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Broadway’s First Black Phantom

May 23, 2014 | Uncategorized

My Review of Phantom of the Opera starring Norm Lewis and Sierra Boggess

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The Famed Marquis of the Majestic Theatre – The Phantom of the Opera has had a 26-year run on Broadway

I don’t usually review Broadway shows in my design blog, but this time I’ve been inspired to make an exception. Last night, my wife and I were blessed to witness what she described as ‘the best Broadway show ever’. Our favorite special ocassion date night getaway includes a trip to NYC for dinner and show. We’ve been to Mamet’s Glengary Glen Ross, Fela, Wicked, Lion King, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, A Streetcar Named Desire, Chicago, Top Dog / Underdog, and In the Heights to name a few.

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Our view from the Center Orchestra seats – 3 rows from the stage

We were really looking forward to Phantom, now in its 26th year on Broadway, a true classic that somehow neither one of us had seen before. The classic love story of beauty meets beast. What better way to mark our wedding anniversary? LOL To impress, (and it was a last minute decision so not many options) I splurged on some premium Center-Orchestra seats, just several rows back from the stage. I wanted the evening to be special and the show did not disappoint. To our surprise (we had no idea who was starring), when the scene in which the Phantom first appeared close up, the first thing I noticed was his black skin, specifically his black hands. Was it makeup? No, the role of the Phantom was being played by Tony Award Nominee Norm Lewis, an African-American actor most recently seen playing Senator Edison Davis on ABC’s popular drama Scandal.

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 The great Norm Lewis as the “Black” Phantom of the Opera. Photo credit: Tumblr.com

As an artist and Creative Director, visuals (the special effects were fun (and hot) up close) are something I play close attention to. The set was elaborate and the costumes were intricate. The songs were timeless and Christine’s voice was angelic. You literally were transported to another place and time. Sitting so close to the orchestra was also a special treat, and I left the theater humming the Phantom theme song all the way home.

Listen to the theme song here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-JaeBxYCI9k&feature=kp

So, why do I feel compelled to write about Norm Lewis’ captivating performance opposite Sierra Boggess? Why is Broadway’s first Black Phantom such a big deal? For me, it has to do with the story and how I saw it through my eyes. I identified with the title character through shared experiences. Here’s my breakdown:

Deeper Storytelling

When you first see the Phantom’s (Lewis’) black hands reach for and caress Christine (Boggess) on stage, you can cut the tension in the theatre with a knife. As much progress as we think we’ve made as a society, there is still the taboo of the interracial relationship. With a black man as Phantom, you see another dimension in the drama unfold as Christine is pursued by her white suitor, saving her from the black Phantom. In the end, Christine gives in to the Phantom’s wishes and engages him in a passionate kiss. The Phantom however, having never been loved, having lived in isolation and in the shadows, does not know how to even embrace Christine, and in the ultimate display of love, sets her free, so that she can go and be loved by someone (Raoul), something that he cannot, or perhaps will not do, because he knows that pulling her into his world is not fair to her. Him joining society at this point is not an option either. Additionally, by this point, he is also a wanted criminal. 

 The Lynchings

Throughout the story, the Phantom murders several actors in the opera house. His method of murder: hangings. Everytime a noose dropped down from the ceiling, and the victims were white characters (there was only (1) one other African American actress in the entire cast), and the ‘hangman’ was the ‘black’ Phantom, visions of the atrocities of hangings of black people throughout America’s history played repeatedly in my mind.  The contrast, rather the juxtaposition, of a black man hanging white men, for me, was very jarring. I’m pretty sure that when Gaston Leroux, originally wrote the novel that Phantom’s based on, he did not have that in mind. Once again, the tension was high in the theater, which provided an added element of drama to the storyline. For me, it made once again, made the storyline deeper, at least for American audiences in NYC.

Behind the Mask: Disfigured and Colored

When Christine pulls off the Phantom’s mask, and reveals his deformity, she also fully reveals his blackness. Yes, the special effects show a disfigured man, but the audience also sees a black man. Christine at first, repulsed, begins to empathize for the Phantom, as does the audience, who over time begin to see a glimpse of a man longing to be loved and embraced by society. Anyone who has ever felt the sting of racism, or ever felt discriminated against for a physical trait they had zero control over, such as the color of their skin, or a birthmark, or an injury or handicap, can identify with the curse of being different. As the Phantom bellowed his beautiful haunting song of being born disfigured, I couldn’t help but think of his skin tone as well. This was a sentiment that I could identity with and loved how it updated the story by not only the obvious metaphor of how many of us live behind masks, and how life is a masquerade, but it also introduced all of society’s stereotypical and racial prejudices as well as their consequential reactions.

Two Thumbs Up: A Classic Improved with a Unique Twist

A must see. A great update to a Broadway classic. I’ve been a vocal critic of the recent wave of updating traditionally white characters with black characters in comic books and movies. Will Smith’s Karate Kid is one movie that comes to mind. Many of my friends will disagree with me on this one, but I don’t think that it needed to be remade at all. The original is still just as good. Do we need more positive black and latino imagery in pop culture? Yes, of course. I just don’t’ think that its always necessary, and only agree that it should be done when it IMPROVES the story. Too many times it feels gratuitous. But not in this case. It makes perfect sense. It usually isn’t supposed to change the story, but in this case it improves it. Not only does Norm Lewis deliver a Tony-Award level performance, but his mere presence in this ground-breaking role gives the Phantom a new modern twist with a deeper storyline. Perhaps it even goes as far as changing perceptions and dismantling stereotypes. I know that not only was I entertained, but I was moved. I know it sounds cliché, but this is one Broadway show that you don’t want to miss!

Bravo!

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Ramon has over 20 years of experience in award-winning, market-proven, print collateral, marketing material, iphone/ipad app and website design specializing in corporate identity and branding. Ramon’s passion for entrepreneurial design was borne out of 10 years as Creative Director for Jay Walker at Walker Digital, the Stamford based idea laboratory and business incubator holding over 300 US Patents. Ramon served as Senior Art Director on the start-up launch team behind Priceline.com, a Walker company and invention. Most recently, Ramon’s logo and identity work was selected to be published in “Typography and Enclosures” the fourth book in the Master Library series by LogoLounge.

Need help with your brand identity or want to overhaul your existing brand? Need a responsive cutting edge web development project completed? Contact: ramon@peraltadesign.com

 

Follow Ramon on Twitter @Peralta_Design

www.peraltadesign.com

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