Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Let the Spectacle Astound You

I've been meaning to write about this show ever since I started this blog. However, each time I try, it turns out I have nothing to say. 

Let me break this summer hiatus by trying once more.

The overture to The Phantom of the Opera is one of my favourite theatre experiences.

It's neat enough when you listen to it from a cast recording, but - as is the case with all great theatre moments - nothing can compare to seeing it live. To sit there in the theatre, when the chandelier rises, when the music blasts and you feel the notes going through your body... I get excited just thinking about it. It's like a promise: you'll see a great show tonight!

I've been to London (after falling in love with musical theatre) without seeing Phantom only once. It's a staple like Les Mis: I don't have to ponder about getting tickets at all. I go to see it, marvel the huge scale of the production... and leave without having gained much anything at all, beyond some delicious eye and ear candy.

I keep returning to Phantom because I remember seeing it for the first time. I was amazed. I had never seen a show as big, a show as beautiful. It still ranks there as one of the most visually gorgeous shows I've ever seen. I see it for my favourite moments: the Overture, the dropping of the chandelier, the intense Final Lair scene...

I don't see Phantom to get any food for thought. I don't see it for the performances, either. While I'm sure I could tell an awful Phantom from a good one, ranking the good ones I've seen is something else. Last summer, I saw John Owen-Jones, the man many Phantom fans praise as the best Phantom ever. I can't really remember what, if anything, made his performance different from the others I've seen.

There are the couple of musicals that seem to be less about the performances and art, and more about the show, or phenomenom, itself. Shows like Les Mis, Wicked and Phantom - I feel they, in their West End forms, are quite centered around their reputation as the world's favourite musicals.

Entering a theatre in Finland is entering a theatre. Entering a theatre in West End, then? When it comes to the type of shows I mentioned, I feel it's like visiting Disneyland. The place is crowded with travellers and complete with souvenir stands, ice cream and people in costumes. Cameras flash during the intermissions, lines to meet and greet with the stars are formed after the show.

Many of the most popular productions in London hardly feel like pieces of theatre to me anymore. They feel like tourist attractions, every single detail perfected - every single detail always similar. I suppose, when you change casts for 26 years in a row, everything has to be fixed so you can change one person without everything falling apart. And I suppose some of the tiniest movements the original cast happened to come up with 26 years ago are indeed still intact.

In short: visiting Her Majesty's for Phantom from year to year, the tourists sitting next to me change, the actors change. The experience stays the same.

That is why I find it so hard to review Phantom.

I feel it's pointless to talk about the piece itself. I'm sure everyone has seen it, every opinion out there has been expressed already. I like the show well enough, but I'm not into it enough to notice the tiny differences in between performances, so deeper analysis is ruled out.

I just keep seeing the show to enjoy the spectacle, to rest my eyes on the glitter and glamour for two hours and a half.

Photo from Phantom of the Opera's photo gallery.


  1. I agree with you that long-running West End shows ('Phantom', 'Les Mis', 'Blood Brothers') as well as those originated from Disney ('The Lion King', 'Mary Poppins', 'Beauty and the Beast' etc.) tend to really be about the show more than about who's in it. However, famous people tend to want to be in things like 'Phantom' so it isn't too challenging to get reputable people coming in to play significant characters which in turn encourages local fans to come and see the show again instead of the audience only consisting of tourists.

    At every cast change there is a reason for a musical theatre fan to go and see a long-running show again because I personally think it will always be that little bit different. No two actors have exactly the same voice or the same facial expressions and I enjoy picking out things that are different to how I've seen them done before. For me 'bad' interpretations don't really exist anymore, only ones I don't like as much as others. Of course theatre-goers are very different too and even though I am all about little details and technicalities, it seems that you prefer sitting back and watching the show :) I do agree with you though that sometimes West End theatre seems a little too perfect. That's why I love it when things go wrong (the guy on the barricade not catching the bag of ammunition Gavroche throws at him and the audience cracking up)- it always reminds me that I am in fact seeing a live show.

    According to my 'Phantom' programme from 2008 I saw Ramin Karimloo and Gina Beck in the leads and of course I remember they were great but I was (unfortunately on retrospect) more fixated on the show itself than on the fact that these two are beyond amazing.
    However, now that I have gotten into musical theatre properly and gained more knowledge, I find myself increasingly seeing shows because of the people in them (most recently 'Les Mis' because of Sierra Boggess). Despite West End theatre being a tourist attraction to a great extent, I find that seeing shows as a local and making it a social event where you meet your friends has a totally different feel to it.

    I would perhaps disagree with you on including 'Wicked' in the list of shows that generally are about the show more than the actors as it is still a new show and I feel it is at a strong advantage when it does have someone famous in the lead (e.g. so many people who never really liked musical theatre have been to see 'Wicked' in London because of Matt Willis).

    1. Heh, this must be the longest comment in my blog ever - thanks! :D

      Yeah, I know the cast changes still alter the shows, even in these mega-musicals. I see that in West End Les Mis because I know the show so well - even though the new people do 99% of things like the previous ones, that 1% sometimes makes a huge difference.
      But with Phantom, I can't really remember which part is the stuff that's always there and what the actor has added themselves, since I don't know the show as well (you're right, I'm not that great when it comes to observing tiny details, I forget them easily). So it feels more the same every time.

      And yeah, I bet it's different when you actually live near West End! To me, going to theatre tends to feels a bit tourist-y in generl: I usually sit in train for a couple of hours at least even in Finland. But it's of course another thing if your friends come too and it's a social occasion!

      Hmm, a fair point about Wicked. I've encountered some people who've seen it just because they know it's popular (I'm actually one myself :P), but I guess I've only seen one side of the coin!

      (People crack up when the barricade guy can't catch Gavroche's bag? D: To me, that sounds like something that'd make the scene even more heartbreaking...)

    2. Yeah, you really notice it only with shows you have seen a fair number of times because that's when you don't have to concentrate on what's happening in the same way you have to when seeing a show for the first or even the second time. 'Wicked' is the show I've seen the most times and that's why the differences between the performances of different actors in that are very much accentuated to me.

      Yes, the audience laughed at Gavroche's bag not being caught but mainly because the guy who was supposed to catch it kind of went on pretending he had caught it so it actually looked like a mistake and that's what made it funny. Sorry, I suppose that wasn't quite the most light-hearted example I could've come up with. Maybe I should have gone with something like Glinda accidentally hitting her tiara while swiveling her wand in the catfight scene :P

  2. Sounds pretty much like my thoughts.

    "Many of the most popular productions in London hardly feel like pieces of theatre to me anymore. They feel like tourist attractions, every single detail perfected - every single detail always similar."

    This, so much. I have less experience with West End, but it's starting to be the same in Germany: the show doesn't feel alive anymore. It's a product, not a living theatre piece. In the end there's very little room for different interpretations for actors in those everlasting replicas, and then we get to the point when one different hand gesture makes a fan go "whoa!". I find it sad.

    If you ever go to Budapest, go and see Phantom there. They've got a bit different directing, one Christine who kicks the men's ass, a bit different sets, and the Phantom in leather trousers. I've seen the original production only once, but even after that I was all "yay, something new in PotO!".

    1. Yeah, true that. I've read interviews where West End actors who originated some role thirty years ago say that the current actor is still doing the same gestures they came up with back in the 80's. Sounds pretty insane to me - was the way the first person waved their hand really so ingenious..?
      Sad if the same is starting to happen in Germany too. :/

      Non-replica PotO, that'd be so nice to see!

  3. That's funny. I've seen PotO four times and always find something new and different about it. Then again, though, I've seen it in a different theater each time.

    If you want a bit of a different Phantom, the Las Vegas production is spectacular. The theater was built for the show, the chandelier is amazing, and it's just... boom-sparkle-dazzle. I only had a few gripes about it. But it's closing in a few weeks. :(

    Also, I just finished your blog. I liked it a lot.

    1. I bet it makes a bigger difference when you get to see different productions, it'd be interesting to see others than the West End one! Even though most of them are replicas, there'll be a whole new cast and some differences instead of just a couple of cast members having changed...
      I've heard some good things about the Las Vegas version, I bet it's good - but I'm currently on the wrong side of the Atlantic. :/

      You finished my blog - you mean you read it all? Wow. That's a huge compliment! Thanks so much! :)

    2. Haha, I'd love to see the London production, but I'm on the wrong side of the Atlantic for that. ONE DAY.

      Yes! I really liked reading it, and you made me want to start going to see more musicals. It's something I used to do a lot and really enjoy when I was in school, but then just stopped after I graduated.