Today I bring forth Part II of me-sharing-my-random-opinions-concerning-random-gothic-musicals. We’ll be discussing a couple of Phantoms and a couple of Brontës this time around.
(If you want to read Part I, in which I discuss vampires and unstable men of science, it is available for your perusal here.)
Let’s jump right into the musicals, shall we?
The Phantom of the Opera (1986)
Book by Richard Stilgoe and Andrew Lloyd Webber, Lyrics by Charles Hart and Richard Stilgoe, Music by Andrew Lloyd Webber
Basis: The Phantom of the Opera by Gaston Leroux (published 1909)
The music: The music is a satisfying blend of classical (some of it is even a bit operatic, funnily enough), and lyric musical theatre style with just enough ‘80s rock to spice things up. Soaring melodies are not wanting (so many beautiful ones!), but we also get several rhythmic, recitative style sections which are effectively angsty. The music utilizes both tonal melody/harmony and dissonant/fragmented sounds to express the contrasting themes of the story.
If this musical is ridiculously overrated for one reason alone, it’s because of its music. Regardless of what you think of the story, Webber really gets to you with his musical themes. They are often hauntingly beautiful and there are so many of them—this show is practically sung through. The music is consistently effective in the gothic horror vein throughout the show. And it’s just…really good.
Notable tracks: Okay, so since this show is excessively well-known I’m going to share random bit-pieces that are slightly less iconic than, say, the song “The Phantom of the Opera”. Something I appreciate about this musical is the themes that never appear in the grand, sweeping songs—the “in-between songs”, as it were. (And I vastly prefer the 25th anniversary edition to the original Broadway cast recording, so all of these tracks will be from that.)
“Little Lottie” has the most eerie harmony and I love it.
“I Remember” is a simple theme that recurs often but never in one of the “real” songs and it’s quite haunting.
“Twisted Every Way” features Christine grappling with the hold the Phantom has on her and her duty to help defeat him. On the same track we get the most accurate music rehearsal ever (hehe). And then we get this angsty violin counterpoint (which is the instrument Christine’s father played before he died, so…emotions).
“Down Once More…/Track Down This Murderer” is, like, twenty minutes long. But it features some swell themes. Such as “this haunted face” which I love despite it being…ten seconds long? (it has such weight to it and recurs throughout the musical, but it’s just such a wee melody). This particular section with the “Past the Point of No Return” counterpoint and then blending into “Angel of Music” is quite amazing.
The story: Eh, well…it’s not the worst? But also it can be.
As far as whether or not it follows the original story, I’m not the best judge—I confess I have not read the book. My sister has though, and from what she’s told me it generally follows the book? There are certainly differences (such as Raoul being quite a literal child and having a brother and Madame Giry not being austere and the Phantom actually having a name and the existence of the Persian and stuff like that), but it’s at least loosely recognizable as far as characters and plot go…as far as I can gather.
The action of the musical is centered around Christine Daaé, a ballet dancer in the Paris opera company who believes that her father sent the angel of music to her after his death, and that said angel is now
controlling her life teaching her music. Of course it’s actually the Phantom, who is actually not a phantom, but a man with a horribly disfigured face who has been “haunting” the opera house for some years now. He has become rather enamored with Christine’s voice.
The Phantom is slightly possessive of Christine, so he’s not very happy at all when Christine’s childhood friend Raoul shows up and falls in love with her. Christine ends up falling for Raoul as well (only because he’s more handsome than the Phantom of course—not because the Phantom is abusive and creepy and murders people when he gets angry. Obviously it has nothing to do with that).
Anyway. There’s also a diva soprano named Carlotta who resents Christine for stealing her glory. And there are these two bumbling opera house owners who get all sorts of notes from the Phantom and sing a whole song about it. And there’s a falling chandelier. And a lot of angst and a lot of singing and a lot of murder and the love-triangle is a thing but in the end Raoul and Christine get to be together and the Phantom is Sad. Poor guy, I mean, like, what did he do wrong?
Concluding thoughts: Overall, I actually think the story is pretty decent. Christine is naïve but she is compassionate and she grows throughout the story (also I do kind of like how traumatized she is, so?) Raoul is a little overbearing at times, but he genuinely cares and he wants to protect her and help her straighten out reality. The Phantom is a disturbing but sympathetic villain with much trauma of his own. I like the themes of obsession, grief, compassion and forgiveness. And the way the music enhances what is happening is very good indeed.
My main issues here involve the fact that this show is SO popular (like yo, there are better shows out there, guys), as well as the way that many people interpret it. The fact that there is quite a crowd out there that thinks Christine should actually be with the Phantom baffles me, and sometimes I wonder what the writers were actually going for (the guy is MURDERY AND ABUSIVE HOW IS THIS ROMANTIC?!). I mean, really now.
Book by Arthur Kopit, Lyrics and Music by Maury Yeston
Basis: The Phantom of the Opera by Gaston Leroux (published 1909)
So, it’s The Phantom of the Opera, but the hipster version.
The music: Yeston went all-out classical/traditional with this one. It’s a combination of basically opera and traditional musical theatre style—so it kind of sounds like it could have come out in the ‘60s rather than the ‘90s, if you know what I mean.
In some ways a lot of the music comes across as too fun and light-hearted for what the story should be. It doesn’t quite have a gothic feel. Some of the songs give us hints of the sinister impression we would expect, but these are an exception. Despite overall coming across with the wrong atmosphere, much of the music is quite beautiful. And there are some good comedy moments musically, rather in the vein of Gilbert and Sullivan at times.
Also the Phantom is played by the Richard White, who played Gaston in the animated Beauty and the Beast, so that’s a plus.
Notable tracks: “Paris is a Tomb” is one of the more foreboding pieces. A pity it’s only 58 seconds long.
“Home” has a lovely, nostalgic melody.
“The Music Lessons/Phantom Fugue” is something else. It’s the most Gilbert and Sullivan reminiscent song in the entire show.
“You are Music” is pleasing and rather ethereal sounding.
The story: This one is barely recognizable as being based on the same source material as Webber’s musical, which is perplexing. While Christine Daaé is still the main character and she receives music lessons from the mysterious Phantom of the opera house (who is actually named in this version, which is nice), and there is a diva soprano named Carlotta, there’s not a whole lot else that’s the same?
There doesn’t appear to be a Raoul, but there’s some guy named Phillipe who likes her and helps her get into the opera company after he meets her selling songs in the street. Carlotta is not only the lead soprano, but the wife of the new opera house manager. The Phantom electrocutes her at some point to get revenge on her for ruining Christine’s debut?? (I am getting most of this from the Wikipedia synopsis, because the music itself does not give me quite enough to go on—it is not sung through.)
From what I can gather, Christine is actually in love with the Phantom in this version? I suppose his murderous ways don’t particularly bother her, then? (Perhaps she finds it romantic??) I wasn’t entirely sure what was going on there.
Phantom/Erik’s father plays a significant role in the story—he was secretly looking after Erik (I think he was the previous opera house manager), though he doesn’t tell him he’s his father until near the end of the musical (Erik actually knew all along anyway). And then at the end when Erik’s running away from the police he pleads with his father to shoot him rather than let him get caught and displayed as a circus freak, and his father complies with his wish. Christine then goes to his grave as the musical concludes.
Concluding thoughts: Since this musical is not sung through, and I’ve never actually seen it, I find it somewhat hard to follow. Though the synopsis I found gave me a better idea of what was going on, I still feel a bit confused. I wish that there was more music, honestly. It’s really different from Webber’s score, but it has a certain charm that I’ve only started to appreciate (I only discovered this musical’s existence about a month ago?).
The music, though fun and quite pretty at times, is not my favorite style and I don’t think it embraces what I think of as a gothic sound (I know that’s subjective, but anyhoo). The story seems slightly less exciting than it could be, though maybe that’s just the influence of the music. I mean, the Phantom getting chased around and then shot is pretty exciting? But there’s not any music for that part, so. Overall the songs seem to take place between the action rather than during the action—a reality that detracts from the drama.
I still have much confusion about WHAT was going on with Erik’s father, honestly.
Also the love story is….hm.
I think it’s growing on me, though (at least the music is, not so much the story), and I actually appreciate how different it is from Webber’s version, so I can just take them as two completely separate things.
Wuthering Heights (1992)
Book, Music and Lyrics by Bernard J. Taylor
Basis: Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë (published 1847)
The music: This one is also very classically oriented, even more than Phantom. Most of it has a certain stilted, almost stuffy sound—by which I mean it doesn’t sound wild and expansive and haunting like the moors on which the story takes place. Wuthering Heights is a very gloomy, visceral book, and the mood is not captured in the tone of the music, unfortunately. It just feels like a mediocre opera, kind of?
And this is just my personal opinion, but Cathy shouldn’t be a soprano and Heathcliff should not be a tenor. Her character would work so much better as an alto and his would make more sense as a baritone. I don’t know why I feel so strongly about this, but I do.
I really just want more wildness. More drama. More destructive human emotion. If that’s not what this story is about, I don’t know what it is.
Notable tracks: “Cathy!” is just…hilariously over-the-top. It’s really not a great song, but I find it so funny that I will turn it on frequently. This annoys my siblings. To be fair, Heathcliff’s songs get the closest to sounding like they’re being sung out on a moor, though.
“Let Her Live/I Will Have My Vengeance” has a very lovely choral bit at the beginning before Heathcliff starts going crazy. Again, I can’t take Heathcliff seriously. (Then it gets choral at the end, so essentially it’s an angry Heathcliff sandwich.)
“Up Here With You” has some nice harmonies, once it gets going. It takes a second to get going, though. Hm.
The story: So, first off, the musical focuses on Heathcliff and Cathy and totally disregards the whole second generation, which is rather a blow. The second generation is very important for Heathcliff’s character arc and the culmination of his revenge. Not to mention it brings some amount of redemption into this whole miserable mess. Wuthering Heights without the second generation seems kind of…pointless.
Heathcliff and Cathy. Cathy and Heathcliff. They were in love, but couldn’t be together, because Heathcliff was poor, and Cathy chose to follow her head rather than her heart. Woe! Tragedy! But in the end they both die and get to be together again, so all is well.
That’s not really what the story is about (Heathcliff and Cathy are both horrible brats?? There is so much abuse?? How is this romance??), but that’s what the musical is about, basically. There isn’t really enough music to follow what’s happening, but I did find a synopsis somewhere, and it seems they’ve decided it’s a tragic love story rather than a story of a lot of horrible jerks being selfish and revenge and dYsfUncTiOnAL fAmiLieS and stuff.
Concluding thoughts: Hm. Well, it’s decidedly underwhelming. The story has lost a lot of its nuance and character, and the music doesn’t really help in gaining any of that back. The lack of the second generation is really a deal-breaker for me. And the musical style is just not how I would envision a Wuthering Heights score. Heathcliff’s songs are good for a laugh, though.
Jane Eyre (2000)
Book by John Caird, Lyrics and Music by Paul Gordon
Basis: Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë (published 1847)
The music: Initially I was underwhelmed by the music. It has a certain mellow quality in a lot of the songs and a style that reminds me of Big River—I’m not quite sure what it is? It doesn’t exactly fit with the story. However, there are some songs with a gothic feel and the emotional gravity that you would expect from this story.
There are some beautiful melodies, and there are many songs of considerable angst. There are also lovely lilting themes that are reminiscent of the English countryside. And the way that the “Forgiveness” theme weaves through the story is SO GOOD. The way that most of the themes end up returning is very thoughtful, actually. The more I listened to the music, the more amazing I realized it was?
I am also biased towards the music as this point because of being so invested in the show last year, so that’s a thing.
And Jane is an alto and Mr. Rochester is a baritone! Which just makes sense to me. I’m not the greatest fan of Marla Schaffel’s Jane (it’s not terrible, just not my favorite), but I am rather partial to James Barbour’s Rochester (this man’s voice, guys).
Notable tracks: “As Good as You” is a perfect summary of Mr. Rochester’s opinion of life, love, and himself.
And “Sirens” is ultimate angst.
“Things Beyond This Earth” has such eerie HARMONY!!
No, actually “Painting Her Portrait” is ultimate angst.
“The Gypsy” is amazing because they actually included this scene. NO MOVIE EVER INCLUDES THIS SCENE.
“Brave Enough for Love” is the best because of all the themes that come back and all the redemption and it’s just beautiful.
The story: So a lot of things are condensed and several characters are sort of melded together, but considering how much story there is to get through it’s actually very impressive how much the essence of the thing remains intact? The soul of the story is the same, but the details are changed, if that makes sense. Obviously there are things that are lost, but Jane is still Jane and her journey is still her journey. Also her faith is a big part of the story, something that a lot of adaptions brush over.
I am sorry for losing Bessie and Miss Temple, though not so much for losing Eliza and Georgiana. We also lose Diana and Mary, which is a blow—though actually I have this theory that they’ve just been melded into St. John’s character, because St. John in the show is much gentler and kinder than book St. John. His character is probably the most altered.
The whole end bit is different. Jane doesn’t go to visit her aunt earlier in the novel, but instead stumbles across her house after fleeing Thornfield. She meets St. John there (he’s the local curate and he’s visiting the house because of Mrs. Reed’s illness), and then when Mrs. Reed dies she gives Jane her fortune (since she doesn’t have any daughters of her own to give it to in this version, I suppose). It simplifies things quite a bit and fairly flies through the events of the book, but it works surprisingly well.
Other than St. John of course, the characters are very close to the way they are represented in the book, Jane and Rochester especially. It helps that a great many of the song lyrics come directly from the original text, always a solid move when adapting something into a musical. Use the beautiful words the author has given you.
And we all must appreciate the musical for taking the time to do the gypsy scene? I’ve seen a couple of adaptions of Jane Eyre, and the musical is by far the best.
Concluding thoughts: Like I said, I’m biased, but I think that this is an excellent adaption of Jane Eyre. First of all, the gypsy scene. Secondly, the musical actually makes a big deal of Jane’s faith, something that most movie adaptions seem to neglect? But it’s IMPORTANT. The themes are so solid and I am such a sucker for redemption stories.
Well, that got a bit longer than I was expecting. Musicals are a lot of fun to talk about, I guess.
What do you think of these musicals? Are they are gothic as they promise to be? Have you read any of the books? What are your favorite gothic novels? Which Phantom of the Opera musical is closer to the source material? Do you think that the second generation in Wuthering Heights is disposable? How important is the gypsy scene in Jane Eyre?