So my favourite part of Phantom (apart, of course, from the Final Lair for sheer emotional impact) is and has always been the title song – The actual song called “The Phantom of the Opera”. It’s the song that first lit the fire of my obsession, even before I actually saw the show live for the first time or knew really anything about the story. Eventually seeing the staging of that scene (which I could do in those days) only added to the thrill and made me love that particular part of the show even more. But it was the song itself that I loved first.
It’s always struck me, though, that this never seemed to make sense to anyone but me. It always seems to have struck others, even other Phans, as strange that I should love that particular song so much. As one friend asked me, “I thought the whole show meant everything to you?” And it did/does! I did and do love the whole show! It’s certainly not like I loved the song separately from the rest of Phantom. I can see, perhaps, how you could if you’re just a fan of particularly amazing theatrical moments, because that scene is an especially brilliant achievement in theatre craft! But that’s not what was going on in my case. I loved all of Phantom and still do! But somehow, that song has always been a particular focus of my obsession. It’s always seemed to somehow encapsulate what I love about the ALW stage-version in particular, and about the whole POTO idiom in general. But until very recently, I couldn’t articulate why.
I think now, though, that the reason I’ve always loved that song, and, indeed, why it was what got my Phanship started, was because, in it, I had my first taste of another world being possible. It gave me my first taste of what liberation might be. It’s always felt, to me, like a moment of possibility – not one actually realized in the story itself, but one always left open simply by it’s presence in the show! That is, that song presents a moment of possibility which is not cancelled out by the way the story ultimately plays out, even if it remains unrealized in the narrative as presented. Indeed, a great deal of Phantom’s power for me comes from the juxtaposition of this moment of possibility – the “what could have been” – with the tragedy of the Final Lair – the what all too often is. Nevertheless, the presence of that song means that that possibility is always left open to be taken up again!
And what is that “what could have been”? For me, the sense of wild possibility in that song comes from its giving the listener/audience-member a tantalizing glimpse of the relationship that might have been between the Phantom and Christine. And perhaps this was so because I first heard that song out of context? I knew it was from Phantom when I first heard it, but very little other than that. All I had to go on was the “thumbnail” of the story that my Mom and Godmother had given me some time before. Two elements of that “thumbnail”, though, powerfully caught my attention: the idea that the story of Phantom had to do with getting to grips with a “deformed” face even through initial fear of it, and the idea that this song portrayed the moment when Christine has “almost gone over to the Phantom” as my Godmother put it. To which my immediate reaction was to wonder why she (my Godmother) seemed to be functioning on the assumption that there was something wrong with Christine “going over to the Phantom”? And perhaps the best way to say it is that this lack of any other information allowed me to hear the song as what it would have been like if, in fact, Christine had gone over to him in joyful defiance of what society thought she should do. And what I heard, listening to it that way, was something far more radical than I had language to articulate at the time! Although, I sensed something of how radical it was by my gut instinct that such a relationship would really freak out “normal” people.
To me, then, the “Phantom Song”, as I then called it, gave me my first taste of what I would now call Crip desire – desire for another, not in spite of “deformity”, but embracing it in every sense of the word. You might have to work through shock, fear or even initial revulsion to fully embrace that desire, but you do it because you know that what and who waits on the other side of that is something and someone awesome! And hell, the shock and fear become part of the desire even as you push through them to love. Because, there are also some decidedly kink elements to what I heard in that song! Although, of course, back when I first became a Phan, I didn’t have the repertoire to understand it as such. But you can definitely understand the Title Song from POTO as portraying a “power exchange” type of relationship, in which the Phantom takes the part of the dom and Christine the submissive! But, of course, its also all fully consensual, too – “In all your fantasies, you always knew that man and mystery were both in you”. And there’s also an element of switch there. Because, in defying what society says she “should” do and “going over to the Phantom” anyway, in choosing to embrace that Crip desire and love the Phantom including the face society has deemed ugly, she performs a powerful act of both self-liberation and liberation of him! It’s a relationship that takes courage on both of their parts – his to find the courage to let her see his face, and hers to push through that initial reaction of fear/revulsion to re/embrace desire, and hers also to defy society’s prescription against her loving/desiring the Phantom. It’s a relationship where both have to be very strong, but also very vulnerable in ways I didn’t even have words for then but picked up implicitly from that song!
And it’s those elements of kink, courage and mutuality that create the awesomeness! Because, in a conventional liberal version, the ideal would be to work through to where the Phantom no longer needs to wear his mask. But that’s not quite what I heard/hear in that song! Because, the Crip desire described above loves him in embrace of his “deformity”, yes. But it also recognizes his mask – his Phantom persona – as an integral part of him as well, forged through is struggle to exist with dignity in spite of society’s judgement and exclusion of him, not merely as an outer disguise to be unravelled to get to the “true” person “underneath”. It recognizes both his Phantom persona and him unmasked as true expressions of who he is, and therefore both are equally desirable. Indeed, they are “in one combined”, to use the words of the song, and cannot be separated in any meaningful sense!
The cool thing about it, though, is that none of these ideas were conveyed to me didactically. They were and are performed for me in the music itself – the melody and accompanying orchestrations – and lyrics of that song. I could feel that relationship through the music, and thus begin to imagine it through that song’s evocation. Perhaps even invocation? That is, I could imagine it as much as a ten-year-old can who has no language or vocabulary to articulate in words the kind of relationship they’re perceiving the possibility of!
In those early days of my Phanship, when I imagined this relationship, in my own mind I played both parts. I’m having to re-teach myself how to do that now, though. Because, in the years since, that very radical first imagining got kind of lost, tangled up in the Victorian-esque, cisgendered, Straight high romance trappings of the idiom in which the story is told. That has, paradoxically, been one of the pitfalls of filling in the details of the story from that “thumbnail” with which I started. But I’m trying to re-learn! Because, I think, in re-learning how to embrace both roles of that relationship for myself lies at least part of the answer to the gender trouble (to borrow Judith Butler’s term) I’ve had as a Disabled, Deformed (Hirsute) Phan. But that’s not easy! LOL Especially since female hirsutism was not how I pictured the “deformity” in the equation back in those days (I became a Phan, ironically, before that became an issue for me). So it involves a lot of re-imagining, and learning how to imagine in new ways!
And of course, the radical relationship who’s possibility I perceived when I first heard that song, and that I’m trying to re-learn to imagine now, is not the one that actually develops between the Phantom and Christine in the story, regardless of version. Indeed, even in Phanfiction, I have yet to find such a radical, convention-refusing relationship portrayed. Most E/C Phanfics (stories that get the Phantom and Christine together romantically), at least as far as I’ve seen so far, bring their characters into a relationship that replicates hetero/homo-monogamous, “vanilla” ideals as much as possible. Nevertheless, by having that song as an integral part of itself, the ALW stage-version leaves that moment of possibility for something more radical defiantly present! Thus, the Title Song from Phantom was my first taste of the transformative power of resistance to oppressive norms, systems and structures. Because, as alluded to above, I sensed even in those early flashes that the kind of relationship I heard there would require the courage to say “no” to a society that would want to discourage both parties from pursuing such a relationship. And to find that courage, to say that “no”, would be an act of defiance and resistance to the enforcement of “normalcy” (to borrow Deaf scholar and activist Lennard Davis’s concept). Yet to take that stand would lead to something awesome and transformative! Thus, it would be no exaggeration to say that that moment when I first heard the title song from Phantom made me an activist. It performed/s for me the possibility of a different world, and holds out an exciting challenge to make that world real!
I think that’s why it pisses me off so much that, in the Gerik (the 2004 film), changes in the Phantom’s and Christine’s joint back-story, and to certain lyrics, make that song feel out of place and inappropriate rather than integral to the story. Because, without that song to offer a taste of an alternative, there’s no counter-balance – no challenge – to the tragedy of the Final Lair in which the “abnormal” and “maladjusted” is left alone as the perfect cisgendered, Straight, white couple (Christine and Raoul) sails off into the dawn/sunset/whatever. No wonder the Gerik’s play-out is the song “Learn To Be Lonely”! Whereas, the stage-version offers, perhaps unintentionally? the possibility that a different world – a different ending – is possible. Indeed, the stage-version has always felt to me almost like a dare – a dare to step outside of what society tells you you “should” do and be, and whom society tells you you “should” love/desire, and make that different world and ending to the story a reality. Alas, it’s a dare I have to admit I haven’t taken up as bravely as I’d have wanted to. But, thankfully, it’s always there to be taken up and tried again! Because, of course, even through all the alterations of the Gerik and the Lawrence Connor production (more on that later), the Phantom Title Song’s still there in all its original glory and wonder!
Note. I’ve once again put the words “deformed” and “deformity” in quotes when not capitalized to signify their being socially constructed ideas rather than “Truths”. When Deformity is capitalized and not in quotes, however, it signifies a chosen political identity. I’m aware, however, that most of the activists I’ve come across, at least so far, choose the term Disfigured instead. I use Deformed, both capitalized and not, because that is the term used in Phantom and in the Phan community.
Note 2: This post is adapted from the third chapter of a work that I recently wrote as part of my doctoral studies (no, not my thesis yet), entitled Through the Mirror, Behind the Mask: A Journey of Disability, Queerness and Liberation Phanship. I hope, if it’s cool with the powers that be in my faculty, to publish it in the decently near future. So watch this space for when that happens!