Image source: YouTube
It’s the longest show to run on Broadway. It’s considered an old time classic. It’s regarded as one of the greatest musicals of all time; even one of the most captivating love stories. My mother has probably watched it over 100 times, with the same amount of enthused adoration each time. I can’t be talking about anything other than “The Phantom of the Opera.”
I’m going to be completely honest here, I used to love “The Phantom of the Opera”. I still kind of do—the music anyway. While most lyrics of the soundtrack speak to larger, more complex issues that I intend to address, the music in which the lyrics situate is absolutely divine and eerily enchanting. Lyrics aside, the flow of the melodies is unequivocally beautiful, especially “Think of Me,” “Angel of Music,” “Wishing You Were Somehow Here Again,” and “The Point of No Return.”
And the soundtrack is one of the many reasons why “The Phantom of the Opera” is so beloved. But the immense penchant for its soundtrack does not excuse the toxicity, manipulation, abuse, toying with our sense of sympathy and misuse of the meaning of love that is rampant in the musical’s storyline.
I’m not going to attempt to describe or analyze every single problematic detail of this entire musical, but let’s try to hit the main points of why this supposed “love story” between Christine and The Phantom, and specifically The Phantom1 himself as a person, should not be placed on any sort of pedestal.
So first thing’s first, The Phantom is a grooming pedophile.
Christine entered the Opera House at the tender age of 7, the age when she became an orphan and consequently was taken under the care of Madame Giry, a self-described mother figure to Christine. It is then that The Phantom initiates a relationship with her, as he becomes her unseen, unknown singing teacher. He constructs this mentor-persona who would speak to her whenever she would visit her father’s shrine, which was placed in an isolated room of the theater, hidden from plain view. Before he died, Christine’s father told her that he would send her an Angel of Music who would “guide” and “guard” her. The Phantom probably knowing this uses this information not only to establish Christine’s trust and dependency on him, but also to affirm his own authority and gripping control of her (“The Mirror – Angel of Music”).
It’s also worth mentioning that The Phantom is not only at an age where he could be Christine’s father, given that when we see a glimpse into The Phantom’s past, him and the aforementioned Madame Giry were of similar ages, but also that Christine is 16 in the 2004 film2 based off the musical.3 Putting aside The Phantom’s actions for a brief moment, it’s integral to provide the context of the large age gap in which The Phantom and Christine’s relations are fixed, as that fact already provides a massively imbalanced power dynamic, without any sort of external engagements.
But alas, Christine grows older. She lands her breakthrough performance as the lead in the theater’s grand opera “Hannibal”, since the usual lead Carlotta refuses to go on (“Think of Me”). She finds reciprocated love in her childhood sweetheart, Raoul, who makes a reappearance as he is a patron of the theater. And The Phantom’s repugnant sexual obsession, sense of entitlement and desire for unconditional power over Christine only then grows stronger.
The self-titled song, which happens when Christine and The Phantom meet in person for the first time, is basically an ode to the looming presence and intense psychological grasp that The Phantom has carefully created after years of grooming Christine (“The Phantom of the Opera”). The following song, “The Music of the Night,” probably one of the, if not the most famous song of the entire musical, consists of the The Phantom singing to Christine how she should “abandon [her] defenses” and succumb to the “darkness of the music of the night,” because “only then can [she] belong to [him].”
It is through his voice — a voice that Christine has come to associate with guidance, care, and guardianship — that The Phantom is able to secure whatever fascination she has of him, a seeming yet justified allure that is a byproduct of his meticulous engagement with Christine throughout her childhood. It is not out of a reciprocal yearning or “love” for The Phantom, but out of an understandable intrigue and even possibly a self-perceived expected loyalty to him. Christine has come to believe, and ostensibly still believes that this voice, this Angel of Music, and in turn The Phantom himself, was sent by her father to watch over her.
This language that The Phantom utilizes time and time again throughout the course of the musical is not one of true love but one of desired domination, especially made apparent whenever Christine’s own love toward Raoul is made evident to The Phantom (“All I Ask of You”). Once he sees Christine and Raoul express their devotion to one another through song on the rooftop of the Opera House — since The Phantom of course is creepily lingering in the shadows of this whole ordeal — an explosive rage ensues when he shouts a slew of threats toward Christine for “denying and betraying him” just for pursuing a happiness through romantic love (“All I Ask of You – Reprise”).
His anger stems from Christine’s expression of autonomy, specifically as in this moment she is briefly detached from the clutches of The Phantom’s control. During this one exchange between Christine and Raoul, The Phantom is not on her mind and that infuriates him. And to imagine her having more moments where he is not in complete command of her thoughts, movements and feelings infuriates him even more to the point of screaming threats and actually carrying them out. Does that sound like love to you?
Which brings us to “The Point of No Return,” the musical’s climax, when Christine and The Phantom perform on stage together since he incapacitates the male lead that was meant to perform. It is when Christine reveals the face under The Phantom’s mask to the entire theater audience, which subsequently leads to him kidnapping her. Yes, he legitimately kidnaps her, proceeds to wreak extreme havoc in the theater by setting it ablaze and endangering every life that was there that night, and takes Christine back down to his lair underneath the theater with brute force.
Raoul then follows them down to assist Christine as he literally just saw the person he loves being abducted by a person who apathetically set the theater on fire, and has been the perpetrator of mindful torment to not only Christine but to everyone within the Opera House. And if kidnapping her wasn’t enough, when The Phantom sees Raoul, he gives Christine an egregiously disturbing ultimatum: basically either live a life of eternal misery as my devoted wife within this dungeon-like space, or I will murder the person you love right in front of your eyes (and still will probably keep you here against your will). Does that sound like love to you?
Let me just give you the ending before we can even begin to unpack all that. Knowing her two options and how they both suck, Christine approaches The Phantom with compassion and pity in her eyes and kisses him. This causes The Phantom to free both Christine and Raoul (“Down Once More/Track Down This Murderer”). Many people have interpreted Christine’s approach and resulting kiss to The Phantom as an act of “love” toward him. But has anyone ever thought that maybe, I don’t know, Christine was doing all that she could think to do to hopefully get her and Raoul out of this terrible situation without any unnecessary bloodshed? Doing whatever it takes to save Raoul and herself?
Though all in all, pretty happy ending, I would assume. Christine finally escapes the strong grasp that The Phantom has had on her all her life — at least, physically breaking away from him is a step forward in the indubitably long road of healing — and is now able to enter a new chapter of life where she can love and live deeply and freely. But not a lot of people see it that way. Many fans of the musical are outlandishly upset, even outraged that The Phantom and Christine did not end up together that a sequel to the musical was made where they do get their “happy ending” and find a way back to each other. But here are some comments under the YouTube video of the ending to the original musical from the 2004 remake:
[Image description: A series of four YouTube comments ranging from two years ago to three years ago. The first one reads: Okay, who wanted Christian to end up with the Phantom? Because it breaks my heart every time to see him end up alone.
The second one reads: Wow way to rub salt in the wounds, the just start singing together WHILST THEY ARE STILL SAILING AWAY, WHERE HE CAN HEAR. NICE.
The third one reads: He snapped out of jealousy in his own crazy way, but eventually let her go. He really does love her. Christine really loves him and could see he changed once he said I love you. If she didn’t, she wouldn’t have looked back at him when she was sailing off the boat. She might have had some small crush feelings for Raoul but that was it.
The fourth one reads: The part where Christine gives Erik the ring back just shatters my heart every time! I mean, good lord, woman! Way to kick a man while he’s down]
So it seems that not only did The Phantom feel as though he was entitled to Christine’s attention and affection, but also a grand portion of the musical’s audience. Throughout its entirety, the musical plays with our emotions and sets a tone that is meant to constitute an engendering of sympathy toward The Phantom. We are supposed to feel bad for him.
While I understand that he was also heavily abused, put on display as some sort of freak as a child, and his upbringing was far from ideal, that should not be an ultimate justification for the abuse and harm that he’s executed, and for the musical to portray it as such is wrong. So we’re just going to decidedly disregard the grooming, the threats, the killing, the kidnapping and much more because he lets Christine go at the end, might I add with coerced persuasion provided to him by Christine? Does his past make him forgivable?
The musical paints him out to be a troubled soul in desperate need for compassion and kindness, that which he’s never received, which problematically becomes a basis of legitimacy for all his actions. But another follow-up question is apparent: why does it seem that Christine is the one that must be designated with the responsibility of providing that emotional support? And when she clearly doesn’t want to, she’s made out to be this heartless, uncaring human? Why is she depicted as having to sacrifice her well-being and chance at mental and emotional prosperity at the hands of her abuser, because he cried a few tears since he didn’t get what he wanted? Because women, in our patriarchal society, are expected to bear others’ burdens, to constantly supply that emotional labor, even if we explicitly communicate that we don’t want to.
I’m also intrigued, as I’ve mentioned before, at how many people, even including my mother, can view The Phantom’s actions as genuine declarations of love. I’ve seen comments on Broadway discussion forums that acknowledge the perturbing nature of The Phantom’s behavior, but still classify it as love anyway, however “perverted” and “depraved” it is.
The portrayal of The Phantom is reflective of the broader discourse surrounding socially prescribed meanings of love; what is love, what does love look like, what does it mean to love? But these discussions are beyond the scope of this article. All I do know is that The Phantom did not love Christine, but rather longed to fully restrict and dominate her. And the fact that so many people would equate his actions with expressions of love is a problem. There is no space for love in abuse. The fact that people are unsettled with an ending where a victim separates from her abuser is a problem. The fact that Christine and The Phantom are famous couples costumes during Halloween is a problem. The fact that this musical is still regarded as this timeless romantic love story is a problem.
And the thing is, “The Phantom of the Opera” isn’t the only example of such toxic phenomena that has unfortunately been packaged under the guise of “love.” This kind of stuff is everywhere. We have movies like “Lolita”, where also a pedophile attempts to groom a younger girl for the sake of “love.” It should also be noted that on the backside of some physical copies of the novel of “Lolita”, there is a review made by Vanity Fair that states, “he only convincing love story of our century.” Looks like people interpret an explicitly pedophiliac relationship as “love.” We have stories like “Beauty and the Beast”, where The Beast kidnaps Belle, initially holds her against her will (instead of just releasing both her and her father), and then is perceived as pronouncing his “love” once he lets her go. And then we have “Twilight”, where almost all the “romantic” relationships in the film are grounded in violence against the woman and in fear of the man. It also doesn’t help that those last two examples were intended for young people, specifically girls, as the main audience.
Look, I’m not trying to be this existential nihilist who thinks love is scam. I do believe in actual true love. But I believe it to be healing, nourishing, wholesome, passionate and compassionate, everything that is good in the world. So I leave you all with a quote by bell hooks in her incredible work “All About Love”:
“When we understand love as the will to nurture our own and another’s spiritual growth, it becomes clear that we cannot claim to love if we are hurtful and abusive. Love and abusive cannot coexist. Abuse and neglect are, by definition, the opposites of nurturance and care” and “when we are loving, we openly and honestly express care, affection, responsibility, respect, commitment, and trust. ”
1. I am aware that The Phantom’s real name is Erik, but I choose to stick with The Phantom out of consistency.
2. You also should be aware that Emmy Rossum (Christine) was underage during the filming of the movie. Gerard Butler (The Phantom) was 35. How’s that for realistic casting!
3. In the original musical, Christine is 20. That still doesn’t make it any less weird.