I saw ‘The Phantom of the Opera’ for the first time, and here’s why you should too
Allow me to introduce myself. I’m a lifelong theatre kid, having learned the lyrics to every song in Annie before I could read. I’m an industry professional, as evidenced by the fact that I work at TodayTix and have, on more than one occasion, been referred to as “a business woman.” I am 29 years old, which means I have been on this planet for 87% of the time Andrew Lloyd Webber’s The Phantom of the Opera has been on Broadway. And I just saw it for the first time, in any iteration, one week ago.
Let’s back up a bit. It’s hard to believe, even to me, that I never went on a field trip to see the show or attended a middle school sleepover where our gracious host insisted on putting the DVD in after The Lizzie McGuire Movie concluded or decided to buy a ticket on a whim on a lazy winter weekend when I had nothing to do. But somehow, my truth is that until a week ago, I had never, ever seen The Phantom of the Opera. Not the movie. Not the show. Not clips on YouTube nor a drag version where half the cast are puppets for some reason. Nothing. I barely knew the music. It was, looking back, categorically wild that I made it this far with such a blind spot, but we’ve all got something. So despite knowing I was going to lose my very best Never-Have-I-Ever go-to in doing so, I decided it was time to correct my deficiency.
Here’s a list I made of things I knew about the show before I saw it:
- he has a mask
- there’s a lady
- they ride on a boat but, like, inside?
- the chandelier thing
And here’s a list of questions I was hoping to have answered:
- Is he literally a ghost?
- What is the opera? Is it a famous one I have to know about before going in?
- Is the chandelier scary?
- Is the boat inside?
- How much fog, generally?
And finally, here’s my list that can only appropriately be titled “Things I Guessed Were Probably Going On”:
- The Phantom of the Opera is a man who had big dreams to become an opera star, but a horrific chandelier accident disfigured him and left him shattered, emotionally and physically. While he’s still a stellar crooner, his self-esteem is so low, he must hide in the shadows of the opera house, having taken a heard-but-not-seen job as a janitor or a night guard or something, just to be in close proximity to his one true love: music. Alas! What’s this? A lady opera singer strolls through the hallowed halls of the opera house one evening, and from the moment she opens her mouth, he’s taken. Will he show himself to this hauntingly beautiful starlet, hoping she’ll love him more than she’ll fear him, or will the agony of his wasted life overtake him and force him to stay hidden away, never quite able to rejoin the human race? Also I think there’s a second non-phantom guy, but I’m fuzzy on those details. Bring on the drama!
The verdict? I was wrong about almost everything! And it was great to be wrong!
Here’s what’s really going on, for those of you who may be like me and missed the past 30 years of musical theatre history. The Phantom of the Opera (not categorically a ghost, but thought to be so by almost all of the folks who manage, perform at, and frequent the Paris Opera House he calls home) is a mysterious masked singer who lives in the bowels below the house in a secret lair. Christine Daaé is a beautiful, young, orphaned chorus girl who just so happens to be an extremely talented soprano in need of some inspiration, coaching, and advocating on her behalf. Enter, Phantom. The story that plays out is one of jealousy, compassion, and straight-up backstage drama, mixed with a bit of fantasy and surrealism and a whole bunch of romantic duets. It’s a show that bears repeat viewings, but one that delivers something special on your first experience. Trust me. I know.
Here’s a list of notes I jotted down immediately after stepping out onto the street after seeing the show:
- I actually don’t know most of this music, which is nuts
- It’s funny!?
- The chandelier has messed with me.
- Being able to be very present is really good. I love it. I’m only thinking about what’s about to happen.
- Everyone THINKS he’s a ghost, which is the tea.
Let’s break those down, shall we!
Not knowing a thing about an extremely iconic piece of theatre and being able to witness it completely blind, having (obviously) no idea what I was about to see was actually a gift in and of itself. If you really think about it, we don’t have many opportunities to be totally surprised in this day and age. We live in an era of abounding information, and while that serves us in most cases, it sometimes has the ability to crush the experience of viewing art. The ending gets spoiled or we read too many reviews and have our opinions decided for us in 280-character takes. The very act of sitting down in a theatre not knowing what was about to play out in front of me felt revolutionary in 2021. And it kind of was.
Do you know what it’s like to hear the music to The Phantom of the Opera for THE FIRST TIME? I was losing my mind! I was so struck by the few melodies and lyrics I did know, and I was completely entranced by the ones I’d never heard. After every new love song, all I could think about was how many times I’d probably heard my theatre friends in duet them in dorm rooms without ever having realized, and when I finally heard “Masquerade,” I understood why Andrew Lloyd Webber’s DJ career has taken off. That song slaps.
I was also totally shocked by how funny the show is. Its humor is so broad, so accessible, and yet it feels like it’s made just for me, a theatre kid who ~gets~ it. The backstage-iness of this show was something I knew about amorphously, but the actual staging of it-wherein we get to see shows-within-shows, dressing room convos, and fake stage lights and curtains after fake performances- was very effective.
And the bigness of it all is what really sold me. It’s very, very, very cool to be a part of something so big. Sitting in that orchestra, I had sparks of the same exact feelings I got when I saw the first Broadway musical I ever saw (Beauty and the Beast, duh) at age 11. It was the kind of theatre that felt otherworldly, like getting to witness it was a privilege, and like I knew I had to really work hard to take it all in or else I’d be wasting it. And I didn’t want to waste a second. Like for example, the chandelier. Being able to be present in 2021 is really astounding; having the opportunity to be thinking only about what’s happening directly in front of you is a miracle. Seeing this show gave me all that and more: a chandelier that made people cheer both when it went up and when it came back down!
Full disclosure, being a human who lives in the world, I knew the chandelier bit was coming. But after hearing Fran Lebowitz describe her faux pas of the opera to Martin Scorcese (whose reaction to the story was, iconically, “Oh Fran, no”), wherein she screamed at the top of her lungs because she didn’t know the fall was part of it, I mentally prepared myself for its arrival. I really prepared. I guess you could say I was ready to leave that theatre and declare, Carrie Bradshaw style, that The Chandelier was like the fifth girl. But guess what? It was still cool. We all still gasped and yelled “woo” at it. That’s the power of being an audience member; it’s all still just so amazing, even when you know it’s coming.
As I reflect on my newfound appreciation for this all-time classic, I’m finding that my lifelong accidental avoidance of Phantom was, perhaps, a gift all along. The magic of theatre is something I’ll never take for granted, but is a phenomenon that really only hits when it hits. You can’t force it. You can’t seek it out. It has to come to you, like a shooting star or a four-leaf clover or, oh, I don’t know, a PHANTOM! And while I may never be able win Never-Have-I-Ever again, I will be able to sing “The Music of The Night” at karaoke and be able to say, with confidence, that The Phantom of the Opera is still able to wow audiences of all ages, experience levels, and persuasions, even 30+ years after its curtain first rose on Broadway. Perhaps now more than ever, if only you’re willing to let it inside your mind.