Wednesday, May 21, 2014

My Obsession With The Phantom of the Opera: The Beginning

I was a flea market junkie when I was a kid. The booths or vendors that appealed to me the most were the ones that had records, tapes and cd's. Imagine that. ;-) I believe I was 15 at the time, a year before I left home, an older man at a flea market sold me a blue plastic cassette holder filled to the capacity of a dozen tapes for a big $2.50.
It looked like this but was a more vibrant "royal" blue and had a lid that fit on top.
I actually bought the lot for one tape in particular, Debbie Gibson's Electric Youth. I know you're probably laughing but she was seriously cool to me. I had no idea what most of the others were even after I listened to them. There were a couple of Reader's Digest compilations that featured instrumental versions of country hits and also one called The Premiere Collection:The Best of Andrew Lloyd Webber.
I didn't know who this Andrew Lloyd Webber was until I popped the tape in, and when it began to play. The very first track was a song called The Phantom of the Opera by Sarah Brightman and Steve Harley, from the second I heard the organ play the famous chords, I knew I not only liked but LOVED this Andrew Lloyd Webber guy. Due to the fact that the cover was missing, I didn't know the songs were drawn from musicals. Yeah, I was a little dense but they songs were great and aside from one or two, I could have seen them played on the radio at one time or another.

After I left home, I ended up staying in Columbus, Georgia with a music major named Lee that happened to love musicals. I'm not sure where he is now but just a few years ago, he was the musical director of a major symphony orchestra. During the two weeks that I stayed with him, he taught me an appreciation for something other than pop music. He played the violin and wanted to show me one of the most difficult things he could play. If you own the Original London Cast Recording of The Phantom of the Opera, pop in disc two and track up to the graveyard violin before Wishing You Were Somehow Here Again.

This is not Lee, but this is what he played along to. Lee played this solo much better also.

After he played the recording, he played it on his violin, I was impressed and then asked him what else was on the tape. He popped in cassette one and started it from the beginning. From the time I heard "SOLD", I was entranced. Within the first two minutes I heard the familiar chords of the song I knew from the tape I'd bought at a flea market the previous year when The Overture erupted from the speakers. A few minutes later, the song played and man was I excited because I thought the song within the show, was even better than the flea market tape. I HAD to see this show and when I left Columbus for Atlanta, I "accidentally" took The Phantom of the Opera cassette tapes with me.
I spent about a month in Atlanta, always had my Walkman and a couple of tapes including my ill gotten Phantom tapes in my fanny pack. This was a time that fanny packs were acceptable fashion. I listened to those two cassettes on a loop and I thought no one could sing this better than these people. I wanted to see this show and I wanted to see Sarah Brightman, Michael Crawford and Steve Barton. I was under the impression, call me dumb, that the show was written for them and they would be in it until it closed. You'll understand why I mention this later on.
The day that I met Andrew Wilder, he asked what I'm doing in midtown, "Trying to get to New York" I said jokingly. He told me, "OK, I have a car. Let's Go!" Here's the kicker, we got into that white convertible Chrysler LeBaron and drove north and landed in New York within a couple of days. We were a little slow and several things happened on the way...those details will be in my book. When we got to New York City, I demanded that he drive to 44th Street because I wanted to see the Majestic Theatre up close and in person. I got out of the car and inspected every photo in front of the theater and saw no mention of Sarah, Michael or Steve. I saw photos of Karen Culliver, Mark Jacoby and Hugh Panaro. Who were THESE people and why were they there? A few days later I found out exactly who they were.
I made friends very quickly, my friend Al was the one that took me to see Phantom my very first time. I was SO excited but so tired because I'd spent the entire night out and my friend Sergio kept me out until the after hours club we were at closed at 8 am. The matinee Al had tickets for was starting at 2 pm so I had no time for a nap. Once I fall asleep in a bed, I am out for at least ten hours. I kept my comments that I was disappointed that I wasn't seeing the people I was used to hearing to myself. Midway through the performance, I'd forgotten the voices on the tapes I'd listened to for so long and loved the voices of Karen, Mark and Hugh even more. Unfortunately, my exhaustion got the best of me, Karen Culliver sang me to sleep during Wishing You Were Somehow Here Again. I woke up during The Point of No Return. By the end of the show, I was in tears because I knew I found something I could be passionate about that wasn't Madonna.
Karen Culliver, Mark Jacoby, Hugh Panaro & Karen Culliver

A few days later, I wanted to see the show again and realized I could get the student ticket prices for $15 and even though I wasn't a student, I told the person at the box office I forgot my student ID and they didn't seem to care as long as I had the cash. I was we rested for this show and as excited as before, then I noticed Karen Culliver was off that night and someone named LuAnn Aronson would be Christine. I was disappointed but thought I'd stay just to see the boat scene and leave. I didn't leave, LuAnn was just as amazing as Karen and I didn't fall asleep at all.
LuAnn Aronson
I loved seeing both Karen and LuAnn as Christine. Mark and Hugh were at every performance and after seeing the show about twenty times and never seeing an understudy in a main role, it happened. A paper fell out of my Playbill that read "At Tonight's Performance, the role of Christine Daae usually played by Karen Culliver will be played by Raissa Katona. Neither of my stars were in the building? Who is this Raissa?
Raissa Katona
This was the same feeling I got the night when I found out that LuAnn Aronson was performing for Karen Culliver. I was disappointed until Miss Katona sang "when you are far away and free" during "Think of Me" and my disappointment was transformed into excitement. I was shocked that the part of Christine, as difficult as it was, could be played by more than a couple of ladies. Thus, my obsession, not with the Phantom but with Christine, was born. I've made it no secret that I feel the ladies that play Christine are the true stars of the show, they have way more stage time, sing a wider more difficult range and wear heavy dresses. I have joked to some of the ladies that have played the part that I privately call the show Christine of the Opera. After seeing Karen, LuAnn and Raissa, I began to make it a point when I see the show a few times at a time to try catch more than just the principle Christine. My obsession has allowed me to see 24 different actresses play the part. I have my favorites, which I will never reveal who I loved the most. I can say that I loved each Christine for different reasons, whether it was the timber in their voice, the way they chose to play a certain scene on up to the strength of their cadenza during Think of Me. I've heard some people grumble about seeing an understudy before the show, I usually pipe up and tell them that the understudies usually have an extra special something in their performance. Don't think that just because they aren't the one listed as "the star" that they aren't capable of being a star. You will still hear the high C during Think of Me and the high E at the end of the title song. Remember, today's understudies are tomorrow's stars...Rebecca Luker was the original understudy of Christine in the New York production of Phantom and is now considered Broadway Royalty. ;-)

Since the day that I obtained the cassette of The Premiere Collection and my ill gotten copy of the Original London Cast, I have collected every officially released recording of the show and obtained most of the "promos" that were made for advertising also. Many people have asked how my obsession began and in short, it was all because of hearing the Sarah Brightman and Steve Harley single version of the title song but that was just the beginning. Incidentally, back in the time that I lived in New York, this was the only Broadway show that I preferred to see at night. There's something about the cover of night that made the show more magical than seeing it during a matinee performance, at least for me it did and still does. Maybe it's because the nigh time sharpens and heightens each sensation. ;-)

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