The Phantom of the Opera is a familiar show and one that’s come to represent musical theatre, but a show that retains its mystique and appeal 30 years on.
The musical debuted on the West End in 1986 and on Broadway in 1988, running uninterrupted in both regions since then. There have also been multiple touring productions, a 2004 feature film adaptation and a 25th anniversary performance. It is estimated that a staggering 140 million people have seen The Phantom of the Opera, and the musical has grossed over $6 billion.
It seems that Singapore can’t get enough of the Phantom – this is the show’s fourth visit to our shores, following productions in 1995, 2007 and 2013. The Phantom of the Opera features music by Andrew Lloyd Webber and lyrics by Charles Hart and Richard Stilgoe. Many of its songs, including the title track, “Music of the Night”, “All I Ask of You” and “Masquerade”, have become popular culture staples. In addition to its memorable music, the show has become known for its spectacular sets, costumes and special effects, with a chandelier crash being its signature moment.
Based on the French novel by Gaston Leroux, The Phantom of the Opera is a sweeping romance set in the Paris Opera House. The titular character is a disfigured genius who lives in the catacombs beneath the opera house, and develops a fixation of Christine Daaé, a young ingenue in whom he sees tremendous potential. Raoul, the wealthy Vicomte de Chagny, is a childhood friend of Christine’s who re-enters her life, falling in love with her. The Phantom is determined to win Christine’s love at all costs, wreaking havoc on the Opera House and its occupants. Christine finds herself caught in a struggle of power and passion as dramatic as the operas she performs in.
This production opened on April 24 at Marina Bay Sands Singapore, where it is playing until June 8. The company arrived from Manila and this production retains the original costume and set design by the late Maria Björnson, with some elements redesigned to facilitate the touring. From the afore-mentioned chandelier to the grand staircase in the foyer of the Opera House, from the Phantom’s watery lair with its gondola and portcullis to the roof of the Opera house under a starlit sky, The Phantom of the Opera is as much a feast for the eyes as it is for the ears.
The title character is played by Jonathan Roxmouth, who last visited Singapore playing Che in Evita. Roxmouth has a smouldering leading man quality to him and is a fan of the show himself, sporting a pin in the shape of the Phantom’s mask on his lapel. He has a history with the show, having first played Raoul, then playing the Phantom. Looking back, he said “I was 24 and suddenly given the keys to the Rolls Royce that I was meant to rent twice a week. I was terrified; I didn’t have enough confidence in myself, I doubted myself every time. I got there, but it was a very, very difficult process.”
Roxmouth said he now understands why the conventional wisdom is that one should be of a certain age to take on the role of the Phantom. “I’ve lived a lot in the last eight years. I’ve had experiences with sadness, love, of heartbreak, of loneliness, all the things that you need as an adult in your emotional toolbox as an actor to truly paint well for an audience.”
The role of the Phantom is a physically, vocally and emotionally demanding one which requires the actor to wear extensive prosthetic makeup and have half their face obscured by a mask. “If you think about kids around Halloween, when they put a mask on, they behave in a way that they normally wouldn’t, because it’s not them. Their inhibitions go out the window because there’s no consequence,” Roxmouth remarked. “That mask, it changes you, it really does,” Roxmouth added, comparing it to being possessed. “The minute you hear that organ, I feel my DNA change, it’s the strangest thing,” he commented.
The role is a personal one for Roxmouth because he identifies with the Phantom. Roxmouth related how growing up, he was bullied for being overweight, and turned to music as an escape. Because his family couldn’t afford a piano, Roxmouth would play the piano in the school hall. “Some of my friends nicknamed me ‘the Phantom’ in high school because if you didn’t know where I was, nine times out of ten I would be in the school hall with my back to the door playing the piano,” Roxmouth recalled, adding “I was him, in a way…all I had was music.”
Roxmouth said that having played Raoul before playing the Phantom gave him a better understanding of what Christine goes through as a character, since she is the object of both their affections. “If you want to win a war, know your enemy. I know my enemy,” he quipped.
Said enemy is ostensibly the hero of the show, but after all, it’s called “The Phantom of the Opera” and not “Raoul”. This is something Matt Leisy, who plays Raoul, is aware of. “I like to think that I make it a harder decision for Christine and the audience,” he says with a smile. In a way, the deck is stacked against him, because audiences are conditioned to gravitate towards the dangerous Phantom, rather than Raoul, who comes off the safe option. “He has to work really hard to get Christine, it’s just a constant struggle,” Leisy commented.
Raoul is the heir to a family fortune and as such can come off as entitled and flippant, but seeing Christine again so many years later changes him. Leisy described Raoul as being a “bit of a playboy in the beginning, but he’s essentially a romantic.” He also must be a swashbuckling action hero, leaping in to save the day during the show’s climactic confrontation in the Phantom’s Lair. “He has to play the hero because he knows what he wants, and he wants to save Christine,” Leisy said, referencing the character’s Naval background in the novel.
While many audiences might gravitate to the Phantom, Raoul’s point of view makes sense – after all, the Phantom is a murderer. “They have a complicated relationship, I think it’s the music and they have a deep connection, but she overlooks a lot of red flags!” Leisy remarked of the romance between Christine and the Phantom.
Meghan Picerno, who plays Christine, did not grow up with the show because she had a classical music background rather than a musical theatre one. However, after seeing the show, she immediately understood the appeal of the role. “It is nothing less than an incredible, challenging and rewarding journey,” Picerno said of Christine’s arc.
Christine is a character who goes from having others around her and external forces define her, to eventually wresting back control over her own destiny. “To have the great opportunity to indeed start at a place where she willingly gives her power to those around her, then finds herself in the midst of that, and owns it and takes the power by the end, is so empowering and so magical and satisfying,” dark enthused.
Phantom is a show about darkness and light, with the Phantom representing the former and Raoul the latter. However, Picerno explains that there’s more to it than that. “Once you start to look deeper, indeed, they have such a mix,” she remarked. “Raoul is both light and dark, and so is the Phantom, and so is Christine. She wouldn’t be attracted to either of them if she didn’t have both [qualities] within her.”
Picerno compares the Phantom and Raoul using their respective signature songs, “Music of the Night” and “All I Ask of You”. “They’re satisfying different emotional aspects of her,” Picerno reasoned. “’Music of the Night’ is an awakening of her senses, her sexuality. ‘All I Ask of You’ is an awakening of her needs, her heart, her emotions, her wanting to be taken care of.”
One of Picerno’s favourite moments in the show is the ending, known as “Final Lair”. “There’s so much raw, true human emotion that’s in that scene and so much happens in that short amount of time,” Picerno said, adding “To see it and perform it, nothing can compare in my mind.”
With its potent mix of mesmerising music, a passionate love story, eye-catching stagecraft and a place in pop culture consciousness, it’s no wonder Phantom continues to entrance and seduce audiences more than 30 years after it first cast its spell.
The Phantom of the Opera runs from 24 April to 8 June 2019 at Marina Bay Sands Singapore. Tickets start at $75 and are available here.
By Jedd Jong.