Creating a Completely New Phantom Musical -- for Teens

Creating a Completely New Phantom Musical -- for Teens For the inaugural release of its new record label, Playbill Recordings, Playbill picked a worthy but unusual subject: a musicalThe Phantom of the Opera -- not the Andrew Lloyd Webber version, but a new one, written expressly for teen audiences.
Left: David Spencer. Center: the CD cover. Right: Rob Barron.
Left: David Spencer. Center: the CD cover. Right: Rob Barron.

For the inaugural release of its new record label, Playbill Recordings, Playbill picked a worthy but unusual subject: a musicalThe Phantom of the Opera -- not the Andrew Lloyd Webber version, but a new one, written expressly for teen audiences.

"The decision to do yet another Phantom was almost comical," said composer/lyricist David Spencer. "I had been a lyricist for other composers for most of my career, at the expense of my own urgings as a composer, mostly because I don't play piano. . . after Weird Romance, which I wrote with Alan Menken and co-librettist Alan Brennert, I decided I couldn't be untrue to myself any longer. I needed to write music. . . Not being generally known as a composer, I wanted to get my work "out there" as fast as possible. The most logical route seemed TheatreWorks USA. Under the leadership of its artistic director, Jay Harnick -- a great guy, a solid journeyman director and also brother to lyricist Sheldon -- they have become the preeminent producers of young audience theatre in the country. And Jay had been after me to do a show for some time."

The 27-track recording can be ordered by calling (800) 533-4330. It's also available in New York area record stores including Footlight Records and the uptown Tower Records, and will arrive at HMV and other NY-area stores shortly. The recording costs $11.95 for CD, $12.95 for cassette, plus a shipping and handling charge for those who order by phone, credit cards only. There is a discount for members of the Playbill On-Line Club.

Spencer continued, "The main thing that sells a TheatreWorks show is what A Chorus Line lyricist Ed Kleban called `titleness.' Schools and theatres that book a TW show draw their audience based on the interest generated by a commercial title. And actually, they came up with it. In fact, I think Barbara [Pasternak, TheatreWorks' associate artistic director] whispered in Jay's ear, but Jay, no fool, wasted no time in calling me, proclaiming that they had the title and `only you can do it!'

Spencer continued: "Selling out, per se, has no appeal to me--but making a buck honestly does, and I wondered if I could actually see my way clear to yet one more version of Phantom that would have some value. The reason for the diversity in the various incarnations is that the source material gives adapters very little ammo to work with. Gaston Leroux's original penny dreadful is genuinely dreadful, an inconsistent, structural nightmare and just generally one of the toughest reads in the suspense/horror genre. What the novel does have is that sad, haunted figure, and his doomed obsession with the young soprano singer -- a romantic image that transcends the book's execrable execution." In crafting the musical for young audiences, Spencer wrote that he and collaborator Barron hooked on the theme of how society treats people who are different. " We could write about everybody's innate, reflexive fear of people who are different. And that gave us the solution to rethinking the Phantom. To keep him from being a killer, yet to keep him scary and formidable."

As for Christine, librettist Barron wanted to change her "spineless" and "man dependent" image. "I tried to present a young woman who knew what she wanted," Barron wrote to Playbill On-Line, "and who was driven by a love for music and singing her musician father had inspired in her. I feel it's possible to have vulnerability as well as ambition, and I tried to give our Christine that combination."

Asked what they thought of previous stage versions of Phantom, Spencer deferred comment but Barron wrote, "I haven't seen the Kopit/Yeston version, but I hear it's pretty good from friends who have seen it and actors who've been in it. As for Mr. Webber's version. . . it was a decade ago that I saw it, but most of what I remember is about the NY production . . . For example, I remember feeling Michael Crawford was terrific, that the music truly moved in and through him. And those hands! I also thought the design work on the show was absolutely wonderful, and occasionally magical -- although I was disappointed with the chandelier. (I suspect that if you were sitting right underneath it, it was breathtaking, but for the rest of us mortals, it seemed to move pretty slowly...) If memory serves, I also remember feeling that part of one of the songs sounded like "Come to Me, Bend to Me" from Brigadoon..."

Both Spencer and Barron knew that in creating a musical for young audiences, they had to be careful not to patronize their viewers. "I always remind myself that a ten year old of today knows so much more than I did when I was ten," wrote Barron. "Also, I'm well aware kids don't go for the mushy stuff, [so] in our show, Christine and the Phantom most definitely have a romance, but it is one that is never overtly articulated. As a result, there is always a palpable dramatic tension between them that we might not have achieved if their adoration/infatuation/affection had been actualized. Finally, I wanted to make the ending of the show -- well, not so much a 'happy' ending, but an optimistic one. Most other versions end with destruction, murder or mayhem. I wanted to start the show with a universe (the 'microcosmed' world of the opera) in chaos, a world hanging on by a thread, and end with that world recreated with order and some degree of harmony. "

With music and lyrics by David Spencer, book by Rob Barron, the musical tells the familiar Gaston Leroux story of the masked musical genius who emerges from his catacomb beneath the Paris Opera to mesmerize an exquisite young soprano. But this new version, geared to younger audiences as is TheatreWorks' policy, springs several unexpected twists along the way.

Hailed by The New York Times as "a juicy ghost story, with lilting music," the score is sung by Benjamin A. Damiano as the Phantom, Marni Raab as Christine, Heidi Anderson as Carlotta, Joyce A. Presutti as Mme. Giry, Brian Robinson as M. Richard and Andrew Sgroi as Gaston.

The musical debuted April 15, 1996 at Town Hall Theatre in New York. The cast on the CD was first heard March 15, 1997 at the Promenade Theatre in New York.

Spencer wrote lyrics to two scores by Alan Menken: Weird Romance and The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz. He's currently writing music and lyrics to The Fabulist with a book by Stephen Witkin. Spencer also runs the AisleSay website.

Playbill Recordings is designed to showcase up-and-coming theatre composers, to re-release out-of-print cast albums, and to showcase the best of individual theatre performers.