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Better than the First Time—Phantom on the West End

For most people I know, The Phantom of the Opera is the first Broadway musical they ever saw. Something that was safe for a class trip to the Big Apple, or seemed like a good choice to Dad when the intimidating TKTS ticker was staring him down. But it’s not the kind of show most people would plan an expensive trip across an ocean to see. (Because, let’s be honest, we save those trips for Hugh Jackman.)

I’ve lived in New York City for ten years now and it’s been at least eight years since I even so much as took a tourist friend to see the show. Some potentially bad math tells me that’s about 3,300+ opportunities to see Phantom that I’ve passed up.

So you as you might imagine, it was both vaguely depressing and vaguely hilarious when—due to a combination of bad luck and poor planning—I landed in a seat at Her Majesty’s Theatre in London for a matinee performance of Phantom this October. Things got even more depressing/hilarious when I realized we were seeing an alternate Christine and an understudy Phantom. You know. The two biggest roles in the whole show.

It’s not their fault—the understudies, I mean—they actually have a really difficult job. Being the person no one planned to see, the person everyone suspects is probably second rate. Getting up in front of an audience at that kind of disadvantage is a weirdly brave thing. And I appreciate that. But I’m still just… not an understudy person. I’d rather see the person whose name is up on the marquee.

Like John Owen Jones! I wanted to see John Owen Jones.

And then Simon Shorten and Katie Hall—as the Phantom and Christine, respectively—took the stage. And nothing was depressing or hilarious anymore. I didn’t even miss John Owen Jones for half a second.

Because those two crazy kids were unbelievable. That afternoon I enjoyed Phantom more than ever before—more, even, than the first time I saw it as a kid—and I have to give Shorten and Hall all the credit. Sure, with a full orchestra in a smaller theater the music was more lush and immediate. And that fucking chandelier fell like an asteroid plummeting toward earth, making the whole thing actually terrifying (unlike its timid counterpart in New York).

But at the end of the day Phantom fails horribly if the characters aren’t engaging. And thanks to Katie Hall and Simon Shorten, I feel like I saw Christine and the Phantom for the first time. I feel like I understood them for the first time.

Because let’s be real. Christine Daaé is kind of an idiot. For 98% of the show she just lets the world act upon her and wonders why everything sucks. But Ms. Hall managed to completely transcend the boundaries of her character and make Christine seem stronger and more interesting.  Plus, you know, she sings real good.

And then there’s Mr. Shorten. Holy shit, Simon Shorten. I’d heard rumors of his epic badassery drifting across the ocean over the last year or so, but they paled in comparison to the reality. I honestly cannot even believe how wonderful, how human, how uncomfortably attractive his Phantom was. I could go on for pages about how he used his hands to convey emotion—to say nothing of his beautiful, flexible voice—and how, for the first time the Phantom seemed real and relatable.  And sexy. God dammit to hell, Simon Shorten’s Phantom was sexy. His “Past the Point of No Return” had me squirming in my seat.  In that moment, I finally understood Christine’s battle. I finally understood how homegirl could make out with an extortionist/murderer/dude with a creepy doll fetish & half of his brain exposed through his skull. Because, like…  I would too. I’d do worse! THAT is how sexy Simon Shorten’s Phantom is.

Usually I’m all cranky about having to see understudies perform, but London seems to have my back. Last year I saw Jonathan Williams as Valjean in Les Mis, and this year it was Simon Shorten and Katie Hall in Phantom. They gave some of the best theater performances I’ve had the pleasure of witnessing in some of the biggest roles the West End has to offer. At this point, I’m kind of curious what understudy London is going to produce to wow me next.  Now excuse me while I go listen to “All I Ask of You” again. And again.

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