A/N I wrote this essay back in 2006 in honour of The ALW musical's 20th anniversary, and it's taken me this long to tweak it until all the phrasing and grammar was right and said what I wanted it to say. I had originally intended to send it to my local paper. But A, the tweaking took too long and I didn't have it ready in time, and B, I came to feel that I'd really like some feedback from other Phans first before submitting the assertions which I make in this essay. So please review, and tell me what you think. Am I way off the mark or have I done a reasonable job of describing what it is to be a Phantom Phan? Because that was my goal! So here it is, and thanks in advance for all comments.
On October 9th of this year it will have been twenty years to the day since Andrew Lloyd Webber's smash-hit musical The Phantom of the Opera burst on the world scene. Since then, the show has played in most of the world's major cities, has won numerous awards including Tonies, and has been made into a movie-musical. But most significantly, from the earliest days of the stage production, Phantom has drawn to itself a large and loyal following of devoted Phans; people who became Phans in those early days and who have remained so even through all these twenty years - people who have seen the show multiple times, sometimes numbering in the two and three digits. In addition, this following has yielded a substantial quantity of art and literature, both fanfiction and published works, and now has a lively presence on the World Wide Web. So at this twentieth anniversary, it might be worth reflecting upon why it is that Phantom of the Opera has had such an impact on so many lives, why it has been and continues to be such a phenomenon.
I myself have been a Phantom Phan for sixteen years. I discovered it through the music of the Andrew Lloyd Webber musical one summer at camp and fell instantly in love with it. Since then, I have seen the show somewhere in the vicinity of sixteen times, have read the original novel upon which the musical is based as well as other novels based upon the story, and read much Phan-fiction both good and bad. I have not been as involved in the broader Phan community as I would have liked, but nevertheless, I would like to take this opportunity to explore what it is about Phantom that draws us in so strongly and keeps us drawn in so devotedly for so long.
Being a Phantom Phan is more than just liking the musical, seeing it lots of times, and creating art or fiction about it. To be a Phantom Phan is to have a deep, gut-level, visceral and emotional connection to the story and, in many cases myself among them, to the character of the Phantom himself; a connection which, in some of us Phans, and again I speak from my own experience here, manifests itself as a passionate obsession verging on addiction, a feeling of not being able to get enough of the story. I know for myself, and I believe that I can safely speak for many other Phans as well, that seeing the show is not merely an entertaining, or even beautiful, but an ecstatic experience, a profound catharsis. But why this passionate reaction?
Like all great mythology, Phantom works on many levels simultaneously and is rich in layers of meaning, so there are many reasons for its speaking so powerfully to its Phans. For now though, I will deal only with three of these, and even then only in a surface treatment, as to deal with even these three fully would take several books.
Firstly, Phantom speaks to the lived experience of alienation. That is to say, it speaks to the experience, not of being a member of an oppressed group, but of being the only one who is different, the odd one out, the only one who doesn't fit in. Particularly, though by no means exclusively however, Phantom seems to speak to those who experienced this kind of alienation in their growing up. It might have been the experience of growing up as a member of the only non-Caucasian or non-Christian family in a small, conservative town, or perhaps it was the experience of growing up in a small town and discovering that one is Gay. It may have been the experience of being the only disabled child in one's class or even school, or the experience of being intellectually or artistically precocious in an environment where those qualities were not valued. Certainly one may find, later in life, that there are others out there like oneself and find solidarity among fellow members of the same oppressed group. But the stamp of that formative experience of isolation and alienation, of being the only one who didn't fit in, is never fully erased, and it is this to which Phantom speaks. As Phans, we find solidarity among others who have had that experience and we communicate that solidarity and shared experience through the symbolic language of the story.
Secondly, the character of the Phantom is for us a symbol of struggle - the struggle to take the pain and anger of alienation and sublimate it into creative expression - the struggle to carve out a space of power from a position of powerlessness - the struggle to overcome what alienates us and to find connection and acceptance. The Phantom becomes a symbol of the persistence and determination to survive and to go on with that struggle even against seemingly hopeless odds. The figure of the Phantom symbolizes for us the personal power and charisma forged in that struggle, which are the armour and shield needed to continue the hard journey.
Lastly, though Phantom is a very sad story, it is a story of redemption, and therefore one of hope. The Phantom's anger at the alienation which he has experienced on account of his facial deformity has driven him deep into evil. He is a liar, an extortionist and thief, even a murderer. Yet, in the end, Christine's act of compassion, given even when she has every reason to hate him, calls out to his love for her and inspires him to do the right thing at last, and let her and her young lover Raoul go free. He is saved, and turned back from the abyss of hatred and dehumanization into which he was headed. He has always held on to a tiny thread of humanity, even while falling into hate and madness. All versions of the story respected by Phans agree that the Phantom maintained a dictum that he would never physically harm a woman or child, a last moral line which he would not cross. He clung to this thread of humanity, partly to prove to himself and others that he was not truly the monster that most of the world and most of himself believed him to be, and partly in the hope, no matter how faint, that he would some day be thus saved. He held onto his love for Christine for the same reason, and in the same hope. And in the end the combination of that love, that thread of hope and humanity and Christine's compassion did save him, even if only just before his death. (Those unfamiliar with the plot of Phantom may check out any number of websites, as well as the libretto of the musical found in George Perry's Complete Phantom of the Opera, for an explanation)
This story is told through beautiful and powerful music, sets, costumes, prose and lyrics. Seeing the show or reading the book then, we weep for how often in life the story ends as it did for the Phantom. And we are filled with the hope that, if we hold on to our own humanity in spite of the world's cruelties, and if we extend compassion and love to ourselves and others, perhaps we can give ourselves or someone out there a happier ending than the Phantom knew. It is this combination of sadness and uplifting hope, bright sadness to borrow an extremely apt term from the Eastern Orthodox, combined with its speaking to us on a very personal level about our own experience, which makes Phantom so moving. It is this which inspires the story's Phans to love it so deeply.