Most of the Phantom of the Opera musicals other than the famous one that has been playing on Broadway for the past three decades are low-budget mockbusters taking advantage of the fact that the show’s source material is technically public domain. This version, however, was written and prepared contemporaneously with the Webber version, only to be shunted into obscurity after the other version got its funding first and wound up becoming the biggest hit in history.
This has led many of the people who hate the Webber Phantom for no good reason to proclaim this version as some kind of superior alternative, but an actual examination of the material makes this claim seem rather absurd. The book has two serious problems that it never manages to overcome.
Firstly, the Phantom is this version is entirely too nice: he seems less like a tragic psychopath and more like a fairly decent, largely normal guy making the best of a bad situation. This not only drains a lot of the tension from the story (especially since, much like Billy Bigelow in Carousel, much of our fear regarding the Phantom’s actions is of the harm they might do to himself), it also makes it rather unconvincing when he still goes around casually killing people, as that doesn’t really fit in with the way his character is portrayed the rest of the time.
The other problem is that the show overemphasizes the Oedipal elements of the Phantom’s infatuation with Christine in a way that drains a lot of the romance out of their relationship. Granted, this device (having Christine bear an uncanny resemblance to the Phantom’s dead mother) was also used in Susan Kay’s beloved novel Phantom, but there it was only one facet of the extremely complex relationship between the two, whereas here, it seems to be the only reason he’s interested in her, which comes across as less romantic and more creepy.
The score is admittedly much better than the book. Maury Yeston, the composer of Nine and the Titanic musical, is one of the monumental talents of the theater world, and while his work here is not his best, there are lovely things like the opening waltz, “Melodie de Paris”, Christine’s ravishing ballads “Home” and “My True Love”, the haunting duet “You Are Music”, the sparkling “Who Could Ever Have Dreamed Up You?”, the monumental eleven’o-clock number “My Mother Bore Me”, and the heartbreaking father-son duet “You Are My Own”. But the music never equals the heights of Webber’s score, the lyrics are often heavy-handed, and the score contains two colossal duds in Carlotta’s vulgar villain song “This Place Is Mine” and the maddeningly repetitive “Phantom Fugue”.
Ironically, the show’s best-known incarnation was as a TV miniseries starring Charles Dance that removed the songs entirely, thus removing the only thing of interest about the show in the first place. The sad truth is that, the often lovely music notwithstanding, this is not a particularly good dramatization of the Phantom story, and would probably have failed when it came to Broadway even if the Webber version’s success had not derailed its journey there. There are certainly worse shows out there, and this is still probably the best Phantom musical outside of Webber’s, but the people who try to paint it as an underrated masterpiece purely to spite the Webber musical are merely being contrarian, and ignoring the obvious facts in the process.