By Tim Nasson:
New York City – Why turn one of the most successful Broadway musicals in history – seen by over 80 million people worldwide, since its debut in London’s West End in 1986 – into a big screen spectacle? Did Chicago and Moulin Rouge, two films of this decade, (the former winning Best Picture at the Academy Awards two years ago, the latter nominated for Best Picture, that have resurrected the movie musical), have anything to do with it? How involved was the play’s creator, Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber, who last dabbled in the movie business with Madonna and Evita – to tepid reviews and box office.
I had the chance in NYC recently, blocks from The Great White Way – where else? – to sit separately with virtually everyone involved with the big screen production: Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber, (who wrote and produced the film), the film’s director, Joel Schumacher, and its four main players, Gerard Butler, (The Phantom); Emmy Rossum, (Christine); and Minnie Driver, (Carlotta). As it so happened, Sir Andrew was the one who had the most to say.
“Please. Don’t call me Sir. Just Andrew,” insists Webber, with a smile, when I greet him upon entering a suite at the Regency Hotel for our interview on a recent Sunday morning.
Webber, Knighted by the Queen in 1992, a portly Brit with a nasty reputation who, although best known for his theatrical masterpieces, (“Cats,” “Les Miserables,” among others), his marriage to Broadway’s “Phantom” star, Sarah Brightman, and subsequent high profile divorce from her, seems quite charming and civilized.
“I’m very pleased. I think Joel has done a fantastic job,” says Webber, about the film version of “Phantom.”
“I think his decision to go with young people who are relatively unknown (Gerard Butler and Emmy Rossum) is absolutely vindicated. I’m really pleased with the finished product. I can be a fan of it because I’m a theater person and a theater animal. I feel like I can sort of stand back a bit from this and truthfully say that I don’t think anybody could have done a better job”
What may seem odd to many is who the director of the film version of “Phantom” is. “It shouldn’t come as that much of a shock,” laughs Webber, when he explains why he chose Joel Schumacher, best known for two of the Batman movies and a couple John Grisham adaptations, (A Time to Kill and The Client) for the duty.
Although Schumacher is quite the drama queen in real life, and openly gay, and not one to keep silent. (On one of the occasions I interviewed him, he was quite happy to reveal that Val Kilmer was “the biggest prick I have ever worked with, and I am not talking about his cock size.” In fact, Schumacher was personally responsible for making sure Kilmer didn’t return for the second installment of the Batman franchise that he directed, deciding to replace him, instead, with George Clooney.)
“The movie that really decided it for me, that Joel would direct Phantom was Lost Boys, believe it or not,” reveals Webber. “That was almost twenty years ago but I saw “Lost Boys” right at the time “Phantom” was in previews in NYC. I thought it was extraordinary the way Joel used music with visuals. I thought that opening sequence, when you see the fairground, was genius. I saw it with Sarah (Brightman, his wife at the time). I said to her, ‘This is our man.'”
And so the seeds for the movie version were sown.
“What you have to realize,” explains Webber, when I ask why “Phantom” was turned into a movie, “is that it didn’t ‘need’ to become a movie. But I think the story is so powerful and so wonderful that it should be able to be seen by anyone who wants to see it. And the play has a limited audience. The tickets are $100 each and the show doesn’t tour in every city in the world. Yes, millions of people have seen the play, but anyone who so desires throughout the world can go to their local movie theater to see the movie version and if they don’t get the movie in their town, even, when it comes out on DVD, can experience the movie at home. Everyone now will get the chance to not only hear the music of the night but also see how it all began and ends.”
Joel Schumacher, nearly six feet, four inches tall, strolls into the same suite a couple of hours later, smiling. The white haired sixty-something director couldn’t be happier. “I have always loved the story of ‘The Phantom,'” he says. “But the play doesn’t really have the ability to go into great detail. I was elated that with the movie we were able to explore how ‘The Phantom’ became ‘The Phantom.'” By that he means there are flashbacks in the movie that allow us to see how ‘The Phantom’ came to live in the Opera House and how mistreated he was by the traveling circus – he being part of the freak show as a teen, what with his disfigured, repulsive face, yet beautiful, stunning body.
The last time I spoke to Gerard Butler was in Los Angeles right after he had finished the movie Timeline and before that, Tomb Raider. Those movies, though commercial and critical bombs, (the former based on a highly successful Michael Crichton novel), were enough to get him noticed and cast as “The Phantom.” And he just may be the best looking ugly person you will ever see on screen.
Now, a year later, “The Phantom” movie completed, Butler, of Scottish decent, replete with the accent, is happy to reveal what it is like to be cast in the spotlight and put under such a strong microscope. “I mean, I am competing or filling the master’s shoes,” he chuckles, referring to the person who started it all in London and on Broadway, Michael Crawford. “And quite honestly,” adds Butler, “I think Crawford would have been cast in the movie if he was not now sixty-five years old.”
The same can be said for Webber’s ex-wife and the woman who originated the role of Christine on stage, Sarah Brightman, who is now forty-five and could hardly convincingly play a sixteen year old starlet.
Emily Rossum, now eighteen, who exploded onto the big screen as Sean Penn’s murdered daughter in last year’s Mystic River, began her professional singing career, at age seven, at the Metropolitan Opera. “Singing comes naturally to me,” she says, matter-of-factly. “Just like breathing.” And sing she does in the movie. Unlike Minnie Driver, whose singing voice in the film was dubbed, yet who lends comic relief to the otherwise dismal, dark, sad story.
“God, no,” laughs Driver. “I laugh at the screen each time I see my character carrying on in such high, operatic notes. I can sing, but not that way.” And sing she can, but more on the par of Brittany Spears and Avril Lavigne. In fact, Driver’s first CD, “Everything I’ve Got In My Pocket”, of original music was just released and she is now on tour around the country, concentrating on college towns such as Boston, LA, San Diego, Chicago and Atlanta. “I love singing and I love acting,” she says, “But acting is where I know I will want to be when I am in my golden years.” And, for the thirty-five year old, Brit, Academy Award nominated star of Good Will Hunting, that is a long time off.
What of the rumors that Gerard Butler, who also lends his natural singing talents to “Phantom,” may be the next James Bond? Alas, pretty much the same as the rumors about Colin Farrell, whom I spoke to last month. “Who knows?” replies Butler, who is wearing an Armani ensemble, when I ask him about the prospect.
As for the devotees of “The Phantom” theatrical production, who find it blasphemous that it should be turned into a celluloid delight for the uninitiated? While it’s no The Sound of Music or Chicago, it is hardly worthy of being lumped in the same category as the dreadful film adaptation of Evita.
As my friend Christian Campbell summed it up, after seeing the movie in NYC with me, I say, “Just close your eyes, and listen to the music of the night.”