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Last Updated: Friday, 10 December 2004, 11:35 GMT
The Phantom's rich heritage
By James Bregman
BBC News entertainment reporter

©Scion Films Phantom Productions Partnership
Gerard Butler and Emmy Rossum star in the new film version

A lavish new film version of The Phantom Of The Opera - just released in the UK - sees the long-running stage musical adapted for the big screen.

It marks another milestone for a century-old story that inspired dozens of films as well as the most successful theatrical production of all time.

The character of the Phantom comes from a 1910 French novel, whose premise continues to strike a remarkable chord with audiences.

It tells of a disfigured young man who lives in the darkened backstage areas of a Paris opera house.

Hiding his fearful appearance from the world but harbouring a murderous grudge, he becomes an inspiration to a budding chorus girl, who rises to fame with help from his musical guidance.

"It speaks to everybody," explains Mark Shenton, theatre critic for BBC London.

"The story about a very ugly man falling in love with a very beautiful woman is a story of universal resonance."

Mixed reviews

Majestic Theater, New York
The stage version still draws huge crowds on Broadway and the West End

The tale of the phantom is best known from Andrew Lloyd Webber's stage version, which is still going strong 18 years after its first launch.

But the show's enduring success came after a decidedly mixed critical reaction.

Many reviewers gushed with praise. The Sunday Express spoke of "a great rolling buffet of musical delights - a gorgeous operatic extravaganza that is a thrill to the blood and a sensual feast for the eye".

Others were more muted. The Independent's critic lamented "the worst set of lyrics I have ever seen", while The Times' dissatisfied reviewer accused the Phantom of looking like he had "an unfinished face-lift".

Any doubters were silenced as it became one of the longest-running shows in the West End and Broadway.

Performances in more than 100 countries have helped it gross more than $3.2 billion (£1.7 billion) worldwide - a figure which makes it the most successful musical of all time and exceeds the global takings of the most successful film ever, Titanic.

The show struck gold, according to Mr Shenton, because a musical stage version was the ideal format for a retelling of the story.

"It is about and of the theatre. It's all about the magic of live performance, in quite an old-fashioned style, but with lush romantic melodies, great scenic effects and a totally involving story."

But while Lloyd Webber's hi-tech take seemed to prove the optimum format for the story, it is just one of numerous retellings, all deriving from a 1910 novel by French journalist and author Gaston Leroux.

To varying degrees they add new twists, details and settings to the original tale.

©Scion Films Phantom Productions Partnership
The lavish spectacle is one factor behind the stage musical's success
Rich heritage

Leroux claimed to have been inspired to write after a visit to the dank corridors and subterranean lake beneath the opera house in Paris - imagery which provided a vivid focal point for the stage version 70 years later and the new movie.

His imagination is also said to have been fired up by an actual event. The chandelier the Phantom causes to fall from the ceiling in Leroux's story echoes an accident in Paris in 1896 when a chandelier's counterweight crashed onto an audience with tragic consequences.

The first screen adaptation of Leroux's book was reputedly a now-lost German film from 1916.

A decade later the Phantom was to make his real mark on cinema audiences, with a Hollywood version starring Lon Chaney.

Chaney was already renowned for transforming himself for film roles, and struck an iconic image playing the disfigured Phantom in gruesome make-up - a portrayal of the unfortunate "opera ghost" that is the one most fondly remembered by many.

Other legendary actors took on the role in the 1940s, with Claude Rains and Boris Karloff donning make-up.

And the famous Hammer Horror stable produced its version with Herbert Lom in 1961, transposing the action to London.

Bloodier elements

More recent versions have concentrated on the bloodier elements of the story.

In 1989 the eponymous ghoul was played by Nightmare On Elm Street star Robert Englund, before legendary horror director Dario Argento presented another gory take.

A seemingly endless selection of remakes extends to the likes of Phantom of the Paradise - a 1970s rock opera from director Brian De Palma - and even a film in which the Phantom is a recluse who haunts a shopping mall.

An array of non-English-language movies have also featured the Phantom.

Several Chinese adaptations of the story include one in which the Phantom is a man imprisoned on accusation of communist activities, and scarred with acid by a state official.

The new film - directed by Joel Schumacher - sticks to safer territory, basing its script very closely on the hit musical's tried-and-tested, award-winning formula.


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