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The Compulsion of the Phantom of the Opera (or “Down Once More to the Dungeon of My Black Despair”)

Originally posted on Blogspot 12/11/18

When I was ten years old, my mom woke me up one Saturday and said “I got you a ticket for The Phantom of the Opera.


I thought that sounded pretty horrifying both in the “phantom/spooky”-ness and the “opera being loud and boring”-ness of it.  


She continued, something along the lines of “You’re not going to know what’s happening in the story and I’m not going to want to explain it to you at the show since I’ll be boozing it up with my work friends enjoying a night at the theat-re, so today you are going to sit in this chair with this big “THE COMPLETE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA” book, and you are going to listen and follow along and ask me any questions you have.”


I sat in the big green rocking chair with a blanket on my lap and this book that really was everything you could ever want to know about Phantom of the Opera.  From information on Gaston Leroux’s novel to Lon Chaney’s silent movie, to a horrifying picture of Michael Crawford with his Phantom make-up on, sans mask.


In the back of the book was the complete libretto.  And my mother, God bless her, had two white cassette tapes.  On the front and back of the first one was Act I, and the front and back of the second was Act II.
And off we went. She’d play a scene and press STOP.  She’d explain what was going on and what the sometimes flowery language meant.  Then she’d ask me if it made sense.  If it did, we’d move on.  (NOTE: a year later we tried this same method with Miss Saigon.  Needless to say, I was not about to ask my mom such questions as, “what does ‘If I’m your pin-up I’ll melt all your brass,’ mean?”)


I definitely wasn’t hating this Phantom shit.  It was a spooky ghost story about a pretty ballerina who learns to sing from this disfigured man who calls himself “the Angel of Music” and “Opera Ghost” and lives in the depths of the Opera House where she works. He falls in love with her and becomes obsessed with her and would do anything to have her including killing a bunch of people and throwing fire balls from a skull on a stick and being super extra.  He had a boat.  He had a cape.  He had a freaky Red Death costume to wear to parties.  What was not to like?


At one point my mom read aloud, “say you’ll share with me one love, one lifetime.  Lead me, save me from my solitude.”  She sighed her emotional, sympathetic “poor thing” sigh I was used to hearing if I was running a fever or if I threw up in the middle of the night.


“Do you know what that means, Jess?  He’s asking her to save him from his loneliness.”

‘Yeah.  Cool.  Bring back the boat.  Who else gets whacked?’
By the end of our listening sesh, I’d say I was pretty curious about what seeing the show live would be like. Not bursting at the seams with excitement or anything.  But like, a Peter Griffin-level curiosity: “Hey…let’s see the ugly half of your face!”

As prepped as I was to understand the plot at even the most confusing moments…I was just completely unprepared for the emotional effect this show was going to have on me.  Not only was it the most visually stunning and impressive thing I had ever, ever seen in my ten years of existence…it emotionally gutted me.

This super extra ugly ghost guy became this very real, broken human being who’d been shunned by the world, and tried just ONE time to get someone to love him…and failed.  He didn’t win, and I’d rooted so hard for him.  Even after he’d dropped a chandelier on everybody.  Even after he’d committed murder!  I was with him.  

After seeing the show, all of my free time was spent camped out on my bedroom floor with my ear pressed to the speaker of my boom box, replaying those white cassette tapes—big Phantom book spread out before me. Trying as hard as I could to recreate the feelings I’d had in the theater that day.  Rewinding the last ten minutes over and over again….ROOTING for the Phantom each time, and weeping into my hands when he failed.
I remember feeling this DEEP need to see it again.  And then again.  And then again.

Last night I saw it for the (roughly) fifteenth time.  I decided to buy the ticket spur of the moment.  I was talking with someone about Broadway shows, Phantom came up, and immediately just thought “oh my god, I need to see that show right now.”  With the speedy “I dare you to click it” of a button on my phone, the ticket was purchased. 


I wrote a very brief post last week about my current up-tick in OCD symptoms, and the difficulties it’s come with lately.  I mentioned there not being much I could do right away to feel better.  Well…this definitely wouldn’t be a permanent fix…but it’d surely help somehow…right?

And, of course, barely two minutes into the show, I was immersed, and my mind was focused on the world I knew so well. There, just like I needed him to be, was the auctioneer standing over the big chandelier under its dusty cloth where it always was.  He moved us, monotone, through the Chalumeau poster, and the three skulls, and then he auctioned off the papier mache musical box, complete with its “figure of a monkey in Persian robes playing the cymbals—this item discovered in the vaults of the theater, still in working order.” 


Raoul would bid.  Madame Giry would bid.  Raoul would bid once more and win.    He’d utter the first sung words of the score:

A collector’s piece indeed…Every detail, exactly as she said.She often spoke of you my friend,Your velvet lining, and your figurine of lead.Will you still play when all the rest of us are dead?
*note: all lines are quoted from memory.  Soo.  Pretty cool, right?

We hadn’t even heard the famous Overture yet, and I had bullet-sized tears raining down my cheeks.  The 19-year old next to me who’d been taking snapchats with her boyfriend before the show was full on glaring at me. 

And I didn’t care.

The chandelier sparks and begins to rise into place while the familiar theme plays.  Carlotta comes out with the severed head, and the rehearsal for Hannibal begins.  Piangi can’t climb the elephant, as always.  Madame Giry bangs her cane on the floor at the exact, precise times.

A funny thought enters my brain: it’s kinda like the perfect OCD ritual. Ha.

Carlotta begins “Think of Me” and does her familiar scarf-ography.
Backdrop falls. Chaos ensues. Joseph Bouquet, chief of the flies:
 

“Please, Monsieur, don’t look at me. As God’s my witness I was not at my post. Please, monsieur there’s no one there—And if there is, well, it must be a ghost”

SCREAM. SHRIEK. PANIC.
He’s here: The Phantom of the Opera!

‘OMG…this IS kinda the perfect OCD ritual…’
Christine finishes HER first verse of “Think of Me”, and the music swells—she’s won the part!  She backs up, and members of the ensemble help her change into her Hannibal gown.

This makes me cry.  A frantic inner-dialogue begins:

‘JESSE, WHY ARE YOU CRYING AT THE COSTUME CHANGE?’

‘BECAUSE IT’S THE SAME COSTUME CHANGE!  JUST LIKE IT WAS EVERY OTHER TIME I SAW IT.  IT’S SO GOOD TO SEE THE COSTUME CHANGE AGAIN.  AND AT THE PERFECT POINT IN THE MUSIC, WE’RE SO HAPPY FOR HER BECAUSE SHE WON THE PART THANKS TO HER CREEPY SHADOW-BOYFRIEND-GHOST’S VOICE LESSONS.  IT’S SO BEAUTIFULLY DONE.‘

She may not remember me, but I…..re…..mem…..ber her.

More tears.

‘WHY ARE WE CRYING FOR RAOUL, JESSE?  HE RUINS EVERYTHING, HE F**KS SHIT UP EVERY TIME!!!’

‘Because he’s singing our favorite score!  He’s singing the words we love to hear…that we loved to read in our big Phantom book!’

It was then I realized that it wasn’t some big OCD compulsion.  It was an antidote.


Sitting in the Majestic Theater, I didn’t have to worry.  It was my show.
It’s the choreography and blocking I saw at age ten when the show first rocked my world and awakened in me some very adult emotions that I’d never felt before.


It’s the melodies and notes I craved when I was sick and depressed and would only agree to go on a scary trip to Sloan-Kettering for an exam if we could see Phantom of the Opera the night before.  On that trip my dad had remarked how physically happy he could tell I was when I watched the show.  Even with no immune system, and no hair, and no certain future.  “If I could take you to see The Phantom of the Opera every day, I would,” he’d said.


Many people I meet, especially those in the theater world, don’t understand my love for Phantom of the Opera.  A lot of people just don’t get the show and don’t get how it has lasted so long.  And, of course, opinions are like assholes: everyone’s got one.  And should have one.  I imagine it would be pretty problematic if you didn’t.

But one of the biggest reasons I love The Phantom of the Opera is that it gives me a place to be—it puts me in a WORLD—where everything is just as beautiful as it was the last time I visited.  Where everything unfolds before me just the way I know it will.  It is—for me—one giant exhale.  It soothes the beast—the compulsive need to control things and make things perfect.

I took the subway home after the show.  One of my compulsions of late has been a high anxiety over the cleanliness of the subways and I’ve wasted a good portion of the new money I’m making on taking Ubers and Uber pools everywhere because I’m just too paranoid to ride the subway.  But after the show, I took the subway and wasn’t afraid and didn’t even douse all my belongings with rubbing alcohol the way I’ve been known to do lately.
I feel better.  Not fixed.  But better.
Isn’t it kind of amazing what art and music can do?

So basically all I have to do is try to see Phantom at least once a week, and I’m cured.  


Obv. JK.


But so far today even just listening to the score has been calming. 
Whatever helps right?  It’s helping me get through the day.  Was blasting in my ears when I forced myself to ride the subway.  
Last night I sat beside a kind old British man at the show who chatted with me about musicals.  He cried with me at all the parts that are actually supposed to make you cry—not because they’re familiar costume changes and it’s making you emotional, but because it is touching and beautiful and sad.  


It got me thinking about why people do still come in droves to see this show.  And I think it has a lot to do with this ultimate subconscious fear we all have that we will not be accepted.  That we could be cast off and shunned by society.  That we are unlovable, and if we try to give love we will be rejected and end up alone.  That—as my mom so sighed over when we read the score together—no one can lead us or save us from solitude.  Our one chance at love will leave us for another, forcing us to end the music of the night, hide under our cloaks, and disappear.  
We come to the Phantom to root against that.

I once listened to a conversation with Hal Prince where he said that when the show was in rehearsals there was a big discussion over whether or not the audience should be rooting for the Phantom.  It was ultimately decided that they should be.  

I know I always do.

I love this show.  I feel as though I will probably…PROBABLY…see it again.
Because for me, I suppose, there is nothing sweeter in this whole word than the moment where the dance sequence ends, the music rallentandos, and on the perfect beat the entire cast snaps into perfect alignment on the staircase, each covering half of their face with one palm to sing: Masquerade! Paper faces on parade! Masquerade! Hide your face so the world will never find you!

MAGIC OF THEATER, GUYS.

By Jesse Pardee

Stream of consciousness blather about my blackheads and mindfulness quest.