Sometimes there’s just that tune you can’t get out of your head. Tonight, for me, it’s “Prima Donna” from the Toronto cast of Phantom of the Opera — oh, how I loved that show. I was fortunate enough to see it twice. I had the soundtrack on a tape cassette when I was a teenager; I played it so often, I wore the tape out. Had all the lyrics memorized. I’ll never forget that thrill of being absolutely swept away by the music in the gorgeous Pantages Theatre, watching that immense, glittering chandelier rising slowly over the audience. I still get chills thinking about it.
I’m such a fangirl when I fall in love with something. At one point, my room was almost a merchandiser’s dream: I had the Phantom mug that was heat-sensitive and revealed the white mask when the mug was filled with hot liquid; I had my Phantom t-shirt until the summer that a friend barfed on it during a carnival ride (I guess I really should have stopped spinning that cage around and around when she told me to . . .); Phantom poster, Phantom ball cap with a fabulous red lining (I think it was meant to be reversible), Phantom song book, Phantom sheet music . . . When I was sixteen, my father gave me a beautiful castle snow globe with music box that played “Music of the Night” when its key was wound. I still have it, safely tucked away from children’s hands. And I have my copy of the original Phantom of the Opera by Gaston Leroux (translated into English).
If there were ever a production I would move heaven and earth to see again, it would be this one, at the Pantages in downtown Toronto.
Last year, I saw there was a performance of it scheduled in Boston and I was greatly tempted to try to find the funds to bring us all down and across the border, but my kids don’t even have their passports yet. (Really, really need to get to that!) But at the same time, I worry that seeing the production somewhere other than that stately, grand old building — a structure that was reinvented for this very musical (I love you Andrew Lloyd Webber!) will wreck my memories of seeing it for the first and second times. Like, I cannot even listen to the Michael Crawford / Sarah Brightman, as much as I know they were (and are) adored world-over — for me, it must be the original Toronto cast: Colm Wilkinson in the title role and Rebecca Caine as Christine. Glorious. Yes, I’m gushing, because I’m listening to it right now and wishing I had stereo speakers so I could pump up the bass and the treble together, make the windows rattle and my kids wonder what the hell I’m doing . . .
There is so much that I still take away from this performance. It’s mysterious and romantic, sure, but it’s also frightening in its explorations of the risks people will take for passion, whether that passion is driven by love or vengeance. It’s deeply sensual, seductive, drawing us into the shadows where we discover the dark is much hotter than our imagination would have us believe. It’s loneliness and fire, innocence and betrayal, guilt and fear, courage and beneficence, loss and regret. I always felt so sorry for poor Erik, alone all his life, twisted and clutching for beauty in his empty world . . . A murderer who finds a moment of redemption, however slight, giving up his selfish desires to let his love be happy. In the novel, Christine disappears behind a door with him for an undetermined length of time before emerging alone and leading Raoul back to the surface. I like to think that she did give herself to him, the angel bedding the demon for one experience of heady sensation before returning to the mundane world. But who is to say . . .
I cannot watch many other Webber musicals for the life of me. I read Les Miserables in high school and it depressed me so much that I refuse to watch it on film or on stage. Never saw Cats. No interest in Jesus Christ Superstar. I once had a book on his show Aspects of Love, though I never saw it, and I had some music from Evita — I enjoy singing “Don’t Cry for Me Argentina” badly in the shower. Maybe it’s that Phantom has the hint of the supernatural in it, the occult being employed by a genius with questionable sanity to shape the world to fit his desires and imagination. The staging, images and frames being drawn up as if by magic from the stage, voices overlapping in combinations that, as a teenager, I’d never heard before. The time period also helps — the Victorian and Edwardian periods are my favourite, as a student and teacher of history. I’m an unabashed admirer of spectacle as well: the lavishness of the production in every detail was such a feast for the eyes, it’s hard to imagine anything else even coming close to matching it. I saw The Secret Garden, Show Boat, and Miss Saigon in Toronto, and while they were also fantastic, it was Phantom which stole my heart.
Even now, I still covet a leather half-mask for my bookshelf or my wall. But the eye-mask that was central to the advertising campaign, or the brow-to-jaw type used in many productions? I cannot choose. Either. Both.
The practical adult in me says that such an item would be yet another dust-collector, something to stay in a box if I cannot find a safe place to display it, like the Firefly parasol I picked up this summer, my dragon and wizard figurines, and so many other treasures. And it’s not like purchasing a memento at the souvenir booth during intermission.
It’s like so many of those little relics of the past we like to bring home and gaze at once in a while. Why some buy Barbie dolls and keep them in their boxes, keep toy cars spotlessly clean in clear glass display cabinets, build Sega- or Nintendo-themed gaming centres: when the adult world becomes stressful and difficult to bear, when the bills weigh us down, the state of the world is a burden that we can do little to change, and exhaustion is the order of the day, those little reminders of an earlier time in life when joy came simply, without strings, and experiences were shiny and new — they’re an escape. It’s why we take pictures and keep them in photograph albums or text selfies to our friends, ink images or phrases into our skin. When the present and future are too much to bear, the past is a comfort. Yeah, you can get lost in it and forget that the present exists, and so it has to be indulged, like all things, in moderation. But I think spending a little time in happy memories can be strengthening. It reminds me that because I’m a parent and a teacher, one of my responsibilities and joys is introducing young people to new experiences of their own, helping them to build those fantastic memories for when they’re in their late 30s and contemplating life, the universe, and everything . . .
Oh, and by the way, something else that The Phantom of the Opera taught me: when you go to see a live theatre performance, if you hang around long enough outside the building waiting (heh — “waiting” — no, really, we were waiting for our bus but my that became convenient!), the actors come out and you might get to say hello. I actually got to meet and speak to Byron Nease! (swoon)
Bottom line: might be time to start planning another theatre field trip of some kind. 🙂