With all the fuss I'm making this week over Phantom of the Opera, particularly my favorite version (25th anniversary), it seems only fair that I spend at least a little time talking about the show that got it all started. So this is a review of sorts for the Original Cast Recording (also known as the Original London Cast), featuring the singers who created the iconic roles: Michael Crawford, Sarah Brightman and Steve Barton.
First of all, I want to stress that though I am really not much of a fan of Sarah Brightman or Steve Barton, I don't wish to offend anyone who is. Everyone is entitled to an opinion, and though my opinion may not be the same as yours, I respect yours and am quite interested to hear it if you care to leave a comment. I will also do my utmost to state it without being rude or snarky.
Well... not too snarky.
I do have to have a little bit of snark, y'know. Just a little. A tidbit. We'll make a deal. I'll use as much snark as Sarah Brightman uses emotion, okay?
...Drat. I don't like being severely limited.
AHEM. Let's get on with this.
Michael Crawford created the role of the Phantom, and for many people he is THE Phantom. I have to be really careful what I say about him on here, because if I bash him even the tiniest bit, a certain friend of mine-- who keeps a picture of MC in her refrigerator but shall remain nameless for the sake of her (and her refrigerator's) privacy-- will be Very Angry with me.
However, I'm not inclined at all to bash Michael Crawford. He might not be my favorite Phantom (we're Ramin Karimloo fans all the way around here) but he still has a fabulous voice. It's just the right blend of creepy and caressing, very gentle yet very powerful. (My sister-- who shall remain nameless for her own safety-- doesn't like it at all. She says he sounds scary. I maintain that he's SUPPOSED to sound scary at least part of the time, and when he's not sounding scary he's sounding beautiful. We... er... disagree on the subject.) I love the way he makes everything he sings sound so effortless-- it's like he's just floating on the music. Even during the angry parts, his voice manages to soar so smoothly. It gives me chills (the good kind). Michael Crawford might not be quite the same vocal powerhouse as Ramin Karimloo (not so big and bold and rich), but his Phantom was the first, after all, and he set the bar for every performer that came after him. I'm not saying that the first person in a role is necessarily the best. I'm just saying he set the standard, and if he hadn't made the part so great in the first place, POTO would never be the success it is today.
Sarah Brightman, on the other hand... sigh. My feelings are mixed. She really does have a good voice, and some of her high notes are perfectly lovely. But she doesn't put any emotion whatsoever into her singing, and what I've seen of her acting seems wooden and weird. If we're going to talk about scariness in POTO, then we should talk about Sarah Brightman, not Michael Crawford. Her face is pretty much perfectly expressionless, except when she's staring into your soul, when she looks like an evil doll come to life or something.
...Oops. Overdoing the snark there.
At any rate, I really do like her voice in some parts, from a technical standpoint, (and she CAN be really beautiful when she's not making weird faces-- see picture above) but overall she is definitely my least favorite Christine. Even Emmy Rossum put a little more oomph into the part as far as acting went. (More on Emmy Rossum tomorrow. You didn't think I was skipping over the 2004 movie during this week, did you?)
Steve Barton as Raoul also has a technically good voice, but his performance comes across as stilted and completely devoid of feeling. Now, I've never seen any videos of him as Raoul, and I'm well aware that you can't necessarily judge an actor just by how they perform on a cast album. That said, I firmly believe that a truly good performer in musical theatre has to be able to act with his voice as well as with his face and body. I mean, hello, that's what it's all ABOUT-- telling a story through music. This is why I'm such a huge fan of the Les Mis TAC-- the actors/singers in that production did such a phenomenal job of telling the story so beautifully and richly with very minimal opportunities to act outside of their singing as they did so.
Am I the only one who thinks we need a good, all-encompassing word that describes people who sing and act in musical theatre? Some sort of combination of "singers" and "actors," maybe-- but "sictors" doesn't sound good at all, and "angers" is worse. Suggestions?
All right, now, let's have a look at a few (not all, we haven't got unlimited time here) of the songs on this album. "Think of Me" is really beautifully done-- I like Sarah Brightman's cadenza at the end, and her voice is very pristine and perfect throughout. No expression, of course, but we covered that already. Storyline aside, it's nice to listen to. However, Raoul's part kinda drives me nuts. You can see the original lyrics in the picture above, and I for one am SO glad they've changed them since then. (Of course, the joke goes that Andrew Lloyd Webber changes the "Think of Me" lyrics every time he changes his socks, but still...) It's not exactly nice to meet your best friend from childhood after a lapse of ten years or whatever and let the first thing out of your mouth be something about what a gawkish girl she was. Really, Raoul? Really? Compliment her poise now all you like, but don't make rude remarks about what she used to be.
And no, that's not Steve Barton in the picture above-- it's Michael Ball, because I liked the picture and didn't care that the original Raoul wasn't in it... wait, what am I saying? Am I apologizing for having a picture of Michael Ball as Raoul on my blog???
Obviously I didn't get enough sleep last night.
Here you can see "Phantom of the Opera" and "Music of the Night" performed by Michael Crawford and Sarah Brightman at the 1988 Tony Awards (and yep, that's Angela Lansbury introducing them!). It's really poor quality, I'm afraid, but was the best I could find on YouTube-- there's a higher-quality video out there, but the sound and picture don't match up. I really like MC's performance of "Music of the Night" here, but Sarah Brightman's zombie-like movements and strange grinning during the "I Remember" snippet are kind of freaking me out. Thoughts, anyone?
Sarah Brightman and Steve Barton do a fabulous job with "All I Ask of You," and it's really beautiful to listen to... but you know what I'm going to say by now, don't you? There's nothing truly memorable about it. It's just a song. It's lovely, yes, but there's no feeling in the words, and frankly I think Sarah Brightman gets a little screechy near the end. As my best friend's brother put it, she has an extremely... unique... style of singing, especially in this song. It's good, though, because then you know it's her right away and you can turn it off.
I'm sorry, I'm sorry, I'll stop.
"Notes II/Twisted Every Way" is one of my favorite POTO songs, but this version just makes me cringe. It's probably Sarah Brightman's worse song on the album-- I mean, seriously, Christine's supposed to be terrified and angry at this point, and Sarah Brightman just kind of tiptoes through the lyrics without seeming to really care about what she's saying. "Raoul. I'm frightened. Don't make me do this. Raoul. It scares me. Don't put me through this ordeal by fire he'll take me I know we'll be parted forever he won't let me gooooo..." (Yes, the lack of punctuation in that last line is on purpose.)
As for Steve Barton... come ON, dude. You probably didn't mean to, but do you realize you kind of made a prototype for Every Wimpy Raoul Ever? You can't scare the Phantom with a whisper. I mean, that wasn't even a creepy whisper. "So. It is to be war between us. But this time, my clever friend, the disaster will be... yours... I mean, if you're okay with that."
Okay, so all you Sarah fans who have been tsk-tsk-ing at me through this whole post can finally be satisfied, because I LOVE her version of "Wishing You Were Somehow Here Again." She isn't as emotional as Sierra Boggess (what a SHOCK) but I think she does manage to make the song very haunting and wistful, and the result is quite lovely to listen to. I really, really like this song-- it was the first one from POTO I ever heard, and in fact I bought it (this version) from iTunes before I even really knew the rest of the story. It's still one of my top three favorites.
I have really mixed feelings about Final Lair. On the one hand, Michael Crawford is absolutely superb. He plays the whole scene in a heartbreaking way, and though I think I prefer Ramin Karimloo's screaming of the line, the way Michael Crawford whispers, "Christine, why... why?" still gets me every time. Steve Barton does a passable job-- not half as good as Hadley Fraser or Killian Donnelly, though certainly better than Patrick Wilson (cough). His "I fought so hard to free you," is great, I'll admit. Sarah Brightman, on the other hand, is kind of... blah. Until we get to The Kiss moment. Because I seriously haven't seen a Christine yet who didn't pull that off with flying colors. That verse is just gorgeousness and I haven't yet heard it sung badly.
Fun fact: I read on a trivia site that the second kiss between Christine and the Phantom was not actually scripted. In an early performance, Michael Crawford's prosthetic lip got stuck to Sarah Brightman's face during the first kiss, and as she moved back he saw it there and panicked, so he pulled her back in for a second kiss to stick it back on and the People Who Decide These Things liked it so much that it was written into the script. I can't vouch for the authenticity of this tidbit, however. But it's still a funny story.
And the closing lines the Phantom sings... chills. Chills every time. Michael Crawford is AMAZING.
Overall, I really do like the Original Cast Recording. It features some practically flawless singing, an almost unmatchable performance on Michael Crawford's part, and some superb talent from the managers, Carlotta, Meg, etc. (I didn't mention Carlotta or Meg in here, but they were really good. :D) Christine and Raoul leave something to be desired, but hey, there are literally dozens of other performances to listen to/watch (hooray for Youtube, heehee) if you don't like these portrayals. 25th anniversary, anyone... ?