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  • POTO director Joel Schumacher on the London film set of the "Masquerade" sequence.
    Will the film adaptation of The Phantom of the Opera [premiering today in New York for a December 22nd opening] capture and enthrall you? Will it have you wishing you were there again, drive you to the point of no return or humming the music of the night? It depends on what you're looking for, and how big a fan of the stage production you are.

    Director/co-screenplay writer Joel Schumacher says, "I was compelled to make the film because of the millions who cannot afford to see Phantom in a legitimate theatre. Many people don't live in an area where they can get to a theatre where the musical is playing. Think about films such as The Sound of Music, West Side Story and Chicago. How many people have actually seen them on the stage, compared to the millions who've seen the films? There are people who love Andrew's music, and who've wanted to see Phantom onstage. Now they'll have the opportunity to see a version of it."

    With Andrew Lloyd Webber's company co-producing and ALW co-writing the screenplay [with Schumacher], you might expect the film adaptation to closely follow the stage production. However, with the filmmakers using that script as an almost scene-for-scene storyboard, the result is a virtual revisit. For those who know the property well, there'll be few surprises. There's nothing - although there is someone - to keep you on the edge of your seats.

    Those unfamiliar with the stage production may get drawn into the story [partly because of the lavish production values, 99% of which were created on London soundstages] and some of the added - and sometimes laughable - thriller elements. For either group, the film is a guaranteed spectacular eyeful of color, splendid period production detail and lavish costumes. And, of course, there's the Lloyd Webber/Charles Hart [with Richard Stilgoe] score that has been stunningly orchestrated and arranged for multi-channel sound.

    Schumacher's examples of stage musicals which have been made into blockbuster film musicals are interesting. The SOM was opened up with scenic wonders - one in particular being Julie Andrews; WSS had Jerome Robbins' brilliant choreography; and Chicago had sex appeal and lots of Fosse's rakish choreography.

    At the interval of the London opening of POTO, I''ll never forget a theatergoer who blurted to his companion, as he sprinted up the aisle to the bar, "I thought you said this was a musical. It's not a musical! How can it be a musical without dancing girls?"

    The film adaptation of POTO, like onstage has dancing girls and a bit more choreography. None of it is on a level of Fosse or Robbins, but there are other compensations amidst the dramatic crescendos, soaring passions, fierce jealousies and the monster's obsessive love. And, thankfully, it's not a disaster as was the film adaptation of A Chorus Line.

    Gerard Butler, as the Phantom; Emmy Rossum, as innocent, naive chorus girl Christine Daae; Patrick Wilson in the expanded role of the Vicompte Raoul de Chagny; and ALW's score are the stars. But they're not the only ones.

    Production designer Anthony Pratt, costumer Alexandra Byrne [Neverland, Elizabeth], cinematographer John Matieson and editor Terry Rawlings deserve to top billing, too. And bravo to Simon Lee, the music supervisor.

    Oh, that chandelier is still there - weighing in at over two tons and festooned with over 20,000 full cut Swarovski crystal pendants. But there's been a big change in when it crashes -- and lots of added after shock and awe.

    "It's a big change from the stage," said the composer, "and I hope loyal fans won't notice it. Coming as it does now, the Phantom, by that one action, is destroying the world he loved. It's very different from his motivation in the theaterpiece, which is a vague act of revenge toward Christine."
    [Trivia: Originally, in the London previews, the chandelier's "entrance cue" was not until the end of the first act, which is came "crashing" toward the stage and Christine, with all sorts of safety devices in place. None the less, a female patron was so frightened, she suffered heart murmurs and had to be rushed to the hospital. So it was decided to show the chandelier going up into the ceiling -- a move that certainly lessened the impact of the finale, but which has nonetheless thrilled audiences for years.]
    In theatres, that crashing Chandelier not only gave people something to rave about during the interval, but also had the type of impact to steal the show. That honor goes to Minnie Driver as fiery opera diva [in this instance, "diva" might well translate as "rhymes with witch"], La Carlotta.

    Though she is a singer, her operatic moments are performed by Margaret Preece. However, Driver, in some of the most splendidly colorful and outlandish costumes in cinema history, proves to be a daft comedienne. She gives "over the top" a new definition, but is so much fun you really don't care. She is so entertaining and gives the film such a lift that it would have behooved ALW and Schumacher to expand her role [instead of expanding that of Madame Giry, portrayed by Miranda Richardson].

    The "Notes" sequence [not included on the Sony soundtrack] and the overlapping vocals of the soaring, melodious "Prima Donna" work well in the film and have better clarity than onstage. At the end of the latter scene and a breathtaking tracking shot through the extremities of the opera house, there is a hilarious twist in the form of a new line. Listen closely, then watch the expression on La Carlotta's face. It's one of those MasterCard priceless moments.

    Driver has made a few professional missteps since winning her Supporting Oscar for Good Will Hunting [1997]. When it was announced that she would play Carlotta, just based on the role in the musical [originally, brilliantly and quite differently played by Judy Kaye, who won a Feature Actress Tony], a lot of heads wagged in disbelief. Wag no more. Minnie's back and what a "comeback"!

    In the best of all possible worlds, Driver's performance would garner an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actress.

    "In Carlotta's mind," laughs Driver, "everybody else exists as a satellite around her. In 1870, the diva of the opera house had the effect of David Beckham, Madonna and Kylie Minogue all rolled into one, so I channeled my inner diva! Joel pretty much just wound me up and let me go!"

    When she and Schumacher discussed Carlotta, he said, "Nobody ever paid to see under the top." The director adds, "I could tell that Minnie was perfect for this role - she's funny, statuesque and out-diva'd the divas. But she even surprised me - and, I think, herself with how fantastic she really is. She has a wonderful sense of humor and some of her best moments are ad-libbed."

    In adapting their screenplay from the musical's book, Schumacher and ALW delve further into the backstories of the key characters. "Onstage, we touch on the Phantom's childhood," notes ALW, "but we don't visually go back in time to explore it as in the film. It's a very important change, because it makes his plight more understandable.

    "The film looks and sounds fabulous," he continues, "and I think it's an extraordinarily fine document of the stage show. While it doesn't deviate much from the stage material, the film gives it a deeper emotional center. It's not based on the stage production visually or direction-wise, but it's got exactly the same essence. And that's all I could have ever hoped for."

    As only can be done on film, especially in recreating that memorable stage sequence known as the "travelator" [when Christine and Raoul escape to the roof for the Act One finale "All I Ask Of You"], they've incorporated the gritty, busy backstage world of the opera house into the main story.

    "Where the stage show concentrates on the Phantom, Christine and Raoul," explaines Schumacher, "for the film, we wanted to give audiences more insight as to how these characters arrived at the opera house. So we wove the backstage activity - the plasterers, prop makers, wig makers, scenic artists, dancers and singers - into the fabric of the story."

    "In the film," elaborates Schumcher, "the Phantom is seen as more of a tragic lover and a sensitive romantic, not just a creature of horror to be feared. We've made his relationship with Christine much more of a love affair than it is in the original story."

    Schumacher says it was the character of the Phantom that initially attracted him to the project. "One of the reasons this tragic love story has been part of our culture since Gaston Leroux wrote his novel is because we identify with the Phantom," he says. "The Phantom is a physical manifestation of whatever human beings feel is unlovable about themselves. He's a heart-breaking character - much like the hunchback of Notre Dame and the Beast in Beauty and the Beast."

    Schumacher states his collaboration with ALW was rewarding because of a mutual trust and respect developed over the course of their fifteen-year friendship. "We have a very good marriage creatively because I take care of the filming and Andrew takes care of the music. Like a lot of very intelligent people, he doesn't pretend to know about things he doesn't. He's an expert on music, so he focused his talent on those aspects of the film, and gave me an enormous amount of freedom and his full support to create what I thought should be done with the material."

    "There are millions of people who cannot afford to see Phantom in a legitimate theatre, and many people don't live in an area where they can get to a theatre where the musical is playing ... Now they'll have the opportunity ... " - Joel Schumacher, above on the set with ALW, on why he made the film

    Schumacher notes he envisioned the film as a sexy young love story, and set out to cast fresh new actors in the principal roles. And though ALW entrusted the casting process to him, he emphasized, "It was absolutely crucial we have people who could really sing, because song drives the entire piece. The actors had to possess the vocal chops."

    For Christine, related the director, "we needed to find a young woman who could exude a genuine youthful innocence and longing and, with Raoul and the Phantom, two wildly charismatic actors to play the two men she's torn between."

    The role of Christine went to Emmy Rossum, a then-16-year-old who portrayed Sean Penn's daughter in Clint Eastwood's Oscar winning Mystic River, and young Audrey Hepburn in ABC-TV's The Audrey Hepburn Story [2000]. More recently, she co-starred in the icy disaster blockbuster The Day After Tomorrow.

    "Not only is Emmy an exquisite actress" enthuses Schumacher enthuses, "but, from age seven, she actually trained at the Metropolitan Opera. She came in at the last second and almost didn't screen test because she had to go to a family reunion in Las Vegas. I had to talk her out of it!"

    A week later, she was singing for ALW at his house. "It was nerve-wracking! I was warming up with the accompanist when Andrew walked into the room, sat down without even introducing himself and said ëShall we?'" And, obviously, he was impressed.

    To prepare for her role, Rossum took dance lessons, toured Paris' Garnier Opera House and studied Degas' paintings and sculptures of ballerinas, many of which were based on the Garnier dancers. "The biggest challenge," she explains, "was finding a balance between my voice and my acting. I had to find a place where my voice and acting meshed in a way that felt natural."

    Rossum says that, as infectious as ALW POTO compositions are, "the songs are quite sophisticated and difficult to sing properly. The preparation I had from the Met was invaluable. I couldn't have done it without the discipline that was instilled in me there."

    For the Phantom, Schumacher and ALW wanted an actor who radiated a charismatic intensity and had a bit of a rock ën roll sensibility. "He's got to be a bit rough," states Lloyd Webber, "a bit dangerous; not a conventional singer. Christine's attracted to him because he's the right side of danger, so we had to find an actor who could deliver that vocal quality."

    You might be more than surprised that they found the goods in Scottish actor Gerard Butler, who made his U.K. stage debut at age 12 in Oliver!, later appearing in British actor/director Steven Berkoff's production of Coriolanus at Glasgow's famous Kings Theatre. In 1996, he portrayed Renton in the acclaimed stage production of Trainspotting at the Edinburgh Festival. Butler made his feature film debut in 1998's Oscar-nominated Mrs. Brown, playing Billy Connolly's brother. Here, he's best known to filmgoers for his starring role opposite Angelina Jolie in the 2003 box office bonanza Lara Croft Tomb Raider: The Cradle of Life.

    "Gerry has got a great rock tenor voice," reports Lloyd Webber. Schumacher was first impressed when he saw Butler in, of all things, Dracula 2000. "He had such incredible screen presence, I wanted to meet him," recounts the director. "He's a wonderful actor and I knew he would make a stunning Phantom."

    Butler said something very much along the lines of what Hugh Panaro, the present Broadway Phantom, said in a recent interview: "One reason audiences around the world consider The Phantom of the Opera such a powerful piece is because they identify with the Phantom's pain. The older you get, the more you develop baggage - things you don't want to let go of, things you fear that if you open them up to the world, the world will find you repulsive and ugly."

    That pain, laughed Butler, was nothing compared to what he felt when the day came for him to sing for ALW. "I'd taken voice lessons on the sly, and rehearsed with our musical director Simon Lee. And then, suddenly, there I am standing in front of Andrew Lloyd Webber, in his home. Simon was playing the piano, reminding me to breathe, and I thought, ëI'm about to sing ëMusic of the Night,' one of the most famous songs of all time, for the composer.' My legs started shaking."

    The role of the dashing, and now swashbuckling, Raoul went to Patrick Wilson, star of Broadway's Oklahoma! and The Full Monty, and an Emmy nominee for his performance in the HBO miniseries Angels in America.

    "I'd seen Patrick onstage and knew he sang beautifully," says Schumacher. "He's a very talented actor and he has the voice of an angel." ALW was familiar with Wilson's Broadway pedigree, so he expected great things; and says he wasn't disappointed. "Patrick's one of the great natural lyric tenors from the theatre. I mean, he was Curly in Oklahoma!"

    Wilson says the role was more challenging than he anticipated - especially that running rear mount on the horse [like Roy Rogers used to do] and gallopping bareback at speeds of 30 miles an hour. He underwent a five-hour prosthetics process to age him some 40 for sequences that take place in the prologue and epilogue, set in 1919.

    ~ ~ ~

    Stay tuned for more on The Phantom of the Opera: The Movie,
    notes from ALW, an interview with Charles Hart
    and the amazing account of how the $120-million plus movie was made.

    Photos: Alex Bailey/Warner Bros.


    Ellis Nassour is an international media journalist, and author of Honky Tonk Angel: The Intimate Story of Patsy Cline, which he has adapted into a musical for the stage. Visit www.patsyclinehta.com.

    He can be reached at [email protected]

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