The summer I was 13, I accidentally fell in love with "The Phantom of the Opera" cast recording. It wasn't just a distraction from a dauntingly large lawn and a mower that could take my foot off. I identified with the outcasts. A reboot of the spectacle comes to Seattle's Paramount Theatre Aug. 8-19.
In retrospect, I realize the lawn was a symbol. But at first I hated it, and I hated mowing it, with the special, petulant passion of a 13-year-old boy who was the new kid on the block (again — I grew up in a military family) who’d be making his Saturday-morning debut to all the neighborhood bullies by incompetently sweating over a gasoline-powered machine whose primary feature was a set of whirring blades that, I had already been amply warned, would definitely cut my foot off if I gave them a chance.
Against anyone’s expectations — least of all mine — that lawn drew me into an accidentally intimate relationship with the original London cast recording of “The Phantom of the Opera,” a now-long-dead French journalist and what it means to feel like an outcast.
But before we return to the lawn, let’s dispense with the rehashing-of-the-press-release business.
A reboot of “The Phantom of the Opera” is coming to the Paramount Theatre Aug. 8-19 with more … stuff: more ads, more Tony Award-winning designers, more chandelier (the PR agents are very eager for you to know about the new chandelier) and, most importantly, a fresh bundle of cash from producer Sir Cameron Mackintosh. (You might be familiar with his past investments: “Cats,” “Miss Saigon,” “Les Misérables,” “Hamilton.”)
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Sir Cameron is literally the marquee name in this circus. You can see for yourself on the poster, which reads like a crappy poem written by a committee of well-paid entertainment lawyers: “Cameron Mackintosh’s/spectacular new production/of/Andrew Lloyd Webber’s/‘The Phantom of the Opera.’ ” When you get to put your name on a poster above “Andrew Lloyd Webber” and “The Phantom of the Opera,” it’s obvious you’re cutting some serious checks.
But when it comes to “Phantom,” spectacles and big names and fat checks are counterintuitive. “Phantom” is, at its heart, a story about a musical-genius ghoul who haunts the Paris Opera and terrorizes rich idiots who are more interested in glitz (the famous chandelier!) than the art.
The original author of “Phantom” was Gaston Leroux, an ex-journalist who had a curious double pedigree: a war correspondent and a libertine. He got a law degree, promptly blew through a large inheritance, then became a theater critic and court reporter to pay the bills. Then he got bored (I assume) and traveled to international hot spots to find trouble: North Africa, the Russian Revolution of 1905, other places where desperately poor people and rich people’s employees were shooting each other in the guts.
Eerily, Leroux also wrote an article about the Paris Opera, which was swiftly seized by the Paris Commune (think of it as a much fiercer version of the Occupy Wall Street movement but with live ammunition and thousands of corpses), which promptly turned its basement into a nerve center for the revolution.
So this well-traveled writer, who’d watched proletarian revolution from an uncomfortably close distance, set the climactic scenes of his most famous story — about a malformed ghoul with a murderous attitude toward dumb aristocrats with bad taste — in the catacombs of the Paris Opera.
Leroux wrote the novel in serialized form, so of course he larded in stories about love and honor that sound completely tin-eared to a 21st-century audience.
One thing that endures: that iconic chandelier, and how an outcast weaponized it against his persecutors.
Back to the lawn: I now recognize that I was lucky just to live in a house that had a lawn. But those kinds of thoughts were too complicated for my self-centered child brain.
I hated that sucker.
It wasn’t so much that the lawn was dauntingly large for a boy my age (it was). Or that it had hills and divots and small cliffs (it did). Or that I had become old enough to inherit the unenviable job of pushing a mower (I was the oldest of three). Or that I had been recently introduced to a friend of an older cousin who had to wear a special small sneaker because he’d chopped off half of a foot in a teenage lawn-mowing accident (he had). Or all that stuff about being a newly pubescent boy who was 100 percent sure every jerk in the neighborhood (child and adult) would be scrutinizing my every move while I sweated around a foreign machine in a foreign lawn in a foreign territory where I still had to figure out the neighborhood pecking order. Or that this machine had a dual pedigree of its own: It could embarrass me, or cut my foot off, or both at the same time.
That wasn’t the main issue in my child brain.
Mostly, I was pissed because I had a clunky Walkman but no good music to drown out all that anxiety. My family had driven across the country several times (an abbreviated skip through my childhood itinerary: Alaska, south Texas, New Orleans, Rhode Island, etc.) and I couldn’t stomach any more Eagles, Paul Simon, Fleetwood Mac, or Jimmy Buffett deep cuts.
So I dug through the family cassette stash and found something new. Some dual-cassette something with a white mask on the cover.
I’m not ashamed to say I hated it at first. (I was the kind of kid just months away from falling in love with Jimi Hendrix, Burning Spear and the Clash — plus a brief dalliance with Vanilla Ice and MC Hammer.)
But it was all I had. So I spent those summer weekends smelling gasoline fumes and cut grass, resolutely avoiding looks from anyone, desperately trying to avoid foot loss while listening to “The Phantom of the Opera.”
I’m also not ashamed to say I came to love it, for reasons I couldn’t have possibly explained at the time. I never saw it performed. I just heard it, over and over again, and had to piece together the plot: a misfit, surrounded by hostile prigs, plotting his revenge to the famous chord progression (D minor, a few bounces up and down other proximal minor and flat chords — the chords of discontent — before rising up from the ashes into a more triumphant D minor).
After repeated listening, over the whir of the lawn mower, those tapes said something to me: “You feel weird and alone, kiddo, but you aren’t. ‘Weird’ and ‘alone’ are pretty universal human feelings. Just keep mowing the lawn.”
“Hamilton.” “West Side Story.” “Phantom.” If you stare across the musical-theater canon, it’s not hard to understand why (some) teenagers are completely besotted with their soundtracks — even if they could never afford a ticket to see the actual shows.
Those soundtracks are infinitely exportable stories about outcasts you don’t have to be in a theater to feel. You can listen to them on a bus, on a subway, in study hall while pretending to do your homework, while mowing the lawn.
I don’t listen to “Phantom” much anymore. (Like peanut-butter-and-banana sandwiches, it was something I binged on for a few years, then permanently abandoned.) But now I understand its enduring hold on the ghost of my slouching, resentful self hauling his butt out to the garage to unscrew the red plastic gas can, fill up the tank and fire up that infernal machine while thinking: “God. These stupid kids in this town are so stupid. And stupid grown-ups are so dumb.”
That was all true — inarticulate, but true. The Phantom feels your pain.
And, apparently, still does.
A couple of years ago, a young person named Taylor posted to a YouTube channel streaming “Phantom” music: “I’m sitting here listening to the phantom and love never dies while playing Sudoku on my phone … who needs a social life?”
Confidential to the Taylors of the world: Mowing the lawn is exhausting. So is enduring bullies of all ages and demographics. But take heart. There’s almost always a phantom hiding in the corner.
“The Phantom of the Opera,” Aug. 8-19, Paramount Theatre, 911 Pine St., Seattle; $35-$230 (ticket prices subject to changes and fees); 1-800-982-2787, ticketmaster.com.