Friday, May 06, 2011
More challenging than it sometimes seems.
CULTURE ON CABLE -- WITH ADS. I saw this documentary on the new Ovation Channel and just finished explaining to Mrs. CP why it couldn't be a post. Irrelevant, elitist, niche-oriented. But it is a post. It's the story of how the musical "Phantom of the Opera" became the single longest running theatrical production and most successful entertainment property in history, playing to more than 100 million patrons for ticket prices easily ten times (and more) what any movie can command. At a time when we're falling hook, line, and sinker for a success story in the killing of bin Laden, it's worthwhile to consider the weird combination of brilliance, accidents, egos, false starts, reversals of fortune, bonehead mistakes, high risk intuition for good and ill, and, well, luck (unless it's fate instead) that results in spectacular collaborative achievements.
I should explain that we saw Phantom on Broadway, and Mrs. CP was absolutely transported. Which was my whole intent in planning it. Nothing prepares you for the array of talent it represents -- actors, singers, dancers, set design, costume design, music, special effects, and emotional immersion in a theatrical experience beyond compare.
So how did it all come to pass? Talented people doing what they do, TA DA. Hardly. It was a long and frequently painful process. Andrew Lloyd Webber had a score with no lyrics. He cobbled together a first act performance at a personal theater on his own estate, and the lyricist he chose for that preliminary performance was committed to humor and what we'd call "camp." There's a video showing the audience laughing throughout. It was enough to secure some initial investors, but the end result that finally hit the stage would cost more than two million pounds, a ton of tabloid controversy, and the firing of a legendary director, the first leading man, the first lyricist (a veteran traded for an unemployed youngster), the music director, and nearly the composer, too, who announced less than seven days from the opening that he was withdrawing his score from the production. His tantrum was defeated only by his inability to carry the record-breaking poundage of the score out of the theater.
And that's not the half of it. The man finally chosen to play the Phantom was Michael Crawford, known throughout the U.K. as a physical slapstick TV comic who sang in a near falsetto that engendered gusts of laughter but nothing like musical praise. And the leading lady was Andrew Lloyd Webber's own wife, who was regarded by critics as more wife than talent. (Indeed her initial understudy eventually took her place and went on to become the most beloved leading lady the show ever had in its London run.)
The problems in its shakedown preview performances were so various, constant, and grave that the London press dreamt up the meme "Curse of the Phantom," meaning that the fictional character behind the play was so unhappy with the proceedings that he was haunting and sabotaging the entire production. The now famous scene in which a boat glides through the waters under the Paris opera was controlled by a remote radio device like those used to pilot model airplanes; the remote control used the same frequency as the London Fire Department, and whenever there was a fire alarm, the boat took off in odd directions, once nearly into the orchestra pit, restrained only by the main force of Michael Crawford, who couldn't sing the key "Phantom of the Opera" number because he was so out of breath.
Crawford became a problem himself. He plunged himself into the character from the moment every day when he began hours of makeup to transform him into the egomaniacal persona he was playing on stage. With all the problems, he took to summoning everyone from musicians to dancers to stagehands to his dressing room, where still in Phantom makeup, he shouted imprecations about their incompetence that could be heard throughout the theater.
What was the real problem? The extraordinary ambition of the production. Every single aspect of theatrical resources was being stretched to the maximum. The set was more spectacular, the costumes more intricate, the effects more complex, and the roles more demanding behind the omnipresent masks than anyone had attempted before.
The end result was an utter triumph. Princess Diana attended the final preview and it went like clockwork. The show never looked back, but many lives were never the same. Andrew Lloyd Webber and Sarah Brightman divorced about a year into production. All the ones fired along the way never got over it fully.
Success is a messy business in any collaborative effort. Something we should maybe remember when we 're holding the top man accountable -- be he Bush or Obama, or even Clinton or Carter -- for everything that doesn't go according to plan.
In retrospect, it all seems inevitable, fated for success. But what's clear in the history is that Phantom could have crashed and burned a dozen times or more. It didn't. Was that luck? Destiny? Or human determination in pursuit of a vision the creators couldn't abandon no matter how rough things got before fortune finally turned in their favor?
Ah, sweet mystery of life...