, however, we are in colour and the Paris of 1870, and, more particularly, the opera house. …

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