And there are Louis and there are Georges . . .
Sondheim wrote that memorable lyric near the end of the first act of what is probably the greatest of his musicals, 1984s Sunday in the Park With George. The words issue from the mouth of Dot, mistress and muse to 19th-century Impressionist painter Georges Seurat, and serve to contrast Seurat against the simpleton baker with whom Dot has just conceived a child. ("Louis thoughts are not hard to follow/Louis art is not hard to swallow," she sings a few bars earlier.) Of course, what Sondheim was really talking about was the great divide between the glib and the rigorous in the popular arts the struggle to do mature work in a culture that persistently embraces the sophomoric. In short, Sondheim might just as soon have been describing the relationship of his own oeuvre to that of Andrew Lloyd Webber, the enterprising Brit composer whose event musicals began arriving on Broadway in the 1970s, helping to transform the American musical theater into a kitsch junkyard of singing cats and hunky Jesuses.
In 1986, Webber and lyricist Charles Hart musicalized Gaston Lerouxs novel The Phantom of the Opera and its tale of the oddball love triangle between rising young opera star Christine Daae, her dashing suitor Raoul, and the disfigured Phantom who himself pines for Christine. Two decades and some 80 million admissions later, the show is a bona fide global phenomenon, albeit one that, until recently, Id managed to evade. The trauma Id already sustained from the touring production of Webbers Cats and the film version of his Evita had been enough to quell my curiosity. But now Phantom is a movie too, produced by Webber and directed by Joel Schumacher (another "artist" unlikely ever to be accused of exercising restraint), and movies, alas, are not so easily evaded . . .
If only The Phantom of the Opera could be accused of being kitsch or camp or trashy good fun. Instead, Schumacher and Webber treat their material with the solemn reverence of two museum guards assigned to protect some indisputably valuable heirloom. Which isnt the only thing that makes the movie feel like an excavated artifact from another era. A film of Phantom, with Schumacher attached, has been in the works almost since the show first arrived on Broadway (where it continues to run), and having finally been made, the movie plays like a not-so-brief history of why Hollywood stopped making musicals in the first place. Whatever one thinks of Moulin Rouge and Chicago and I didnt particularly care for either of them they were at least sexy and vivacious, and it was possible to imagine a young audience going to see them and actually staying through to the end credits. Conversely, watching the passionless Phantom, with its geriatric story-framing device, gooey dimestore romanticism and tawdry pop ballads about unrequited yearning, feels akin to dying and waking up in your parents easy-listening-radio hell.
In its broad outlines, the Phantom story is a perennial the suffering beast (here played by Gerard Butler) who can only be redeemed by the love of the gentle beauty, Christine (the vocally strong but emotionally distant Emmy Rossum). In the 1925 silent film version starring Lon Chaney, it was even possible to feel empathy (if not exactly sympathy) for the titular hero-villain. Here, as conceived by Webber/Schumacher and interpreted by Butler an actor who never hesitates to bellow when mere shouting would suffice Phantoms Phantom seems less misunderstood monster than stark raving madman. Yet Webbers opus has a reputation as a grand romance, and surely 80 million theatergoers cant really be wrong, can they? The extent to which Webbers simplistic melodies have become the background Muzak for an entire generation seems in itself a supernatural feat. But in Schumachers hands, even the famous crashing chandelier and fog-shrouded gondola ride dont quite register. The film is less directed than event-planned, with lots of extras and decorous pageantry trotted before the camera, but no real feeling for atmosphere; it doesnt lift us up in the way a good movie musical can, let alone carry us away. In other words, we can always see the strings or, at least, the dry-ice machine just off camera, blowing its smoke.
If The Phantom of the Opera is content to rest on its laurels, the holiday seasons other musical offering, Beyond the Sea, never stops trying to prove itself much like its subject, one Walden Robert Cassotto. With a heart weakened by a childhood bout with rheumatic fever, Cassotto wasnt expected to live past the age of 15, long before he rechristened himself with his celebrated stage name. But Cassotto didnt die, and Bobby Darin was born, henceforth driven by a relentless ambition to become the best he could be at everything that he did.
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Starring Kevin Spacey as Darin, Beyond the Sea traces the singers too-brief life from his early days as a nightclub act through his overnight success with the hit "Splish, Splash," his marriage to Sandra Dee (powerfully played by Kate Bosworth) and his largely unsuccessful bid to reinvent himself as mustachioed folk singer Bob Darin. The film purports to be a movie about Darins life made by Darin himself, and thats exactly how it feels, like the go-for-broke vanity project of a man who knows hes living on borrowed time. As many have pointed out, Spacey, at 45, is already eight years older than Darin was when his bad heart launched its final, fatal attack in 1973. But not only hasnt Spacey (who, in a Darin-worthy gesture, also directed, co-produced and co-wrote the film) let such literal-minded concerns stop him hes elected to shine a great big spotlight on them. Like Bob Fosses phantasmagoric All That Jazz (to which it owes some, but not all, of its moves), Beyond the Sea is a bejeweled dreamscape about the surreality of a life lived in show biz, and about the make-believe of the movies themselves. Its about how a performer steps onto a stage or in front of a camera and is momentarily transported into another dimension, free of mortal concerns where a Kevin Spacey can become a Bobby Darin and where a Bobby Darin might well live forever. And it may be that, in Darin, Spacey has the best role of his career, the one that thrives on the superciliousness that is part and parccel of his own screen persona.
Put simply, the film is a dazzling and fearless piece of showmanship. From early on, when the residents of Darins Bronx neighborhood break out into an eye-popping Vincente Minnelliesque production number choreographed to Sid Arodin and Hoagy Carmichaels "Up a Lazy River," you can see that Spacey is on to something, that in a season brimming with superficial-bordering-on-fraudulent biopics (Ray and Finding Neverland chief among them), Beyond the Sea is the only one aside from Bill Condons Kinsey that really gets inside the head of its subject, that pulses with his life blood. In doing so, Spacey has also crafted the only American screen musical in eons maybe since Fosses with a genuine feel for the musical form, for the geometric movement of dancing bodies in brilliantly colored costume, for the expressive power of words sung instead of spoken. Whether Darin is courting Dee to the strains of the title tune or tap dancing with the spirit of his own childhood self to "As Long As Im Singing," Spacey is constantly imagining new ways of associating image, performance and music, and its a thrill to watch him do it. He may not be a George just yet. But theres definitely no mistaking him for a Louis.
THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA | Directed by JOEL SCHUMACHER | Written by ANDREW LLOYD WEBBER and SCHUMACHER, based on the novel by GASTON LEROUX | Produced by WEBBER | Released by Warner Bros. | Citywide
BEYOND THE SEA | Directed by KEVIN SPACEY | Written by SPACEY and LEWIS COLICK | Produced by ARTHUR E. FRIEDMAN, ANDY PATERSON, JAN FANTL and SPACEY | Released by Lions Gate Films | At ArcLight and the Royal