As his mask is torn off, the Phantom – in Gaston Leroux’s 1911 novel – cries: “Feast your eyes, glut your soul upon my cursed ugliness,” thus setting the tone of adaptations of this gothic myth. First put on in 1986, Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical version is faithful to the spirit of the original and – with the crashing chandelier which brings Act I to a spectacular close – a theatre legend in its own right.
Set in the haunted Paris Opera, the story shows what happens when Christine – the understudy – gets a chance to sing the lead. Her brilliant voice – due to coaching by the Phantom – amazes the rest of the cast and attracts Raoul, a childhood friend. As Raoul and the Phantom battle for her soul, the fate of the Opera House hangs in the balance.
With its mix of Grand Guignol and father fixation, this is a powerfully emotional account of the saving grace of love. Despite some clumsy lyrics, the music is Lloyd Webber at his best. He has a real feel for the Victorian theatricality of the tale, from the melodramatic overture, with its thrilling organ chords, to the seductive Music of the Night and yearning All I ask of You.
Starting with a humorous pastiche of a 19th century operetta, the plot expands into a gorgeous extravaganza as the Phantom takes Christine to his subterranean lair – and then appears as the Red Death during Act II’s Masquerade. Crucially, director Harold Prince hides the Phantom’s face until the musical’s climax.
On Maria Bjornson’s sumptuous set, the show stars John Owen-Jones as a masterly and agonised Phantom, Katie Knight-Adams as a tempestuous Christine and Ramin Karimloo as a heroic Raoul. Of course, it is sentimental and conservative in its view of women but The Phantom of the Opera’s sheer theatrical verve is also immensely satisfying.