Instruments of Flesh in a Revolving Wooden World: Thoughts on The Phantom of the Opera

As an early birthday present my parents took me downtown today to see Phantom of the Opera. I was not expecting to have some theological questions resolved or, at the very least, brought deeper into contemplation.

The Ascension puzzles me greatly. I don’t know why Jesus had to leave us. He rises from the dead, meets with the disciples, and then vanishes into the clouds after making us promise to be good. Why didn’t he begin his reign on earth right then and there? Why didn’t he crush Caesar right then and there? But I suppose the same question could be asked for his behavior before the Resurrection. He had to suffer and he had to ascend. And so he is enthroned in heaven now, but why can’t he be enthroned here now? The work of the world is not yet complete, but why? Some mysteries are too glorious for us to fully understand; still, it is our privilege to ponder the ways of God, and we have faith that Christ now reigns from heaven.

But in the mean time, musicals.

I think it’s easy to criticize Andrew Lloyd Webber’s The Phantom of the Opera, on an aesthetic level, as sort of feeding into that horrible pop neogothic nonsense that teen girls who like Tim Burton too much thrive on. That criticism looms in the shadows whenever I think about the work. But I’m glad to say that it didn’t stop me from enjoying the spectacle tonight one bit. And I discovered a depth of narrative that I hadn’t fully appreciated before, having seen the film and… well, yeah.

First and foremost, before the music and the acting and the choreography, as delightful as that all is, the most stunning thing about the musical is the set design. The stage is constantly rotating and unfurling before you as it revolves into the fake theater within the theater, now the graveyard, now the Phantom’s dungeon. The chandelier drops and dances like one of the performers. Fire jets up from the stage. Stairs emerge out of the walls and then vanish. It gives you the sense of being drawn further and further into the Phantom’s kingdom, where he monkeys about in the shadows and plays his organ in borderline Satanic furor; control freak, tortured genius, ghost master of the arts. I was surprised to feel a compelling tension drawn out between him and, of all people, the two bumbling theater owners. You get the impression that they’re not so much interested in making art as making cash. But deep within the theater lies the Phantom, all terribilita, who basically forces them to adopt his artistic visions under threat of death.

The story makes you yearn for a master artist who, unswayed by greed or the need to please people, could nevertheless offer up a perfect work with complete humility–in contrast to the Phantom, who is utterly selfish. (Or the two theater owners, who are just as selfish but in a less romantic way.) We need beauty and perfect composition and genius; we just need it without sin.

And this shows us a part of why Jesus ascended. As a young man, he learned the craft of carpentry. And so he has ascended into heaven so that he can build the stage for us. The tree from which he once hung has provided the paneling for the new cosmos. In the revolving wooden world he is building for us, we will dance and sing in a perfect choreography for the whole human race, our bodies as living instruments of his joy, forever.

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