STAGE TO SCREEN: Joel Schumacher's "The Phantom of the Opera"

STAGE TO SCREEN: Joel Schumacher's "The Phantom of the Opera" "Phantom of the Opera" ain’t "Chicago." It doesn’t have a winking or self-referential or ironic bone in its baroque body, and there’s no reason why it should.
Miranda Richardson in
Miranda Richardson in "The Phantom of the Opera"

The tens of millions of theatregoers who adore Andrew Lloyd Webber’s plush melodies will presumably adore them here, and those who have no use for the show are unlikely to be swayed by the movie. You know that old phrase, "They don’t make 'em like they used to"? Joel Schumacher has made "Phantom" like they used to, with 110 musicians and roses in the snow and sword fights and God knows what else.

"We did not want to do a film version of the stage show," Webber says. "We wanted to make a film in its own right." Webber and Schumacher began talking about a "Phantom" film back in 1988, when the show was already a phenomenon and Schumacher had scored a gothic hit with "The Lost Boys." Schumacher is glad the project took as long as it did to get off the ground: "When he first asked me to do it, I had only made four films. Now I’ve made 18."

For Webber, by comparison, this is in some ways a film debut. He signed away the rights for "Jesus Christ Superstar" and "Evita" and, as a result, had very little say in how the films turned out. "Phantom," which he has repeatedly called his most personal work, was a special case. Webber was on the set three or four times a week, but Schumacher says the composer kept a respectful distance at all times: "He’s actually the only person I’ve met who didn’t think he knew how to make movies better than those who made movies."

Schumacher says he and Webber had to establish some ground rules before they could move forward. "I said to Andrew, ‘I’ll do this movie if the girl could be really young. The guys must be young. If they’re famous, fine. If they’re unknown, fine.’ And he said, ‘OK, but they have to be able to sing the score.’"

Once that decision was made, scuttling the hopes of Michael Crawford and Sarah Brightman fanatics everywhere, the casting search began. Webber says several very well-known performers sent in audition tapes—"some of them should not sing"—but Schumacher drew upon his knack at finding young talent for the role of Christine. He remembered seeing a young girl named Emmy Rossum in the Appalachian-music drama "Songcatcher" and called her in for an interview. Rossum met with him, did a screen test (complete with two hours of hair and makeup), met with Webber and was told she got the part—all within ten days. "My voice was developing over the film, as it does at my age," says Rossum, who was 16 when filming began and who tried to use that unformed quality to chart Christine’s maturation. She was joined by Scottish actor Gerard Butler in the title role and Broadway veteran Patrick Wilson as Raoul, a part Webber and Schumacher (who teamed up on the screenplay) boosted for the film.

The Phantom also had his back story fleshed out a bit, and Schumacher prevailed upon Webber to shift the climactic chandelier moment to the film’s finale. (Webber credits The Woman in White's David Zippel for making the minor but necessary change to the "Masquerade" lyric as a result.) Beyond these tweaks and a slightly awkward black-and-white framing device, the changes to the show are minimal: This is as faithful a stage adaptation as I can remember ever seeing.

I have a hunch Butler’s performance will generate the most controversy among "Phantom" buffs. I didn’t think much of him in the part—there are no shortage of virile young actors out there who can add a dose of sensuality and sing the part—but Rossum puts her own stamp on Christine with remarkable assurance, and there’s no disputing that it looks like a big, old-fashioned movie. It doesn’t look like "Phantom" will generate the kind of Oscar buzz that "Chicago" did—the Best Actress race may prove to be the most intriguing for theatre fans, with Rossum joining Annette Bening ("Being Julia") and maybe Julia Roberts ("Closer") as possible nominees—but I wouldn’t rule out an "Evita"-size response, with five or six technical nominations and an award for the new song tacked onto the credits.

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I thought Nicole Kidman was awfully good casting for the role of Ulla in the "Producers" film, and I was sorry to see her go. As I pointed out before, Kidman and Will Ferrell were the only real "names" by Hollywood standards in the film, and now one of them is out. (The more serious question by far is whether Nathan Lane’s slipped discs turn into a lingering problem.) I’ve heard first Charlize Theron and then Uma Thurman as possible replacements, but it seems to me the obvious example is staring Mel Brooks and Susan Stroman right in the face. Why not the only actress in 30 years to win an Oscar for a musical—and a drop-dead gorgeous one, to boot? Why is anyone other than Catherine Zeta-Jones being considered for this?

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John Landis dropped out of the scene for a while, but in the late 1970s ("Animal House") and early 1980s ("Trading Places"), he was the most consistently successful director in Hollywood. He appears to be staking his comeback on quirky theatrical adaptations: First came the news that he’d direct the "Bat Boy" film, and now it sounds like he’ll follow that up with a big-screen adaptation of Epic Proportions, the short-lived 1999 comedy about shooting a megabudget swords-and-sandals film. (It’s best remembered as Kristin Chenoweth’s follow-up to her Tony-winning You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown.) Landis’ experience at blending horror and humor ("An American Werewolf in London," the "Thriller" video) should come in handy with "Bat Boy," and perhaps his time in the Hollywood wilderness—his last major credit was 1998’s "Blues Brothers" sequel—will give him the bite needed to make "Epic Proportions" work. He’s long overdue for a hit, as is William Friedkin, who has his own creepy-funny stage adaptation ("Bug") to worry about.

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For anyone living in a non-metropolis, the big news in January will be "Phantom" and "Merchant of Venice" gradually reaching your towns. (I’ll talk more about this next month, but "Merchant" is really worth the wait.) In the meanwhile, theatre buffs won’t have much to keep them occupied this month. It’s a notoriously bad month for new movies each year, but Whoopi Goldberg can see her one-woman show and then hear her in "Racing Stripes" as of Jan. 14. And "Assault on Precinct 13" (Jan. 19) stars Ethan Hawke, who has proven surprisingly effective in action movies and who opens in the Off-Broadway Hurlyburly revival six days later. Other than that, catch up on your 2004 releases or read a book. I got the Modern Library anthology of George S. Kaufman plays and "A Must See!" by fellow Playbill On Line columnist Steven Suskin for Christmas, and I’m very much looking forward to the quiet month.

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It seems like every year is an unusually sad one for deaths within the theatre community, and 2004 was no exception. Fred Ebb wrote the lyrics to "Cabaret" and "Chicago"; the latter show starred Jerry Orbach, known to kids everywhere as the candlestick in "Beauty and the Beast." Cy Coleman saw his "Sweet Charity" reach the big screen, and two Hollywood composers also dabbled with stage properties—Jerry Goldsmith ("Six Degrees of Separation") and Elmer Bernstein (everything from "Desire Under the Elms" to "Lost in Yonkers," not to mention Broadway efforts like How Now, Dow Jones). Jerome Chodorov turned his book "My Sister Eileen" into a play by the same name, a movie by the same name and the Broadway musical Wonderful Town; Jerome Lawrence had similar success with both "Auntie Mame" and "Inherit the Wind." The latter production starred Tony Randall twice, first in 1955 and again 41 years later.

And while Uta Hagen didn’t get to repeat her mythic Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? performance on the big screen, Howard Keel was Hollywood’s go-to guy for parts created on stage by the likes of Alfred Drake ("Kiss Me Kate") and Ray Middleton ("Annie Get Your Gun"). Among the most famous performances to reach the big screen, of course, was Marlon Brando in A Streetcar Named Desire. And one actor whose involvement in the screen versions was indisputable was Spalding Gray, who turned scouring guy-sitting-at-a-table pieces like Swimming to Cambodia and Gray’s Anatomy into bizarrely theatrical films. They will all be missed.

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As always, a special word of appreciation to all the writers, actors, directors, composers and producers who talked about their various projects in 2004. Thanks to (in alphabetical order) Michael Almereyda, Annette Bening, Gerard Butler, James Carpinello, Minnie Driver, Jeffrey Hatcher, Shuler Hensley, Allan Knee, Elizabeth Lucas, Rick McKay, Michael Pressman, Stuart Ross, Emmy Rossum, Joel Schumacher, Andrew Lloyd Webber, Patrick Wilson and Irwin Winkler. Thanks, everyone.

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Your Thoughts: All right, who’s seen "Phantom"? Love it? Hate it? Miss Crawford? Discuss. And who do you want to see play Ulla?

Eric Grode is associate editor of The Sondheim Review and a theatre critic for Back Stage. He can be reached at egrode@hotmail.com.