http://www.guardian.co.uk/stage/theatre ... oyd-webberI don't know how to love him (the Phantom of the Opera, that is)Andrew Lloyd Webber's tame simulacrum of dark passion is now celebrating 25 years. This cultural juggernaut must be stopped
The Phantom of the Opera is the most successful piece of entertainment of all time – so boasts the official international website for the Andrew Lloyd Webber musical that this year celebrates a quarter-century since its premiere, with Sarah Brightman and Michael Crawford in the leading roles, at Her Majesty's theatre in London's West End in 1986. Since Crawford lured Brightman into his underground lair all those years ago, it's claimed some 130 million people have seen Phantom, helping it gross more than $5.6bn. If only the Greek finance minister had found that sum in his trousers, the eurozone might not be in quite such a pickle. But he didn't, so it is.
Even as I write, avatars of the hideously deformed subterranean whiner and his doe-eyed snit of a love interest are performing or poised to perform in productions of Lloyd Webber's musical in South Africa, Vegas, Kyoto, New York – and in a special anniversary performance at the Albert Hall tomorrow night. The cultural juggernaut is unstoppable.
But it must be stopped, whatever Tanya Gold and other (with all due respect) deluded Lloyd Webberian devotees say. It's an unthreatening simulacrum of dark passion in which everything wild and unheimlich about sexual obsession, murder, disfigurement and – my personal favourite – Dostoyevskian self-loathing is benumbed with unremittingly sweet tunes (many of which, according to Kit and the Widow's turn at August's Comedy Prom, Lloyd Webber recycled from older, better composers).
The Phantom is, as Peter Bradshaw put it, "just a sad, sweet, plain boy who's in love with the prettiest girl in the class". He could have been much more disturbing – the incarnation, say, of Magazine's Song from Under the Floorboards ("I am angry, I am ill and I'm as ugly as sin/ My irritability keeps me alive and kicking"). About the best bit, for me, is when the Phantom tries to convince Christine that he's the spirit of her dead father. The transgressive hint of incest enlivens the unremitting good taste of the whole thing.
Lloyd Webber didn't have the courage to make the Phantom really dark or disturbed. Commercially at least, that's what makes his treatment a bankable solution to an impoverished culture that wants the pretence of romantic derangement rather than the real thing. What Stephen Sondheim told theatre producer Cameron Mackintosh ("The great thing about you, Cameron, is that you make commerce out of art, you don't try and make art out of commerce") is also true of Lloyd Webber.
The musical was made even worse in Joel Schumacher's 2004 film treatment, which I recently watched with my six-year-old. Any semblance of the derangement of desire is systematically neutralised the director's suburban mise en scene (what lair has so many swags?) and by and the way Gerald Butler – there's no nice way to say this – "sings". Phantom's shortcomings also bear comparison with the 1946 film La Belle et la Bête in which a fairytale became, thanks to Cocteau, the charming and yet properly disturbing story of cross-species seduction by an amazingly hirsute, though marvellously grand, feline-human gent. La Belle truly falls for her Bête, unlike Christine, who is merely titillated by a brooding hunk who turns out to be a self-pitying bore.
When I met him in 2004, Lloyd Webber said he'd run out of ideas and was thinking of doing a song cycle about the Warsaw ghetto. He didn't, and thank God for that. Instead, he and Ben Elton came up with a lucrative and even more dismal sequel to Phantom titled Love Never Dies. He's trapped in a safe musical world of false feelings and empty spectacle. But so are the millions around the world who love that twee suburban pest, that leylandii of musicals, The Phantom of the Opera.