TV Article

Forever Phantom

We discuss the many incarnations of the classic tale and how it came to be what it is today

Nobody knows, the story goes, where the Phantom of the Opera will appear. But lately he's been turning up everywhere — on stages from Las Vegas to Vienna, in films, and, on March 18 and 19, on television.

It's possible that someday a producer will read Gaston Leroux's Parisian horror novel of 1911 and leave it alone. In the meantime, brace yourself for even more adaptations of the tale of Erik, the masked and murderous but love-struck deformity who inhabits the black labyrinth beneath the Paris Opera House, emerging only to court his protegee, flight-test a six-ton chandelier, and (presumably) pick up his dry cleaning.

Today, 79 years after the book appeared (to limited interest), Phantom phans can choose from two different Phantom musicals, both out of London and playing North America. Broadway's sellout version by Andrew Lloyd Webber may soon be a film, at least the sixth based on the story. Last year's exploitation thriller Phantom of the Opera, starring Robert Englund (''Freddy Krueger''), hits video stores this month.

NBC's new two-part Phantom miniseries was written by playwright Arthur Kopit and features Charles Dance as a genteel Phantom and Burt Lancaster as the Opera House manager who knows more about the masked man than he admits. Teri Polo plays Christine, the singer abducted by the Phantom.

There's even a Coors beer commercial with a female Phantom, and a borscht-belt singer-comedian known as Phantom of the Catskills. (''The Phantom dances as his audience sings 'My, My, My Delilah,''' the advertisement in Variety promises.)

Worldwide, the latest stage versions of Phantom have generated more than $160 million in ticket sales to date. The Phantom adapts well. Leroux's Phantom, born deformed, was a multitalented fiend-architect, composer, Persian-schooled sorcerer — but later chroniclers felt no obligation to stick to the facts and painted Erik variously as an insane escapee from Devil's Island or a handsome, sensitive guy disfigured by a hideous accident. Underlying all these characterizations is the myth of the tortured artist: The Phantom is a brilliant but misunderstood composer. Whatever his résumé, the Phantom always falls for Christine, the talented chorus girl whose affection he hopes to secure by promoting her career. She favors the handsome and boring Raoul, who ultimately rescues her and dispatches the Phantom. Today's Phantom isn't what he used to be, but then he was never entirely original; Leroux, a crime reporter, stole cleverly to construct his novel. He borrowed from the German fable of the beauty and the beast and from The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Victor Hugo's 1831 novel.

The best Phantom, perhaps, is still Lon Chaney in the first movie version, Universal's 1925 silent masterpiece. Chaney reportedly put hooks in his nostrils and painful drops in his eyes to transform his face into the famous living skull that still shocks when Christine tears away his mask. Generations of 10-year-old boys have taunted schoolgirls with Chaney's malicious reply. ''Feast your eyes!'' the Phantom screams. ''Glut your soul on my accursed ugliness!'' (Compare that with the Broadway Phantom after his unmasking: ''You little vixen!'') So popular was the film that Universal remade it in 1943, using the same sets but casting Claude Rains as a talking Phantom. Erik is now a mild-mannered violinist who goes off the deep end when he thinks (wrongly) his music is being stolen — getting a face full of acid in the process. Best line: ''He's dead! Call a doctor!''

Next on film came a Hispanic Phantom in 1960, followed in 1962 by a British revival with Herbert Lom in particularly gruesome makeup. Brian De Palma added bell-bottom slacks but little else with his 1974 Phantom of the Paradise, set in a New York nightclub. Paul Williams plays a Faustian impresario who steals the Phantom's mellow music for a hard-rock opera.

Strangely, De Palma's film bears a vague resemblance to the real-life story of the two Phantom musicals. Ken Hill's Phantom of the Opera is the older (dating back to 1976) and smaller (playing Las Vegas, Pittsburgh, and Chattanooga, Tenn., among other cities). Lloyd Webber saw it six years ago and, after initially working with Hill on a new version, broke off to unmask his own Phantom, the Broadway money machine also playing in Los Angeles, Toronto, Europe, and Japan.

But Hill says he is ''not the slightest bit bitter'' about Lloyd Webber's defection and logarithmic success. Lloyd Webber's show undoubtedly fuels ticket sales for Hill's Phantom, though Hill's stands on its own as a campy send-up: A performer discovered hanged will not sing, it is announced, because of a ''throat problem.''

Lloyd Webber wrote his own music, but his Broadway extravaganza is all smoke and mirrors; the $8 million fog-enshrouded production includes 110 trap doors just for candles. Both shows have identically eerie sets of the Phantom's underground lake.

Television has done Phantom once before: A 1983 made-for-TV Phantom of the Opera starring Maximilian Schell and Jane Seymour set the story in Budapest.

But NBC's new Phantom returns to the Paris Opera House, where scenes for the $10 million production were filmed. The lavish, four-hour costume spectacle, directed by Academy Award winner Tony Richardson (Tom Jones), revives some of the novel's Freudian undertones about father figures but detours miles from Leroux's plot.

The chandelier scene is still the film's centerpiece. There are Phantoms for every taste, but no Phantom of any stripe can claim authenticity without sending the Opera's chandelier crashing down on an audience of comfortable philistines: proof that Erik is not only mad but mad at the world. The scene remains the crux of the story because The Phantom of the Opera, about a social and physical outcast who gets even, is the original revenge of the nerd.

Originally posted Mar 16, 1990 Published in issue #5 Mar 16, 1990 Order article reprints