I'm a casual fan of musicals, but one production I've never been very fond of is The Phantom of the Opera. But, because my wife loves it to no end, I've been subjected to the Broadway cast recording and the feature film numerous times over the years. Despite my constant exposure to the acclaimed musical however, it never grew on me. That being said, I can't deny Phantom's legacy as the most successful musical of all time, and I certainly have to acknowledge its influence on the genre as a whole and what it's meant to its audience ever since the first curtain call. After all, this is a show that's now been performed over 10,000 times over the course of an impressive 25 year history. Home theater enthusiasts will be able to celebrate the occasion at home as well, with the release of The Phantom of the Opera at The Royal Albert Hall on Blu-ray. The obvious question for most, of course, is if this Blu-ray release accurately captures the show they remember from the last quarter century, both in spirit and in sound.
If you've never been exposed to The Phantom of the Opera in some way, shape or form, I can't say much about the story that's going to make you want to drop everything and see it. The plot is really the primary aspect of the show that turns me off most, because after all is said and done it just doesn't make any sense. Basically, whispers of a phantom in the Paris Opera house, and a backdrop that collapses mysteriously frighten a singing starlet from performing one night. The owners are reluctant to replace their shining star Carlotta, but lowly chorus girl Christine auditions and knocks their socks off with her amazing voice. Later on in Christine's dressing room, she reveals to love interest Raoul that she was taught to sing by an 'Angel of Music', an angel which used to visit her at night and teach her the vocal arts. Raoul laughs the story off as some fairytale, invites her to dinner later and exits the dressing room. Immediately a jealous Phantom, posing as Christine's Angel of Music, appears in the dressing room mirror. Wanting to know more about this mysterious character, Christine follows him to an underground lair that rests beneath the Opera house. In the presence of the Phantom's throne room, complete with a massive pipe-organ, the Phantom vows that Christine will be the only girl to sing in the Opera house from then on out. This is problematic of course, as the owners already have their prized Carlotta filling the lead in their current production... and this is where the story begins to feel like an exercise in idiocy. Basically, when the owners don't cave in to the Phantom's demands to make Christine the star, he resorts to murder so he'll get what he wants. A little later on when the Phantom sees Christine getting too close to her main squeeze Raoul, he flies off the handle once again and kidnaps the poor sap. Why? To make Christine fall in love with him, of course! The sad part? Despite the Phantom's horrifically unstable state of mind, Christine has actually developed appreciation, and even love for the masked murderer, kidnapper, romantic... or whatever you want to label him.
Riiiiiiight. Women absolutely adore a man that possess both obsessive and psychotic tendencies, ready to throw a tantrum and embark on a murderous rampage whenever they don't get their way. Nothing says romance like that, right? Yeesh. I know women have a tendency to chase after the bad boys, but this is a little farfetched, don't you think? Am I really expected to swallow this crap? Sorry, I don't buy it. I'll never understand why Andrew Lloyd Weber is heralded as a genius for his work on the musical, despite working with such a blatantly poor story. I know some of you out there are going to try to rationalize, or even philosophize some sort of apologist response to what all this 'really' means, but rest assured that many people have already tried to sway my opinion time and time again. What all those explanations have boiled down to for me, is that people are looking in between the lines way too hard in order to justify a horrible second act. You know how it is - When someone wants to prove a point and they look hard enough, they can always find whatever answer they want to find, even if that answer simply isn't there.
Despite my harsh criticisms though, there's still a certain appeal to The Phantom of the Opera's live presentation that even I can't deny. Even though the second act ruins the story on a conceptual level for me, I have to give Andrew Lloyd Weber this - the music is bold and captivating from the moment the chandelier rises above the audience, and doesn't release you from its grasp until the final curtain drops. In all of the musicals I've seen or heard over the years, I have yet to come across a production that surpasses Phantom, in its ability to actually transport the audience through sight and sound to some other location, be it the ballroom with the massive chandelier, or most notably Phantom's eerie, steamy boat ride to his hideout below the Opera house. The costumes are intricate, the stage designs are elaborate, and there's simply no other experience out there like it.
But as far as this 25th anniversary celebration is concerned, there are probably a bunch of fans out there that are going to walk away unsatisfied, fuming about revisionism in two the musical's most memorable moments. If there's one thing that pops into your head when you think about Phantom of the Opera, what is it? No, besides the white mask. Right! The chandelier falling! Well, the chandelier doesn't fall anymore. Instead, it blows up in a massive display of sparks and fireworks. This isn't exactly a big deal to a casual viewer like myself, but I know some of you are probably going to go ape-shit over this. "WHAT?! How could they do that?!?!" It might have something to do with how unimpressive the chandelier's slow descent from ceiling to floor might have looked on home video, or perhaps Weber just thought it would have been a neat idea to tinker with one of the most iconic moments in musical history ever. The other change? The ending... kinda. I'm not going to go into detail and give anything away, but it seems that there's been a minor alteration in how things pan out in the final few minutes of the production. Being that I'm not too familiar with why the change was made, I searched online and found no definitive answer, but some claim it's probably an effort to tie Phantom's story in better with the appalling sequel (which, evidently is also coming to Blu-ray this year). People are likely to shout a big fat 'shenanigans' to this as well, and they wouldn't be wrong. To alter how a chandelier meets its end is one thing, but to actually change the production's final moments does seem too revisionist for even my liking.
Presented with a 1080p, AVC encoded transfer (1.78:1), The Phantom of the Opera really does a fantastic job at bringing the live production's visuals to life in your living room and then some. You'd see some pretty spectacular things if you went to see this show on Broadway or elsewhere for that matter, but now you can see Phantom better than if you had front row seats. Sometimes live musicals don't really translate well to the small screen, mostly because the costumes and stage designs are revealed for what they truly are - Cheap props that were designed with a specific budget in mind, but in Phantom? The detail is absolutely astounding, and you're sure to be impressed with all the care that was put into both stage and clothing, as well as the makeup work that Phantom singer Ramin Karimloo has to wear on most days. This is truly a live show that's fit for recording, and to have it in HD makes it all the sweeter. The image is sharp, colors are lush and pop off the screen, contrast and black levels are flawless... there's really nothing to complain about here. Despite how you might feel about certain changes in the performance itself, this video presentation is going to please fans and newcomers alike.
Although the video presentation is top notch, I have to wonder what the studio was thinking when they put together the audio. First, you're going to have to keep in mind that the default track is Dolby Digital 2.0. A 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio track has also been included, but you'll need to make that selection before starting the concert.
In regards to the lossless 5.1 track, it's pretty impressive for the most part, but there are some issues that are going to leave many a head scratching. First, in the prologue before the chandelier springs up and transports us back to the ole' Paris Opera house, it's the auctioneer that you're going to adjust your volume to. Unfortunately, the auctioneer is actually very quiet when compared to the rest of the concert experience, so when the music finally kicks in you're probably going to be blasted out of your seat. For some, this might be a good thing - You're going to be absolutely floored at how powerful those opening notes sound, and you'll be surprised despite how loud it is, to hear that even at high volumes the score isn't going to give way to compression flaws. Anyway, after you dial the volume knob back a bit, the rest of the experience is a very pleasing one, but the caveat here is that the center channel hardly has any audio coming out of it at all. I'm not sure if this is meant to emulate a live experience, where you have speakers probably on the side of the stage and on the sides and behind you, but I'm more willing to believe that this was just a poor choice in the audio design.
Overall, the audio presentation could have been tweaked a little for that much better of an experience, but again, fans and newcomers alike should probably walk away satisfied.
There really isn't much included as far as supplements go, but it's worth noting that after the show itself is over, Andrew Lloyd Weber himself comes out to make some comments and a bunch of former Phantom stars come out to sing for the celebration. It's a perfect way to pay tribute to the show's 25 year run, and everyone should hang around after the show to check it out.
As far as true bonus content goes, all we really get is a trailer for the horrendous sequel, Love Never Dies, and a 17 minute featurette (Getting Past the Point of No Return - Behind the Scenes at Phantom 25th) that details how a typical production of Phantom comes together. I guess more would have been nice, especially considering the long life this show has had in the musical world.
So, here's where I stand on this release - If you're looking for a faithful reproduction of Phantom, it looks like you might never get it. Musical fans should probably give this a rental and see how they feel about the changes before taking the plunge on a full blown purchase. If, however, you're not going to give two craps about these changes and you consider them minimal damage at worst, then this is probably going to become the crowning jewel in your home musical collection on Blu-ray... but as for me, I'm going to have to give that nod to RENT. Furthermore, although the video presentation is fantastic, the way the audio was handled is questionable, and the studio should have taken the extra step to include some truly worthwhile supplements. Rent It.