The Phantom Menace

'Phantom of the Opera' stalks Tucson for the first time.

What is it that makes The Phantom of the Opera so popular?

With box office sales of more than 3 billion, Andrew Lloyd Webber's musical version of the obscure French novel is billed by its publicists as the "most successful entertainment venture of the 20th century." And its unprecedented success seems to be spilling into the 21st century as well.

The show is still running on Broadway after 14 years, having opened in New York in January 1988. (It actually premiered in London two years earlier.) The critics might not love it, but the crowds do: Some 63 million people in 15 countries have flocked to see it. Traveling productions have crisscrossed the globe, with crews toting its famous 1,000-pound chandelier, its 2.5-ton proscenium and its 2.5-ton staircase to locations as far-flung as Korea and Copenhagen. Local city fathers salivate over its spillover economic effects; this 1995 headline from the Hartford Courant is typical: "Phantom delivers music of cash registers ringing."

The traveling lollapalooza, complete with 36 cast members, 16 orchestra musicians and 37 scenery and electrical system operators, arrives in Tucson for the first time next week. On Wednesday, the show opens a four-week run at Centennial Hall. UApresents executive director Ken Foster was so eager to get Phantom that he made $250,000 in theater improvements to accommodate the show's special needs, including adding a winch in the ceiling to manipulate the show's giant moving chandelier. (The money is to come directly from ticket sales, according to UApresents spokeswoman Tara Kirkpatrick.)

Why all the fuss about a gothic tale of a sinister masked man living in the bowels of the Paris Opera?

Rebecca Pitcher, who plays Christine, the young soprano the Phantom falls in love with, believes there's a simple explanation.

"I think the music is pleasing, easy to listen to, with only a little bit of atonal, crazy stuff in it," Pitcher said by cellphone last week from Peoria, where she was tooling around town looking for an iced tea before the evening's call. "The story itself and the Phantom bring a lot of mystery and passion to the show. It attracts all different age groups. I've had 5-year-old kids come up to me and say, 'Oh, my gosh, it's absolutely amazing. I love it.'"

Certainly the Lloyd Webber brand name and the impeccable stagecraft have a lot to do with Phantom's appeal--it's telling that the scenery and electrical system operators outnumber the actors. Besides the shimmying chandelier (a replica of the real one in the Paris Opera) there's the fog and the 22 scene changes and the 230 costumes, not to mention the lake and the boat and the elephant.

But UA English professor Jerry Hogle has uncovered a deeper cultural meaning of the Phantom phenomenon. Hogle, who formerly headed the UA Faculty Senate, has just published the scholarly tome The Undergrounds of the Phantom of the Opera: Sublimation and the Gothic in Leroux's Novel and Its Progeny (St. Martin's Press). He writes that the Phantom is a familiar archetype, a sinister underground figure whose antecedents go all the way from Greek and Roman mythology to the demonizations of the Dreyfus trial. The Phantom, of course, also became a recurring figure in early cinema, most notably played by Lon Chaney.

Gaston Leroux, the French journalist who wrote the novel Le Fantôme de l'Opéra in 1910, had covered the notorious Dreyfus trial a dozen years earlier. Dreyfus, a Jewish Army officer, was falsely convicted of treason, and his case famously brought to light the anti-Semitism not only in the French army but in French culture. In writing about the shunned Dreyfus for a French newspaper, Leroux used language he would later deploy to describe the Phantom: "skeletal" and "emaciated." He even described Dreyfus as riding in a "phantom" carriage.

"The whole idea of being castigated as 'other,' even though you're born European, is a part of the Phantom," Hogle told writer Dan Huff in the current issue of UA Alumnus magazine. "The anti-Semitism of that time becomes a subtext for Leroux."

Going farther back into cultural history, Hogle found Phantom precedents in Victor Hugo's 1831 novel The Hunchback of Notre Dame, in the fairy tale "Beauty and the Beast" and in the myth of Persephone, who's taken by Pluto into the underworld. "Leroux was playing off a pattern that was ages old," Hogle said.

In any case, soprano Pitcher says it's delicious fun to play the object of the masked man's affections. She's been Christine since 1997, both in traveling productions and as the understudy on Broadway.

"I actually started on this tour as the understudy for Christine," she says. "I was here for five months and then I went to New York for a year, and then came back as Christine full time."

Pitcher's opera training gives her a unique understanding of her character, who with the besotted Phantom's help, is on her way to becoming a star at the Paris Opera. After studying voice at Baldwin Wallace College, the Peabody Institute and the Pittsburgh Opera Center at Duquesne University, Pitcher soloed in such works as Carmina Burana and the Mozart Requiem. "I'd love to do some opera again," she said, "and I'd love to do more things in theater. Whatever comes next."

In the meantime, Pitcher relishes singing Christine night after night after night.

"It's a challenge [to keep performing the same part] and it's a lot of fun. I love what I do: being onstage every night and creating a show for those people who haven't ever seen it before. We have a story to tell."

A very old story.

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