Unmasking Tapes

"Feast your eyes, glut your soul, on my accursed ugliness!"

So howled Erik, the disfigured denizen of the catacombs beneath the Paris Opera, when the heroine Christine Daae couldn't resist snatching away his mask, in Gaston Leroux's Le Fantome de l'Opera, the penny dreadful that served as the basis for Andrew Lloyd Webber's The Phantom of the Opera. Audiences around the world have been feasting their eyes ever since, and haven't yet glutted their souls. Wild best seller though it was in its own time, Leroux could little have imagined that his lurid potboiler would, less than a century later, be turned into the most financially successful stage musical of all time, with a total box-office take -- to date -- nearing three billion dollars.

The production, directed by Harold Prince, returns to ASU's Gammage Auditorium on Wednesday, January 12, and will run through Saturday, February 19. In the title role this time is Bradley Little, who appeared, in another role, in the Broadway version. The Christine this time is Rebecca Pitcher, who played the same role on Broadway more than 30 times.

Probably the key to the show's success is that Lloyd Webber was the first of the many, many adapters of the tale to turn it into a whole-hog romance. In the half-dozen-plus film and television versions, as well as a few earlier stage attempts, the story of the masked mystery man who terrorizes the Opera in a mad campaign to promote the career of the young soprano Christine, who later becomes his captive, is seen, understandably enough, as a horror tale. Lloyd Webber brilliantly recognized the material's potential appeal as a sort of Harlequin Gothic, with the Phantom now less a monster than a tragically smitten figure, with a snazzy little half-mask over his disfigurement.

If you aren't able to get tickets for the spectacular at Gammage, however, you may want to check out some of the earlier versions, most of which are available on video, and some of which are quite good:

The Phantom of the Opera (1925): This first, silent film version, produced by Universal, is still the best, thanks to a headlong pace, lavish production values and, above all, the performance of the great Lon Chaney Sr. as the Phantom. It's one of the most powerful pieces of acting in all movies; a magnificent pantomime of the squalid, spiteful essence of angry unrequited love. What Chaney shows us is far more subtle and heartbreakingly human -- and more painful -- than the swoony fantasy offered in the musical.

The Phantom of the Opera (1943): The first sound version, also from Universal, may be the dullest. Shot in lush color, it features Claude Rains as the Phantom, Susanna Foster as Christine, and Nelson Eddy as her love interest. It often feels closer in tone to halfhearted operetta than to thriller.

The Phantom of the Opera (1962): This version from England's Hammer films stars Herbert Lom (better known as Inspector Dreyfus in the Pink Panther films) as the Phantom, and his performance has some tragic potency, although it doesn't touch Chaney.

Phantom of the Paradise (1974): A rock-music version directed by Brian De Palma, with William Finley as a rock musician, disfigured in a record-press accident, who avenges himself on the wicked promoter, played by Paul Williams, who ripped off his rock-opera version of Faust. Jessica Harper plays the Christine character.

The Phantom of the Opera (1989): Robert Englund, a.k.a. Freddy Krueger, stars in this attempt to turn the story into a gore fest. Jill Schoelen and Alex Hyde-White are also stuck in this not-very-good film. It was one of several attempts to cash in on the increasing popularity of the Lloyd Webber stage version -- a 1990 TV miniseries was another, and a low-budget touring stage show, which used public-domain classical music instead of an original score, also made the rounds at about the same time, and made a mint.

The Phantom of the Opera opens at 8 p.m. Wednesday, January 12, at Gammage Auditorium, Mill and Apache in Tempe. Tickets range from $16.75 to $69.25. The run continues through Saturday, February 19. Call 480-965-3434 (Gammage) or 4805035555 (Dillard's) for details.