The truth about almost all musicals is this: they sacrifice plot in order to have lengthy musical numbers. Far more often than not, there isn’t much advancement to the story while all the characters stop to sing a song. And when your film contains a dozen songs, or somewhere around that number, you can see how either the plot will be shallow or the running time will be bloated. Or, in the case of Joel Schumacher’s The Phantom of the Opera, both can happen.
The majority of the film is framed as a flashback, although the “present day” scenes — which occur in 1919 — are almost inconsequential. The main plot is something that is so present in popular culture that you probably know the gist of it. There is an opera, one of its stars, Christine (Emmy Rossum), finds herself torn between love of a childhood friend, Raoul (Patrick Wilson), and pity/maybe-love for the titular “Phantom” (Gerard Butler), who lives underneath the opera house, makes suggestions for its productions, demands a salary, and has half of his face disfigured, so he wears half a mask to cover himself up.
There’s little more to it than that. A few additional details become important, but for the most part it’s a woefully underdeveloped love triangle between these three people and a lot of songs scattered throughout. The film is based on Andrew Lloyd Webber’s play, also a musical, which itself was based on the French novel of the same name. The story has been told and re-told many times and has a surprisingly large and devoted fanbase.
With such a focus on the songs, it makes sense to take a look at the casting choices and the voices of those actors. The Phantom is played by Gerard Butler, who is attractive and even “disfigured” can’t exactly terrify audiences, although at this point in the character’s life, perhaps he’s no longer supposed to. Butler is not a good singer. Is is overshadowed in every song shared with another actor, and even in his solo moments doesn’t really shine. That’s what happens when you cast someone without a singing background in a role like this.
And I don’t want to dwell on that, in large part because Butler is clearly trying to do his best. But the Phantom is supposed to be this musical genius — someone who taught Catherine to sing well without her even seeing him. But then you hear him sing and you can’t believe that. The whole in-movie “legend” of the character is shattered because of Butler’s lack of vocal prowess. It’s simply poor casting. You can’t have the Phantom overpowered and outshone by the rest of the cast. It doesn’t work.
The rest of the cast, though, does a pretty bang-up job. Emmy Rossum has a fantastic voice and gets to show it off often enough. Patrick Wilson can sing surprisingly well, too — especially in comparison to Butler. Much of the supporting cast is equally talented at the singing aspect, in large part because they didn’t have to be known names or good actors to get the role; they could be classically trained singers and be fit for the roles. The leads, ideally, would be both.
What little plot there is takes over two hours and twenty minutes to tell. People come for the musical numbers, I would assume, as well as the love story. The Phantom of the Opera has relatively well-known songs, and I’m sure fans of the Broadway show will be pleased to hear them here. I wonder, though, what would happen if abbreviated versions were created and a greater focus could be placed on the characters and their relationships with the additional “plot time.” Would the romance still feel underdeveloped?
Maybe, maybe not, but it would still probably all feel melodramatic. True, there might be more reason for it to reach that territory — there isn’t in this film; it’s melodramatic because that’s “emotional” — and that would help, but it still likely wouldn’t work. A change in tone would also be necessary, and at that point we’re moving away from the spirit of the Broadway production. That might have been a better idea, come to think of it, but it would also potentially alienate fans and with a fanbase as large as the one for The Phantom of the Opera, that would be a big risk.
It’s not like the film is completely worthless. A good amount of money has been spent to make it look fantastic, and fantastic it does look. The opera scenes come alive, the scene when the Phantom takes Christine to his underground labyrinth is fantastic — although I’d wager it’s helped by also having the most well-known song of the production — and the film has fantastic costume and production design. While it’s has an underdeveloped narrative, its visuals will ensure you always have something to look at for its 143-minute runtime.
The Phantom of the Opera is an overlong, underdeveloped, melodramatic romance that contains numerous songs that you’ve likely heard before. And if you haven’t, then this isn’t the project to warm you to the story. It’s a fairly straightforward adaptation of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical, but that might not have been the best route to take. Its Phantom is poorly cast, its characters and romance are shallow, and its main strengths come from its production and costume design.