I was sitting, clenching my seat, enchanted by the excellent new production of The Phantom of the Opera at the Academy of Music, when the Phantom, in that Svengali spit-take of sorcery he lords over his slavish protégé, Christine, demanded of her, “Sing, my angel of music! Sing for me!”
I sat back in my seat, tsk-tsking what I had just seen. “Some people just won’t learn from the Harvey Weinstein mess,” I whispered to myself.
The Phantom as bully, predator, sexual pervert — surely, he owns tomorrow’s headlines.
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But not a peep from the audience — not even an invite from Fox News — as the Phantom unmasked his insatiable sexual hold over a scared and compliant Christine, heeding his hellish bidding. All was quiet … except for that frisson of theatergoer tension usually attendant to those witnessing a messy, if mesmerizing, moral breakdown.
It was the same kind of reaction akin to readers thumbing through newspapers to revel in the newest revelations about Weinstein. Or Brett Ratner. Or Kevin Spacey. Or Bill O’Reilly.
In Phantom, Christine falls under her master’s hypnotic spell, intimidated by his power amid threats of a crushed career if she doesn’t accede to his demonic demands. The same might have been the spell thrown off by the Weinstein Monster, with some of his victims bullied out of fear into compliance.
But art — and Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical masterpiece is just that — cannot be held to the same rules as real life, can it? Would Phantom be as famously fun if the lead character approached Christine not as a force of nature but as a factotum, with a forfeiture of intent? Would the relationship be as aesthetically compelling if the Phantom meekly asked of his muse, “Would you kindly sing for me? I just want to gauge your range so I can see if you’re a proper fit for this crazy new opera I’m writing. Please, Christine, sing. But only if you want.”
Part of the fantasy of Phantom is its clash of characters through power points, not politeness nor political correctness. Yet, if Phantom deserves a pass, it does not warrant an unconditional pardon.
Indeed, there are some works of art, reflecting the less complex — and possibly thoughtless — times in which they were written or composed, that call out for change. In a revival of Fiorello! the Pulitzer Prize-winning 1959 musical about New York’s famously energetic Little Flower, Fiorello H. LaGuardia, mayor from 1934 to 1945, lyricist Sheldon Harnick had some second thoughts — and a second set of lyrics — to accommodate new mind-sets: He changed “The Very Next Man,” whose original lyrics — which the character sang as she considered taking on new suitors, growing tired of waiting for Fiorello’s marriage proposal — reeked of caveman comments:
“And if he likes me, who cares how frequently he strikes me?
I’ll fetch his slippers with my arm in a sling
Just for the privilege of wearing his ring.”
The song was later rewritten to suggest a far less willing acceptance of brutal force as a God-given right for suitors everywhere:
“When he proposes I’ll have him send me tons of roses,
Sweet-scented blossoms I’ll enjoy by the hour.
I won’t restrict myself to one Little Flow’r!”
In the current Broadway prospect The Honeymooners, the crass Ralph Kramden was reconfigured as less punch-drunk with violent verbal outbursts against his beloved wife, Alice. Earth to Kramden: “To the moon” with fist curled as fiery rocket launch was no longer appropriate pillow talk nor a source of humor.
But should all art stressing outdated principles be restructured to suit today’s moral mind-set? Should modern interpretations of The Taming of the Shrew let Kate be Kate and put Petruchio out to pasture for trying to tame his wild wife? Would it subvert the art to alter her transformation from hellcat into subservient hausfrau?
To replot the Phantom’s misogynistic, narcissistic, self-centered perspective would be to dismiss a complex character and miss the period piece’s point.
Should the Phantom be given a pass? Can we forgive without forgetting the baseness of what he represents? What harm can he really do?
After all, it’s not like he’s running for president.
Michael Elkin is a playwright and author of the novel “I, 95.”