Saturday morning I woke up after a very strange dream. I dreamed that I was in Toronto, and I had tickets to see the Phantom of the Opera at the Pantages Theater, but I was late. I was wandering through the lobby, the store, and even beneath and outside the theater, but I could not find my way inside the actual theater itself. (Kind of appropriate in a way.)
I am not surprised by this dream, since I had actually listened to music from The Phantom of the Opera for the first time since college. (I do have thoughts about it that will likely feature into another post or two.) This was after I had stumbled across The Nostalgia Chick’s review of the completely underwhelming 2004 movie version and her Loose Canon review of The Phantom of the Opera movies on Youtube. I had seen The Phantom of the Opera in Toronto at the age of ten, (with Colm Wilkinson, eat your heart out musical theater fans!) and I had been smitten with the show. With the benefit of hindsight, this is not surprising (more on that later) and I became one of Youtuber Chez Lindsay’s “sad teenage girls” who was obsessed with the show. It was the great ambition of my life to see the show again, which I did at sixteen. (To quote my friend, “That’s the perfect age to see the show.”) I have very little memories of the show, and yet, if I had to pick one day as the happiest day of my life, it would probably be that day. I went home and wrote a flowery review of the show in my diary, which I no longer have. (No doubt that is for the best, since it would only serve to embarrass me now. I actually used the phrase magnum opus.)
I stopped caring for the show when I was in college. I was a history/theater double major by that point, and I suppose The Phantom of the Opera was never going to survive reading Peter Brook’s The Empty Space. The Phantom of the Opera, and indeed, all musical theater, seemed a juvenile art form best appreciated by sad teenage girls. In the maturity of my early 20’s (ha ha!), I could easily laugh at the melodrama of shows like Les Miserables. Cosette’s fevered lines of young love are my favorite examples. “Does he know I’m alive? Do I know if he’s real?” (What does the latter line even mean? Does she suspect that Marius is a holographic projection? Utter nonsense.) I also began to be exposed to better music. In an effort to say “Fuck you Brittney Spears,” I began to buy solo albums by Kiri Te Kanawa, Renee Flemming, Cecelia Bartoli, and Sumi Jo. The Phantom of the Opera was placed in the dustbin of childhood next to Big Bird. A reviewer of the 2004 movie declared that The Phantom of the Opera is the kind of show that is produced when a twelve year old girl storms off to her room screaming and after crying for twenty minutes, she writes a Broadway musical. I laughed out loud at this review because I felt that it was true. I still think it is true.
Fast forward to last January, when I watched Chez Lindsay on Youtube. I don’t know why but I began to listen to the music again, and I watched the 25th Anniversary performance at the Royal Albert Hall. I still agree with the reviewer who said that the The Phantom of the Opera is the kind of musical written by a twelve year old girl in a fit of emotion. However, I also agree with Nostalgia Chick when she says, “The Phantom of the Opera is flawed, but it works. It’s kind of the perfect musical in the way that Independence Day is a perfect film.”
That’s an excellent analogy. Independence Day is a bad film, but I defy anyone not to stand up and cheer at Bill Pullman’s speech.
Returning to The Phantom of the Opera, I want to address my friend’s belief that sixteen is the perfect age to see The Phantom of the Opera. She’s almost correct, but I would actually place it earlier. I would say that if you really want to mess with the head of an eleven or twelve year old girl, there is no better way than to take her to a production of The Phantom of the Opera. She will love the show, but she won’t fully understand why she loves the show. This makes the pull of the show even more powerful; it is a pull that she cannot explain or understand. A sixteen year old girl would also love the show, but she would also have a greater sense of self awareness. She could say to herself, “Of course I love the show! The mysterious, slightly scary guy whisks the girl away in the middle of her night, wearing her nightgown and takes her to his secret lair. While they’re there, he runs his hands up and down her body while singing ‘Touch me, trust me. Savor each sensation. Open up your mind. Let your fantasies unwind!’ Then she wakes up in his bed. What’s not to love?” My friend told me it was around that point in her life when she listened to “The Music of the Night” and it suddenly dawned on her, “Hey! This song is all about sex!” An eleven or twelve year old girl would be old enough to appreciate the sexuality in the show, but young enough not to fully understand it, which would only strengthen the hold it has on her.
A quote I found online sums it up quite nicely.
Phantom was practically the soundtrack to my sexual awakening as an early teen. It spoke to how exquisitely sweet and tremulous and yet dangerous and overwhelming that time period is. For me the Phantom was carnality- mysterious, forbidden, dangerous but sweetly calling. Something I knew was there but couldn’t quite grasp. Christine was (of course) me- alone in the world (aren’t all pre-teens convinced of this) and a seemingly innocent girl who felt powerful and inexplicable feeling and the dark call of sexuality. Raoul was a parody of the sexless romance we expect from young women. “The Point of No Return”, to me, was the key song. It really kind of spelled out what was really going on under all the stuff about ballerinas and chandeliers.
I thought about that a lot when I stumbled upon Chris Mann’s version of Music of the Night. I know that scent is the sense most closely linked to memory, but hearing has to be close. Hearing certain songs takes me back in time to specific memories, and hearing Chris Mann’s rendition of Music of the Night certainly had that affect. I was brought back to the world of theatrical excitement and sexual awakening. As I listened, I asked myself, “Would I see this show again?” For a day, I thought, “Yes! I want to re-enter that world!”
Nostalgia is incredibly powerful and seductive. I have been thinking about that a lot recently, ever since the election, when a large portion of my country made it clear that they fear the future and want to seek refuge in a long vanished, quasi-imaginary past. Apparently I am not alone in this reflection. I recently read a review of Retrotopia by Zygmunt Bauman, a book in which the author describes the modern world as wishing to retreat from the modern world and an unknown future, and seek refuge in the tribe, or the womb. The prevailing feeling of the world right now is not hope. It is cowardice.
I am not sure if this is truly new on a national, political, or cultural level. I wonder if there was a sense of optimism and hope about the future after the Somme. It is one thing to praise the march of scientific progress when it brings electricity and running water; another thing when the boys are murdered by the millions. But new or not, the prevailing wind in the world is to look backward. The review ends with a quote by Svetlana Boym. “Survivors of the twentieth century, we are all nostalgic for a time when we were not nostalgic. But there seems no way back.”
Considering that the prevailing wind is nostalgia, I suppose it is not surprising that I wanted to momentarily return to that world. In many ways, nostalgia is what drove my love of theater in the years after I saw the Phantom of the Opera in Toronto. I was fortunate to see shows downtown at the Cleveland Playhouse and Playhouse Square as a part of my school years. Every time I went down to Playhouse Square, I imagined I was going to Pantages to see the Phantom of the Opera again. I wanted so badly to have that experience again, to see a show that moved me the way it had when I was a child.
And yet, I do not know if I would ever see The Phantom of the Opera again, because I know that I cannot re-enter the lost world. The Phantom of the Opera closed in Toronto more than a decade ago. I recently went to see what was playing at the Pantages Theater and quickly discovered that the theater has been renamed! Furthermore, they no longer seem to have a show with an open ended run, but rather a series of shows with fixed runs. The current touring production of The Phantom of the Opera is a new staging of the show, not the Hal Prince/Maria Bjornson production that is still running on Broadway and the West End.
But more importantly, even if I went to New York and saw the show, I would never have the same experience that I had when I was sixteen. For one thing, I am more emotionally stable and (I hope) more mature than I was when I was sixteen. I have had far more experience with music, literature, and art than I have had since I saw it at ten and sixteen. I also saw the show shortly after my parents had divorced. We struggled financially and the fact that I was able to see the show at all gave me such hope for the future. I am in a different place now.
I am OK with that. It would be wrong for me to try to recreate the theatrical experiences of my past. That is actually contrary to the nature of theater. Theater is, by nature, ephemeral. In a very real sense, it is the performance equivalent of a sand mandala. Once the sand mandala is completed, the mandala is destroyed to demonstrate the impermanent, transient nature of the world. Theater is much the same way. As soon as a show ends, the stage is struck and the actors move onto the next projects. Even if an audience member sees the same show, with the same actors, on a different night, the show will be different the next night, because that is the nature of theater.
I remember writing a review for a production of William Inge’s Picnic which was staged at my college. On the second night I saw the show, one of the actress had a mishap where her shoe fell off during a particularly intense scene. When the scene was over, she picked up the shoe and cradled it before putting it on and walking upstairs. I wrote in my review that the actress’ reaction made me question whether or not the shoe falling off was a mistake. My professor wrote on my paper, “It wasn’t a mistake. It’s just what happened.” Theater is full of those moments; that’s one of the most thrilling qualities of the art form.
I do not think that I will be able to completely resist the siren call of nostalgia. After all, Svetlana’s quote makes it clear that ours is a nostalgic age. Our age does not look forward to either the Christian arrival of the Kingdom of Heaven or the Marxist vision of the proletariat revolution. We look backwards to the Good Old Days, and we are trying to recapture them. In terms of theater, there are times when I miss the thrill that I experienced when I was young. That is not new. Even when I was young and I went to see shows for school, I partly wanted to recapture the thrill I experienced when I first saw The Phantom of the Opera. I never captured the same thrill; instead I had many other, different thrills. I can’t wait for the next thrill.
Despite that, I know that occasionally I will listen to “Music of the Night,” and allow myself to experience the power of nostalgia. And the power of the “Music of the Night.”