Phantom of the Opera

updated 12/26/1988 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 12/26/1988 AT 01:00 AM EST

Out of the darkness beyond the maiden's mirror a fearsome presence looms. Like vast black wings, a gloomy cloak swirls round it, and the mask that covers half its face is as pale as a skull. "Come to me!" the spirit of the night calls softly at first, then once more in demonic command. "COME TO ME!" And the maiden, yearning and trembling, passes amazed into the heart of darkness...

The moment is charged with mystery and power. It is the moment in the everlasting myth when Pluto swept Persephone into the underworld, the moment when Beauty is seized by the Beast, the soul by its earthly destiny. In every age the legend is reanimated, but not since Verdi's Rigoletto has it come back to haunt us with the grand romantic fervor that marks Andrew Lloyd Webber's musical version of The Phantom of the Opera. Never mind the flaws in the Broadway production: silly lyrics and a pop-operatic score. Pass by the show's astonishing numbers: an $18 million advance sale, the largest in theatrical history, and a $28 million one-year gross. What matters about Lloyd Webber's Phantom—what has touched the hearts of thousands—is the all-too-human agony of its satanic antihero, a man who became a monster because he was doomed to live without love.

The Phantom is a relatively recent avatar of the Evil One. He was born in 1910 in a literary slum, in a penny dreadful called Le Fantôme de I' Opéra. Written by a flamboyant French inkslinger named Gaston Leroux, the story is set in the Paris Opera, a pompous rococo wedding cake subtended by sinister catacombs that slither down through seven levels to an eerie underground lake. The Phantom who inhabits these shuddery regions is a fusion of Svengali and the hunchback of Notre Dame: a revoltingly disfigured musical genius who transforms a beautiful young woman into an operatic diva and demands in return her undying love.

Thanks to the good taste of French readers, the book sold about as well as radioactive underwear and was forgotten until 1925, when Hollywood's Lon Chaney (wearing a paint job that made him look like something the dog dug up) revived the Phantom in the last great horror classic of the silent era. For the next 60 years the Phantom played second fang to big-money monsters like Frankenstein and Dracula. Claude Rains (1943), Herbert Lorn (1962) and Maximilian Schell (1982) attempted creepy versions of the heller in the cellar, but without Chaney's mastery of the macabre they couldn't quite persuade us that the Phantom was a serious menace.

Lloyd Webber has the wit to see that in fact he isn't. The Phantom hurts people only because he has been hurt. He's a lover nobody loves, an embittered Cupid who shoots poisoned arrows. And, this year, through Michael Crawford's heartrending performance, he became something larger and nobler: an emblem of the unlived longings that rage in the blackness of everybody's underworld—a monster as modern as our own damaged dreams.

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