Tag Archives: Broadway

Why is “The Phantom of the Opera” So Popular?

“The Phantom of the Opera” is the highest grossing musical of all time and the longest running show in Broadway history.  By those two metrics alone, we can call it the most popular musical of all time.  In fact, the only other musical that comes close based on box office receipts and length of run is “Les Miserables.”

The engine behind Les Miserables’ success is pretty straightforward – its source material.  Victor Hugo’s novel is one of the ten or so most important works of fiction in European literature, if not world literature.  If someone told a conference of literature professors that it is Hugo’s masterpiece and the greatest novel ever written, you’d get much disagreement, but no one would look at you like you were entirely wrong either.

Phantom on the other hand is based on a popular French horror novel by Gaston Leroux.  It’s a good book, but due respect for Monsieur Leroux, it’s not exactly a towering masterwork of world literature.  Additionally, aside from its cleanup at the 1988 Tony Awards, it’s safe to say that Phantom has never been a critical darling.

So why is it so popular?  Here are three attempts at an explanation:

Explanation #1: It’s the Vanilla Ice Cream of Musicals

The old adage is that vanilla ice cream is no one’s favorite flavor, but it’s everyone’s second favorite flavor. Phantom is like that too.  Few venture out to see Phantom anymore, but most people are okay with it as a backup plan.

Can’t get tickets to Hamilton or the other mega musical du jour? In New York for only a day and can only see one show on short notice?  Really want to see a second musical but can’t make up your mind?  Oh hey, there’s always Phantom.

And why not?  After all you’re guaranteed some top flight talent, familiar songs, and high production values.  Productions of Phantom are predictably above average to good – why take a chance on something else?  For casual theater goers, or even some not-so casual ones, Phantom is an attractive second option at all times.

Explanation #2: It’s the Gimmick with the Falling Chandelier

Spoiler alert!  Just kidding, everyone knows about the falling chandelier gimmick – it’s heavily advertised every time the show does a touring production after all.  It might be the one thing almost everyone knows about the musical, and the one thing people who saw it only as kids or teenagers, myself included, remember best about it.

That’s no small thing.  People love certain gimmicks and the falling chandelier is one they absolutely swoon for apparently.

Explanation #3: Maybe it Really is Just that Good

I first saw “The Phantom of the Opera” when I was thirteen years old at the Pantages Theatre (now called the Ed Mirvish Theatre) in Toronto over twenty years ago.  I remember that I wasn’t thrilled with it, but what I don’t remember is how honestly I felt that way.  Was I really disappointed, or was it just a jaded, gen-x type reaction, also known as, everything popular is lame somehow?

I’m seeing a touring production in Minneapolis in December, but I don’t have to wait that long to find out how I feel about the show.  I’ve been listening to the original cast recording, the one with Sarah Brightman and Michael Crawford, all week.  While Andrew Lloyd Webber has been subject to his share of criticism over the years, the man knows how to put together a score of compelling music.

What of the story then?  Leroux’s novel might be dismissed as a mere “genre classic,” but no story stays popular for over a century without resonating with people.  The story, after all, has been adapted over fifty times in various formats, the second most famous being the Lon Chaney “The Phantom of the Opera” (1925) which terrified silent movie audiences.

The story actually has a good deal of thematic complexity too.  For example, the unscrupulous owners of the Opera give a glimpse into the ever uneasy relationship between art and commerce.  But the real meat of the story is the number of layers in the Phantom’s character.  He’s an outcast because of his physical deformity and has the soul of a poet.  At the same time, he see Christine as his possession and reacts violently towards her when he can’t coerce her into loving him.  In one sense, he’s a sympathetic character, but in another, perhaps more visceral sense, he really is a monster.

Feel free to share your theories and stories below.  I’ve turned comments back on.

(c) 2017 D.G. McCabe





2016 Year in Review

“When she [Philosophy] saw that the Muses of poetry were present by my couch giving words to my lamenting, she was stirred a while; her eyes flashed fiercely, and said she, “Who has suffered these seducing mummers to approach this sick man? Never do they support those in sorrow by any healing remedies, but rather do ever foster the sorrow by poisonous sweets. These are they who stifle the fruit-bearing harvest of reason with the barren briars of the passions: they free not the minds of men from disease, but accustom them thereto.””

– Boethius

What of 2016?  As the Roman philosopher Boethius wrote of his consolation by Lady Philosophy, we have a choice.  We can indulge in our lamentations, or we can, through our reason, find a way forward.  Perhaps we can let Lady Philosophy take it from here to guide us in this way.

I thought of many muses to guide me through this past year, when a woman came to me in classical robes.  She was at once as tall as a giant, yet comforting and approachable.  Then she began to speak.

“I see you, reading the various years in review of 2016 to draw inspiration for this annual post,” she began, “I see nothing but hot takes and articles dripping with lament or sarcasm.   Let me assure you, this 2016 had its positive aspects.”

2016 Was a Good Year to Be…

1) Animators

Lady Philosophy continued, “Behold my friend, for the medium of animation, that artform long taken for granted, had a very strong 2016.  Six of the twenty top grossing movies of the year were animated.  With each passing decade, animation continues to bring inspiration and joy without the limitations of live action film. 2016 was in many ways a landmark year in this regard.”

2) HBO

“I should also point out to you that a great year need not mean a consistently great one wire to wire.  If something is felled low by the failure of an ill-conceived vanity project about classic rock in the spring, it can rise again through the premiere for two excellent shows in the fall.  Westworld has broken HBO’s losing streak when it comes to new dramas, and Insecure has continued its success in popular comedies”

3) Broadway

“If it is further inspiration you seek, behold the resurgence of the Great White Way as a force in American popular culture.  Hamilton was the most popular musical in decades, and live broadcasts of musicals on network television are exceptionally popular.  Indeed, one of this year’s top Oscar contenders, “La-La Land,” is a Hollywood musical of the old style.”

2016 Was a Bad Year to Be

1) A Franchise from the 1980’s or 1990’s

Lady Philosophy continued.  “While there were failures in 2016, I would counsel to learn from them rather than merely list them in a vain and sarcastic manner.  Box Office disappointments from the Ninja Turtles, Ghostbusters, Independence Day, and Zoolander sequels should not be seen as affecting those fine memories of past success, but rather stand as stark reminders that not everything deserves a reboot or a sequel.”

2) “A List” Hollywood Marriages

“I also prescribe an end to your consideration of the troubled Depp/Heard and Pitt/Jolie marriages.  As troubling as the allegations associated with these divorces are, it is important to remember that you don’t know these people.  You will never meet them.  Their relationships have no impact on your life whatsoever.”

3) Internet and Social Media

“At last, I see that you are troubled by what you read on the internet and on social media platforms.  It might feel as though you cannot escape the constant stream of opinion and information.  You might feel that this has damaged your interactions with your fellows beyond repair, or trapped you in a vicious cycle of anger and mistrust.  Let me assure you that the old ways are still alive.  You can read a book and discuss it with a friend.  You can watch a movie with your significant other and discuss it over snacks afterwards.  You might feel the need to broadcast your feelings to the masses, but I would counsel you to remember that your friends and family are much more receptive to your ideas than the faceless void of the internet will ever be.”

Best Movies

Lady Philosophy cautioned me against creating a list of best movies this year.  She said to me, “Indeed you have not seen enough movies to truly make an honest “best of” list.  But keep in mind that such lists are flawed.  They lack the distance truly needed to examine and appreciate film as an artform.  As much as you enjoyed “Captain America: Civil War,” can you say it is the best blockbuster of the year when you haven’t seen the new Star Wars movie yet?  As for artistic films, look at past years.  Does anyone really believe, with the proper distance, that “Crash,” “The English Patient,” or “The Greatest Show on Earth”  were worthy of Best Picture Oscars?  I would advise against indulging in such listicles.”

Dispatches from the Great Ale House in the Sky

This year, Lady Philosophy especially wanted to talk about the Great Ale House in the Sky.  She said, “I will prescribe the strongest medicine of all to help you acknowledge the many fine artists that left you this past year.  It is medicine that you, yourself, have often shared.

“Remember, it is the story that matters, not how long it lasts or how it ends.  Artists and inventors have the greatest stories of all, for their influence stays with us the longest and carries us all forward.  If it is useful for you to imagine these great artists together, I will partially indulge in this fantasy, but I will do so in a way that will help you, rather than a way that extends your sorrow.

“Perhaps this Ale House is in the form of a great music festival, where Prince, David Bowie, Leonard Cohen, George Michael and others come together.  You could find great joy in that fantasy.  But you need not – for the music is still there.

“Or maybe, you imagine that Carrie Fisher, Alan Rickman, Florence Henderson, Abe Vigoda, Gene Wilder, Kenny Baker and others are still in talks for various roles.  These people may have never met in life, but it is fun to think about them doing so in your Great Ale House in the Sky.  I would advise an alternative – put on their films and television shows.  You can even do so with the fights of Muhammad Ali – which are readily available on the internet.”

And with that, Lady Philosophy left me in a better place.  The place that honors rather than mourns.  The place that learns from the mistakes of others.  The place that sees and emphasizes the positive.  There is great strength and great joy here.

(c) 2016 D.G. McCabe



The 1960’s and Les Miserables – The Rise and Fall of the Hollywood Musical

On Christmas Day this year I went to see Les Miserables. Knowing full well that it’s one of those films that it’s futile to write a review for, all I could really say was that I enjoyed it and everyone who enjoyed the stage show seems to have enjoyed it as well. What interests me more than the film itself is the fact that every once in a while there is a big “event” musical coming out of Hollywood (Sweeney Todd (2007), Chicago (2002), Evita (1996) come to mind), but little else as to serious film productions of popular musicals.  While this may seem like the normal state of affairs, for most of the history of film, at least since the late 1920’s, musicals have made up a large proportion of the most popular Hollywood productions.

Take the 1960’s for an example.  Four of the ten movies that won best picture in the 1960’s were musicals.  While these are not the most important movies released from that period, they remain some of the most popular.  If you look at the list of highest grossing films between 1927 and 1970, musicals make up a large percentage.

The question becomes – so what happened?

It is a well known historical fact that a large number of talented performers from Broadway started moving out west to California after the first major “talkie” success, 1927’s “The Jazz Singer.”  Hollywood saw an opportunity in showcasing the best talents of the stage on the screen.  While people could listen to these performers on the radio, or if they were fortunate enough on Gramophones, they could not see them perform on a regular basis unless the show happened to come to town or they were to take a trip to New York.  Likewise, many musicals, such as “White Christmas” (1954) were developed solely for the screen (although that particular film has been turned into a successful musical).

Starting in the 1960’s, the influence of several important film “realism” movements started to impact Hollywood.  At the same time, Broadway was declining as the generator of popular music in the United States.  It is not a coincidence that the last Broadway style film musical to earn the most money for a year was 1965’s “The Sound of Music,” and that show-tunes started disappearing from the top of the music charts during the same period.

I would posit that if the story of popular entertainment in the first half of the twentieth century was the story of the integration of song and film the story since the 1960’s has been the decoupling of popular music from most other forms of entertainment.  While a popular song may appear on a film’s soundtrack or in a popular television show, the songs are no longer integrated into the plots of these other artforms.

This has a lot to do with the way we consume music, which may be the most widely available form of art in the world.  We no longer expect music to be necessarily associated with anything other than the music itself.  Likewise, we expect a certain level of realism in our films (with some notable exceptions of course, especially comedies), and musicals are the antethesis of realism.  This concept has even crept into the medium of animation, where popular movies from Pixar and Dreamworks are no longer musicals like Disney animation films were well into the late 1990’s.  While musicals still obviously maintain an important place in our popular culture, their form is no longer preferred as we now like our music to be able to stand on its own and our movies to have a certain level of believability that musicals by their very nature cannot provide.

(c) 2012 D.G. McCabe