Reviews and Analyses -Page 2 of 4

Book Review: PHANTOMS of the Opera, by John L. Flynn (rev. ed. 2006)

Madame Halfmask's bottom line: The book has flaws, but it is nonetheless a valuable resource for POTO devotees. Dr. Flynn’s research obviates the need to dig through multiple Web sites and Amazon dot com listings to find an obscure film or television mini-series. I recommend that all phans buy Dr. Flynn’s book.

Dr. John Flynn

PHANTOMS of the Opera, by John L. Flynn, a Hugo award nominee and science fiction and horror devotee, is a nonfiction book that provides a great deal of useful information for Phantom researchers. I recommend the volume for those looking for detailed lists of Phantom books, musicals, and motion picture and television productions.  Despite its usefulness, however, the book contains flaws that caused me to discount Dr. Flynn's detailed synopses of each version.
 
On the positive side, Dr. Flynn painstakingly describes most of the productions.  His research obviates the need for Phantom devotees to dig through multiple Web sites and Amazon dot com listings to find an obscure film or television mini-series.
 
On the other hand, Dr. Flynn's critiques of most versions of the story are skewed towards analyzing their effectiveness as horror productions.  Yet, The Phantom of the Opera [POTO] is not solely horror, especially in many of its more recent incarnations.  Instead, it is "gothic," a hybrid that combines horror and romance.  The 1925 Lon Chaney film clearly fits within the horror category, but the Andrew Lloyd Webber [ALW] stage musical at least in the Broadway and West End productions (for many, the definitive version of all POTO retellings) emphasizes the romantic aspects of the story. Other versions, such as Yeston and Kopit's Phantom, rely on romance even more heavily than does ALW.  While Dr. Flynn recognizes that recent versions of the story – especially the best-known versions – lean towards the romance, he does not go a crucial step further; he does not discuss the key point that Erik's love for Christine becomes redemptive when he lets her go to lead a normal life with Raoul.
 
Horror fans are primarily male, but repeat attendees at performances of the ALW musical are more likely to be female. Kathryn Yelinek, whose senior thesis used to be available on the Web, quoted a 1998 study that concluded that 85% of Phantom fans (a term that certainly encompasses those who attend the show over and over) are women. (Ms. Yelinek's new Web site, www.KathrynYelinek.com , does not seem to include the thesis, but, if there is enough interest, hopefully, she'll post it; it's worth reading. It does include a link to her article about visiting the Garnier,  http://www.literarytraveler.com/articles/opera-garnier-paris/ ). According to Ms. Yelinek, "Before the Lloyd Webber musical, most of the people interested in the Phantom of the Opera and his story were monster movie fans ...; prior to 1986, the Phantom was portrayed more often as a madman murderer lusting after Christine than as a lonely, misunderstood genius seeking a muse."
 
In contrast to women, male phans, for obvious reasons, are unlikely to picture themselves in Christine's shoes, and straight male phans are unlikely to view themselves as the partner the Phantom should have chosen.  Yet, ALW's musical has created many male Phantomaniacs (the term that I invented for Phantom phans to emphasize the obsessiveness that most of us demonstrate).  A Canadian husband and wife, well-known in POTO circles because of their "Love Should Die" campaign opposing Love Never Dies, first met each other at a POTO performance, and held a Phantom-themed wedding. The husband is every bit as much of a phan as the wife.
 
One aspect of Dr. Flynn's book with which I disagree is his conclusions regarding the ALW musical and its relationship with the Leroux novel. For example, he says that the ALW musical play and motion picture portray the Phantom "as a wholly sympathetic character" who "secretly desires to have his musical talents recognized by the managers." He also claims that the ALW story "comes the closest in capturing the true spirit of the Leroux novel," while making revisions such as eliminating the Persian and Philippe de Chagny, and changing Madame Giry from a box attendant to the ballet mistress. "Like Gaston Leroux's mad musical genius, the 'Phantom' of the Lloyd Webber musical is a multifaceted charater who embodies many attractive virtues as well as several hideous flaws." In his synopsis of the stage and screen action in the musical, he says that when Erik reaches through the mirror to escort Christine out of her dressing room (right before the title song), his touch "is so cold that Christine reacts in fear."  Dr. Flynn also says that Raoul "encourages the managers to proceed with the production with La Carlotta in the lead" (during the "Notes" and "Prima Donna" scene).  Dr. Flynn believes that ALW portrays the Phantom's own opera, Don Juan Triumphant, as "ludicrous, a lamentable mess."  He adds, "If his opera is truly horrendous, then it remains unclear how this musical adaptation can refer to Erik as such a gifted composer."
 
Contrary to Dr. Flynn's view, I believe that nothing in the show even hints that the Phantom wants the managers to recognize his musical genius – he would be unlikely to seek respect from men he derides as "those two fools who run my theater."  Also, Dr. Flynn seems to misunderstand the reception to Don Juan Triumphant.  Much as Mozart's contemporaries preferred the mundane music of Salieri to Mozart's groundbreaking compositions, the shallow masses cannot understand the Phantom's opera, and therefore scorn it.  The opera is not horrendous, merely cacophonous and modern.  For example, in the rehearsal scene, which does not appear in the movie, the conductor counts one measure and ends at seven, hinting that the time signature is the highly unusual 7/4 or 7/8, which, in turn, hints at the opera's complexity.  Furthermore, Piangi has difficulty mastering his role, once again implying that even opera stars are incapable of understanding the Phantom's genius.
 
At first, I did not understand how Dr. Flynn could claim that ALW portrays the Phantom as having a cold touch that frightens Christine, because there is nothing in the dialogue or action that reveals this. In fact, in the 2004 movie, Erik wears gloves, and, if he does have a cold touch, Christine would not know. Also, contrary to Dr. Flynn's assertion, Raoul never encouraged the managers to proceed with Carlotta in the lead. I coincidentally discovered the source of some of Dr. Flynn's contentions when I read POTO's stage directions, which reveal the Phantom's cold touch. Had Dr. Flynn discussed the show as performed, rather than as originally written, I would have found his synopsis more convincing.
 
I also disagree with Dr. Flynn that Leroux's novel portrays the Phantom as multi-faceted. Instead, despite the Persian's and Christine's equivocal and Madame Giry's unequivocal sympathy for Erik, Leroux leads us to believe that Erik is, and has always been a monster in appearance and character. For example, Christine, in telling Raoul how she made her escape from the Phantom's home in the fifth cellar of the Opera House by pretending not to be upset by Erik's face, says, "My lies were as hideous as the monster who inspired them; but they were the price of my liberty." Later, the Persian daroga, Erik's supposed friend, tells Raoul, "I recognized the monster's touch" when Christine was kidnapped from the stage. When telling Raoul about the dangers of Erik's booby-trapped lake, the Persian says he would have drowned "if the monster had not recognized me in time." Over and over, the highly moral daroga, who clearly cares what happens to Erik, refers to him using this dismissive and insulting word. Yet, Raoul notices the daroga's ambivalence: "You treat him as a monster, you speak of his crime, he has done you harm and I find in you the same inexplicable pity that drove me to despair when I saw it in Christine!"
 
I believe that Dr. Flynn gives Leroux too much credit for portraying a real human being behind the mask – Leroux permits his supposedly sympathetic protagonist, Christine, to refer to Erik as a monster, and applauds the deceptions that permit her to keep Erik on a string to earn her freedom, when honesty might have been the best approach.  Leroux portrays the world-traveling Phantom, who entranced the Shah of Persia with his building designs, as using spoken syntax so bizarre that he might as well wear a sign saying "I'm a lunatic." In short, I do not share Dr. Flynn's admiration for Leroux's novel.
 
Despite my reservations, however, I recommend that each phan interested in the history of POTO purchase Dr. Flynn's book, because it is invaluable for its compilations of the film, stage, and television productions. Unfortunately, the book is too old to include the Las Vegas production of ALW's POTO, the new British and U.S. tours, and Love Never Dies.  I would love to see Dr. Flynn publish a third edition in which he covers more recent developments in the Phantom world.
 
John Flynn's PHANTOMS of the Opera: The Face Behind the Mask, published in 1993 and updated in 2006, is no longer available in printed form. However, Dr. Flynn sells electronic copies (PDF format) of the 2006 version through his Web site, http://john-flynn.com/book03.htm , for $10 each.
 
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