''I'm not a singer,'' says the Phantom of the Opera. ''I sang in a band when I was a lawyer. Most of it was screaming and shouting.'' Fans of Andrew Lloyd Webber's Goth-lite megamusical -- and there are quite a few, given the show's 16-year run on Broadway -- probably recall precious little headbanging. But Gerard Butler, the Scottish actor tapped to play the mad, half-masked Casanova in the long-awaited screen version, isn't worried. After all, he had four whole lessons before he had to audition in front of Lloyd Webber with ''Music of the Night.''
He must have done something right. The 34-year-old, last seen (by a select few) in ''Timeline,'' landed the part. With Butler on board (along with ''Mystic River'' breakout Emmy Rossum as opera ingenue Christine and ''Angels in America'''s Patrick Wilson as the Phantom's rival, Raoul), a project planned since 1988 finally started its long crawl into the light. ''Andrew Lloyd Webber saw 'The Lost Boys' in '87 and wanted to meet me,'' recalls director Joel Schumacher (''Phone Booth''). ''We were going to make the movie at that time with Michael Crawford and Sarah Brightman. [And then] Sarah and Andrew chose to separate amicably, and everything got tied up in settlements. Then my career took off and I was really busy.''
In the meantime, the project got passed around, with many potential Phantoms rumored (most notably Antonio Banderas). But Lloyd Webber never forgot about Schumacher, and Schumacher never forgot about ''Phantom.'' Sir Andrew must have been pretty delighted with the results: He was inspired to write one new song. (Stand down, purists: It'll go over the end credits.) ''It's so shamelessly romantic that you won't think I made it,'' reports Schumacher, ''because I'm so corrupt and cynical.''
WHAT'S AT STAKE ''Phantom'' has been seen on stage by multiple millions -- something that definitely helped ''Chicago,'' which didn't even have a chandelier. But will its ripe pop romanticism connect on film?