The title of this post is deceiving. Those who know me well know that I am a theater geek at heart, especially for musical theater. The first show to steal my heart was The Phantom of the Opera, and I still feel every emotion in the raw when I re-watch it as if it were only the first time. Although I have read Gaston Leroux’s Le Fantome de L’Opera and have seen the old black and white movie, I shall make the majority of my remarks referring to the stage adaption by Webber since it is what I am most familiar with. As a side note, I am also listening to the soundtrack while writing this post. 🙂
In it’s essence, the story of the Phantom of the Opera is one of love, fear, hatred, passion, and sorrow. It also offers a theme of sacrifice, mercy, and redemption.
The definition of tragedy is “a play in which the protagonist, usually a man of importance and outstanding personal qualities, falls to disaster through the combination of a personal failing and circumstances with which he cannot deal”. While some would beg to differ with me, I would strive to make the argument that POTO falls into the category of a classic literary tragedy. In every tragedy there must be a tragic hero, and Erik – who is better known as the Phantom himself – provides us with this role. Or is he perhaps a tragic villain? Is it possible for him to be both? Does this story even have a hero? I have often pondered this question, and maybe this is one aspect that draws me to this show, the conflicting personality of Erik in which we both love and hate him. A classic Greek tragedy also leaves the audience with some heavy moral lesson at the end of the story which I will also later define. I believe that the combination of these things is why this show continues to captivate audiences as one of the longest running shows on Broadway.
1) The Tragic Hero
The Phantom is described by others a genius in music and engineering, and as with many, his genius can also be construed as madness. We bear witness to his musical genius through both Christine and his own Opera that we later hear – Don Juan Triumphant. He trains Christine’s voice to impeccable beauty, and lets face it, the Music of the Night just makes you melt. But his genius also leads to madness. He becomes so obsessed with his own creation that he alone must have it. His obsession is his downfall. Like any tragic hero, the Phantom goes through a journey which changes him. He starts off as the mysterious killer and ends as the unrequited lover. The final part of the story of a tragic hero is that his own actions lead to his destruction. He fought for love his entire life, and in the end, loses it because the girl he loves fall in love with another man. He could do nothing to keep Christine from loving Raoul. He presumably comes to his end with one final act of selfishness. He looks beyond himself, and out of love for Christine and longing for her own happiness, frees her to run away with Raoul, leaving him alone where he decides for a final act to leave his old self behind as he flees from the pursuit of those in the Opera house.
2) The Tragic Villain
We all love a good villain, and our Opera Ghost certainly fulfills this role in many aspects. We witness him commit senseless murders and destruction of property all for his own little game. Christine sings that “He kills without a thought, he murders all that’s good…what horrors wait for me, in this the Phantom’s opera?”. He thrives on fear. Everyone in the plot is fearful against him except Christine. She is conflicted from her past image of him as her Angel of music, her slight attraction to him, and her now understanding of him as a murderer. Everyone else in the story spreads the horror stories of him and his magic lasso without the compassion that Christine exhibits. Finally, he manipulates for his own good and has no qualms about it, painting himself in innocent light to Christine as her Angel while all the while orchestrating a plot to keep her as his own forever. He overtly attempts to seduce her, just listen to all the lyrics from The Music of the Night, and it almost works until his charm wears off. When his attempts to win Christine over fail, he simply forces her to choose to either willingly love and be with him or send Raoul to his grave.
3) The Humanity
Aside from everything else in the story, the Phantom of the Opera is a story of a man who is lost, lonely, and longs for love, and in a sense we can all relate to his story. His loneliness reaches down to the depths of our being and forces us to come to terms with our own loneliness. We begin to understand how he ended up in his current life, abandoned by everyone around him, rejected by his own mother, for something he could do nothing about. We experience his sorrow as he watches the woman he loves profess her love to another man and witness his love for her overcome his bitterness as he lets her go in the end. Christine at one point prays saying “God give me courage to show you, you are not alone”, and like Christine, we long to comfort him with our own words, but come to the realization that he must learn to love himself first before he accept the love of others. We wish we could change his past, that his own mother would not have rejected him for his disfiguration, and that society would learn to see beyond appearance, but the sad reality is that we cannot change his past. The story addresses the need we all have to be loved and accepted for who we are. We all put on our own masquerade, hiding our faces so the world can never see the things we are ashamed of in ourselves.
In the end, we (well at least I) end up falling in a sort of forbidden love with the Opera Ghost while also feeling guilty loving a murderer. Christine ends up understanding (somewhat) the reason for the Phantom’s hideous acts, and feels pity for him, yet she can not completely offer him forgiveness and absolve him from what he has done, and we are left with an ending in which the Erik chooses to leave his old life behind in perhaps one last desperate plea to free himself from those who pursue him and seek redemption for his life and acts.
We are left with an ending with which we can never be happy, and this is what makes it a tragedy. We want Christine to be happy, so we want her to be with Raoul, but we want Erik to have one good moment in his life, so we want Christine to be with him. The ending was doomed to tragedy from the beginning though because the dark, passionate, love offered by Erik was never going to keep Christine’s love when she has her “prince charming” Raoul to offer her her dreams and rescue her from darkness. The Phantom is resolved to forever pining for the love he can never have.
If there is one lesson to sum up the things that POTO teaches us, it’s that we all long to be loved for who we are and not for who we used to be. That human connection, my friends, is why I think this show will last.