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COLUMN: Andrew Lloyd Webber got it right

Friday, June 25, 2010 | 12:01 a.m. CDT; updated 10:27 a.m. CDT, Friday, June 25, 2010

I was forbidden to read "Goosebumps" books when I was a child. Not by my parents, who did not actually know what they were, but by my Christian elementary school.

In fact, the only time I was ever in any academic trouble during my awkward years was that time I "engaged in witchcraft," which is what the aforementioned school accused me of when I brought a Harry Potter book to reading time. I was not aware that reading about magic actually gave me magical powers, but I kind of wish that were true. I would definitely have used some on my teacher.

But I don't mean to psych you out: This essay is not about private versus public education. It is about "The Phantom of the Opera." I couldn't even handle "Are You Afraid of the Dark?" back in the day, so I would almost certainly have developed some sort of tick had I made it to Goosebumps. Instead, I read "Nancy Drew" and "The Chronicles of Narnia," and when they were old news, I read "The Phantom of the Opera." When the movie came out when I was in high school, I bought it. At one point, I owned both versions of the soundtrack — though I am significantly less proud of that fact.

When I first read the novel by French author Gaston Leroux, my main impression was that I really wished my name was Gaston Leroux. My second impression was that the story is supremely messed up. My third, somewhat tellingly, was that it's awesome, even if it's bad. 

If you asked me what "awesomely bad" actually means, I could point you in the direction of The Phantom and Christine.

It's the perfect romance: Possessive, disfigured circus escapee boy meets cute, opera star-wannabe girl. Boy gets creepier and more possessive. Boy kidnaps girl. Girl does a lot of fainting and eventually meets another, less creepy but significantly more boring boy. Original boy is sad. As a result, you are also sad. The plot is not unlike Pepé Le Pew cartoons, if you think about it. But instead of having a disfigured face, Pepé just smells really bad.

See what I mean? Awesome.

That awesomeness increases exponentially when accompanied by overstated musical numbers, as Andrew Lloyd Webber (the man who we can blame for "Cats") discovered approximately 75 years after Leroux.

In his stage and movie musical, for every stolen moment in the dungeon, there is a song. For every cheesy moment on the stage, there is a dance sequence. There are also a lot of masks.

But "The Phantom of the Opera" is awesome for two significant reasons:

1) People like love triangles. They also seem to like hot babes, circus freaks and acute despair, and this story checks all three boxes, but they like love triangles even more. This particular one features a female hot babe, a man some would label as a circus freak and a male hot babe. No matter how hard you try not to hum along to "Masquerade" or sympathize with how sweaty The Phantom's mask must be, you do sympathize with someone. The play is a singing, dancing advertisement for love. Ill-fated? Yes. Overly dramatic? Hell yes, but mostly just so contagious it's hard not to feel.

And there are three distinct options for what to feel.

If you are a young man or woman who is fighting off advances from two separate beaus (one of whom might be a serial killer), you will identify with Christine. You might also just feel for her if you are undecided about love.

If you are attracted to someone who is, well, attractive, or if you are afraid a disfigured man might harm this person, you will identify with Raoul, Christine's main man. Same thing if you are just romantic.

If you have elephantiasis, are a maniacal musical genius or have simply experienced rejection, you will identify with The Phantom.

Any bets on whom Lloyd Webber identifies with?

2) People love underdogs. This one is probably the most important. For every Raoul, there are thousands of Phantoms — people who are picked last at Little League, stuck in the middle seats of planes or kicked out of the original Destiny's Child lineup.

The story does not go so far as to actually let the Phantom win, which really bothered my younger self, but it does subtly suggest that maybe he should have. Not to be all glass-half-empty, but the ending is only moderately happy — at best. In the corny, altered reality of dramatic romances, not everything is perfect. And not everything has to be.

Which is awesome.

Kelsey Whipple is the deputy editor of Vox. She once had the rather unfortunate task of dressing up as The Phantom for a high school French club party. It was not awesome.


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