“Christine Daaé: a delusional chorus girl.”
The character description released by The Really Useful Group, the team behind Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Phantom of the Opera, reduces its protagonist to a face in the crowd, and her murderous antagonist to a figment of her imagination. As a result, women’s historical struggle is diminished: convincing people in power that a man in her life is dangerous.
“Christine Daaé: the damsel in distress”
is a frequently-held conception of the 1986 musical’s main female character; indeed, the constant wide-eyed, entranced expression and lack of decisive action frequently ascribed to the character leaves little to the audience’s imagination. However, one needn’t have a degree in literary analysis to see that in Le Fantôme de l'Opéra, the musical’s inspiration, author Gaston Leroux had a different vision of his protagonist in mind. Calling her “a mistress of [her] own actions,” he established Christine as a strong-willed and fiery character, passionately pursuing her career in music while losing none of the kindness and gentility that made her worthy of love.
How did this clear, groundbreaking Edwardian character become lost in translation?
In today’s society, the image of a “strong female protagonist” often rejects femininity, favoring “manly” appearances and actions to further herself from the stereotypical damsel image and establish herself as a woman who can hold her own. However, Christine Daaé represents one female character who does not follow this pattern. Forgiving, empathetic, kind, and dressed in ruffly pinks and whites, there is no doubt that she embraces her own femininity; but actively “dragging” men around by the ear, fighting to save her fiance, and demanding respect from everyone who questions her sanity reveals Christine’s true complexity: no one is born understanding the world they live in, and women carry the added struggle of discovering the true manipulation, abuse, and disrespect facing them from the moment they are born. In the wake of the modern idea of “strong women,” it is vital that we do not rebuke female characters who go through this discovery, which is exactly what Christine does-- though one might not know it from The Phantom of the Opera’s 1986 staging.
Set in the lavish Paris Opera House in 1881,
Sir Lloyd Webber’s musical relies heavily on extraordinarily detailed costumes, gilded set pieces, glittering chandeliers, and seemingly magical special effects. In fact, many argue today that the show’s success is due only to its opulent design, and that the story falls flat in comparison. Condemnation of the show’s overwhelming visuals dates back to its 1986 premiere and continues to run rampant today; in 2016, Phillip Kennicott argued that Phantom’s spectacle “divorces the louds and softs of the performance from genuine intimacy or physical exuberance,” claiming that its grandeur prevents the audience from connecting to the characters and renders Lloyd Webber incapable of creating tension.
When removed from its palatial design,
from where does Phantom’s tension really arise? Hal Prince, the show’s original director, once stated that “if [they] did [their] jobs well...the ladies in the audience would all wish that [Christine] had stayed down below the opera house with the Phantom.” He argued that “reality” prevented her from doing so, rather than any sense of self-preservation or true love for her fiance, Raoul. Similar to the fate suffered by the show’s protagonist, the current, and most popular, interpretation of the titular Phantom strays far from Leroux’ original conception of the character. Hal Prince and his team worked tirelessly to redeem the murderous, manipulative character; in addition to toning down his deformity, emphasizing his tragic backstory, and oversexualizing his persona, the team used Christine as a device to gain sympathy for his suffering, rather than holding him accountable for his actions. While the Phantom is by nature a sympathetic character, he is not necessarily redeemable, and a modern interpretation could express this without conveying the message that women should love destructive men in order to “fix” them.
Though the record-breaking musical has been performed all over the world,
no one has yet challenged that iconic, detail-oriented aesthetic. In the fall of 2019, a team of Ball State’s students intend to change that. With profound attention to the story, the protagonist, and her journey, this site lays the foundation for a re-imagining of Leroux's inspiring novel that defies expectations, and breaks its carefully upheld boundaries. By re-setting the story in an industrial space, developing new and empowering blocking, and removing elaborate visual effects, this team will prove that The Phantom of the Opera has an indisputable place in today’s world.