In my previous inspiration posts, I wrote about Labyrinth and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, and how they contributed sex, menace, and music to Wintersong. Today I will be examining the gothic work that I’ve been obsessed with since I was a child: Phantom of the Opera.
Speaking of Labyrinth and an 80s aesthetic:
Okay, I just had to put that out there. Because I love everything about this video. Everything. From the cheese, to the period-inaccurate costumes, to Steve Harley’s strange, thin, tremulous voice as the Phantom, to his over-the-top melodrama, to the fact that I think that Steve Harley is also Raoul with the most wondrous, lustrous blond mullet wig.1
It’s no secret how much I love The Phantom of the Opera, or at least it’s no secret to those who know me. My history with the musical extends even further than even my history with Labyrinth. My parents had the Original London Recording, which my mother would occasionally play as she put on her makeup or cleaned around the house. I “stole” it from them and played it incessantly until I knew every single word, every line of dialogue, every changed lyric, and every part (yes, every part) of this play.2 My parents got to see Crawford play the Phantom when he came to LA—when Crawford was at his utter finest—and I will never forgive them for not taking me. I don’t care if I was only four years old. This musical was meant for me. In many ways, Phantom of the Opera is probably the most perfect encapsulation of everything “JJ.”
It has an alluring monster with elements of a twisted Beauty and the Beast. It is an Underworld tale. It’s about two people who connect through music. It is also the story of a young woman who discovers inner strength through compassion. It is also deeply messed up.
And I like that it’s deeply messed up.
In my Labyrinth post, I talked about how Jareth is the classic Do Not Want love interest: he manipulates our heroine, toys with her emotions, and roofies her to keep her with him. The Phantom from Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical is even worse: he kidnaps the heroine, he blackmails and extorts the owners of the opera, he threatens to kill the heroine’s chosen love interest if she doesn’t marry the Phantom, oh, and he straight up murders a dude.
Some people are surprised to hear that I am actually a Christine/Raoul shipper, but if you know me, it’s not that surprising at all. For me, “safe” does not mean boring; it means shelter. Raoul is Christine’s childhood best friend, he is kind, he is gentle, he supports her career without overshadowing her, he is her emotional bedrock. I like Raoul. If I were Christine, I would choose him too. Because he is more than safe; he is safety. But I also can’t deny the allure of the Phantom.
My Goblin King is obviously inspired by David Bowie, but Michael Crawford’s portrayal of the Phantom also influenced me a great deal.3 If I took Bowie’s menace and sly, slithery, sinuous grace for my own Goblin King, I also stole Crawford’s shattering vulnerability.
Prior to his biggest role ever, Crawford was mostly known in the UK as the hapless Frank Spencer in the sitcom Some Mothers Do ‘Ave ‘Em. My first exposure to him was through Hello, Dolly!, where he played the equally hapless Cornelius Hackl.
There is an endearing sort of boyishness to Crawford that I don’t think he ever outgrew. Even now I find him adorable and charming, twinkly-eyed and mischievous. (Watch this interview with him, where he talks about a technical mishap while performing in Vegas, and tell me you aren’t charmed.) And yet, his breakout role is nearly the polar opposite of that; the Phantom is mysterious, tragic, frightening, and seductive.4
But despite all that, I think some element of Crawford’s essential boyishness comes through. To me, it translates as vulnerability. Part of it is his voice. While not as beautiful or as impressive as other actors who’ve played the role (Hugh Panaro or John Owen-Jones, perhaps), he makes up it with expressiveness. There is an astonishing amount of control in Crawford’s performance that can be heard on the soundtrack, both technically and artistically. The Phantom is a dynamic and magnetic role, but as a child, I responded to the longing and loneliness in the character, not the danger. Even at seven, the Phantom made me sad.
I love Jareth, I do, but Jareth is more of a cipher than a character. So how to flesh out my Goblin King? How to fill that empty vessel with life? How to make my protagonist—and therefore my readers—care?
By making him vulnerable. By filling him with loneliness and longing and dreams and desire. Crawford showed me you could do it a monster, so I followed his example and made an angel of music out of my Goblin King.
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- Did you know that Steve Harley—who was a pretty well-known rock star in the UK at the time—was originally supposed to be cast as the Phantom? To this day, he’s salty about having lost the part to Michael Crawford. ↩
- If you get me drunk enough—okay, if you just buy me a drink—I will perform the entirely of Phantom of the Opera for you. ↩
- Weirdly, both have mismatched eyes. The original costume for Phantom included two different coloured lenses (but was eventually scrapped because it basically meant that the actor had little to no visibly on the masked side of the character due to the contacts). Bowie’s mismatched eyes are not true heterochromia—the pupil of one eye is permanently dilated, which lends itself to the look of two different-colors. ↩
- Hard to believe it now, but at the time, Crawford was apparently considered a sexy, sexy beast by fans of the show. ↩