Pity the composer who gets there first: Auber’s opera ‘Manon Lescaut’ eclipsed by both Puccini and Mascagni; Nicolai’s ‘Merry Wives of Windsor’ by Verdi’s ‘Falstaff’. Pity most of all poor Sandy Wilson, who thought he had the musical rights to Isherwood’s ‘Goodbye to Berlin’, only to have them snatched away by Kandor and Ebb. ‘Cabaret’ soared, leaving Wilson with a half-finished score and a bitter sense of what might have been.
The history of the musicalisation of Gaston Leroux’s ‘The Phantom of the Opera’ is equally fraught. First there was Ken Hill’s version, in Britain, which is probably most faithful to the book and uses music from Gounod, Verdi, Offenbach etc which would have been sung at the Paris Opera at the time that the story is set (1880s). Then there was ‘Phantom’, which is performed here, an American version by Maury Yeston (music and lyrics) and Arthur Kopit (book), who had recently written the wonderful ‘Nine’. Hill was in London, Yeston bound for Broadway, so no conflict there. Everybody happy.
And then came Andrew Lloyd Webber, elbowing both versions aside. While Yeston was raising money for Broadway, ALW announced his Phantom’s transfer to New York, scuppering the chances of the other. Though something of a bloated monster, musically inconsistent and dogged by accusations of plagiarism, this inevitably overshadows any production of another version.
In truth, as a piece of writing, Yeston’s ‘Phantom’ is altogether more engaging than ALW’s. It is tighter, more intimate and informed by more human sympathy. The economical plot focuses on two relationships – that of Erik (the Phantom) with Christine, the soprano he moulds and falls in love with, and with the sacked manager of the theatre, Carriere, who turns out to be his father. Yeston’s music is infused with the spirit of operetta while maintaining his own Broadway flavour. While it doesn’t produce the kind of melodic sweep and glamour of ALW, it rises in ‘My True Love’ and ‘You Are My Own’ in the second act to genuine emotional fervour. Yeston/Kopit’s Erik is altogether more engaging and believable than the Lloyd-Webber skulker; the agony of his subterranean existence, his dependence on beautiful music. This makes the Beauty and the Beast theme both credible and agonising. But if anything it is topped by the father/son theme, and particularly moving in the agony of both loving and loathing the thing you have spawned.
Not that you will get much of all these virtues in this hum-drum production by All Star Productions. At the heart of all versions of ‘Phantom’ there is a problem: how many performers can suggest the most beautiful voice which hard-bitten opera buffs have ever heard? Certainly Sarah Brightman couldn’t do it, but Kira Morsley gets nearer than most in that she supplements a more-than-adequate voice with a flame-haired beauty and a sparky charm. We almost believe in her. She is however not helped by her Phantom, Kieran Brown, who though he has a good voice at full volume becomes uncertain and at times inaudible when soft, with nothing in between. Nor does he capture the full intensity of either the torment or the emotional response to music.
This is largely down to the pedestrian direction of Dawn Kalani Cowle, who lacks any sense of how to translate the emotional dynamics into movement, particularly through music. Too often characters stand and sing at each other in the way they did in 1930a film musicals. In chorus numbers she fills the background with unconvincing mugging which distracts attention from where it should be. The violence and death is staged at the worst levels of Am Dram, and she spectacularly muffs the climactic death of Erik. She is not helped by a fussy and ponderous set, or by costumes which are largely horrible swathes of artificial fabric (women) or charity shop mix-and-match with only a tenuous relationship to the period (men). When Erik produces a crucial copy of the poems of Blake, it is a glossy modern paperback complete with bar code. 1880s?? Dance largely consists of unimaginative and repetitive circling.
Thankfully the musical direction by Aaron Clingham is up to All Star’s usual high standards. Vocally the chorus work is excellent and the 5-piece band has sympathetic and interesting arrangements of this superior score. For those who are interested in musical theatre and can see through the production to the work itself, the British premiere of this unjustly neglected musical is a must.