On the mind of the Rev. Dr. Nathaniel Jung-Chul Lee

Apr 21, 2023

I’ll never forget last Tuesday night.

Surrounded by two thousand friends I never knew I had—though, as we sat there, we somehow all knew our bonds went back to time immemorial—I took in one of the final performances of the longest running show in the history of Broadway. For almost twenty years, I’ve been a huge fan of Andrew Lloyd Weber’s Phantom of the Opera (and may or may not have all the lyrics memorized). But I have to admit, I hadn’t quite expected what I saw during the play’s final week. To say the atmosphere was electric would be an understatement. The crowd was on fire, as if 35 years of excitement, wonder, and enchantment were all being released in one final moment of joy.

Beneath the sometimes schmaltzy score, and the complicated portrayal of gender roles, the play remains strangely and deeply compelling. It was always a risky choice making a protagonist out of a tragic and troubling figure like the Phantom—an abused abuser, who haunts the Palais Garnier and tortures (sometimes, to the point of death) its residents. But it’s precisely in the way that his character fingers the jagged edge of our humanity that he displays some of deepest truths of who we all are as humans.

The Phantom is a “devil,” and there’s no attempt to hide or minimize that fact. Indeed, the play is rife with symbolism that marks his demonic identity—beginning with the “underworld” where he lives, and culminating with his “shape-shifting” portrayal of Don Juan in the final act. And yet, the irony we are invited into is that the Phantom is given to us as a devil only to provide an exaggerated caricature of the devil-ish potential that lives within all of us. He is not a flat villain—far from it. He is first and foremost a victim—a reminder of that classic idiom: “Hurt people hurt people.” And so, the premise of the play really has to do with the all too common ways we go off track while we manage and cope with our wounds.

This is the “play within the play.” The Phantom is introduced to us as a mysterious masked figure. Yet as the audience returns from intermission, we find ourselves at a masquerade ball, singing these lines along with the whole cast:

Masquerade! Paper faces on parade

Masquerade! Hide your face, so the world will never find you

Masquerade! Every face a different shade

Masquerade! Look around, there’s another mask behind you

The message here is clear. The Phantom’s masked visage is merely a presenting sign of the “masquerade” we all perform.

In fact, there’s more than this. Like the Phantom, we’re all wearing masks. But also like him, we’re more prone to hide the parts of us the world deems unacceptable (i.e. his face), than the parts that actually cause harm (i.e. his cruelty and manipulation). Moreover, it’s often precisely in our attempts to hide these “unacceptable” parts that we do the most harm. The Phantom is cruel and manipulative because he thinks it makes him powerful, and that the fear he invokes will protect him from the world’s judgment. In reality, it comes to threaten the lives of all those in the playhouse, not least, his own life.

In the final dramatic scene, Christine (the female lead) makes this explicit when she says to the Phantom: “Your haunted face holds no horror for me…it’s in your soul that the true distortion lies.” But all the other characters perform this reality more subtly as well. For example, as the play begins, the opera house is being terrorized by the insecurity of its diva and divo—Carlotta and Ubaldo Piangi—who attempt to cover up their insecurity by preening around with overdone hair, clothes, and makeup, only to wind up looking constantly ridiculous. Then there’s the new opera house managers, Monsieurs Firmin and Andre, who over and over respond to the realization that they’re in over their heads by acting decisively to assert their own authority—each time, triggering a worse disaster. Even the Viscount Raoul de Chagny, whose classic good looks, opulent wealth, and mastery of swordplay would make him the hero in most narratives. In Phantom of the Opera, it makes him a fool—endlessly overconfident, to the point of naivety, and ultimately, easy prey for the Phantom’s designs.

In each of these persons, the Phantom of the Opera presses us to consider whether the masks we wear are just as transparent—and maybe even, just as destructive—as the ones worn by Carlotta, Piangi, Raoul, and so forth.

And it also presses us with this question: If these masks don’t actually save us, what, in the end, can?

In the final scene, there is a stunning moment of reversal, when an act of radical, completely underserving love—love of the innocent for the guilty—overcomes both the systemic harm done to the Phantom, and his own evil intent, in order to heal, restore, and set things to right. In fact, in the play itself, it’s expressed as a prayer. Christine—at a moment when she finally sees the Phantom for who he is—both evil and wretched—and in a moment while she is still his captive—looks at the Phantom and says: “God, give me courage to show you…You are not alone!”

And with that—in midst of an experience of unconditional love—something in the Phantom’s heart releases—and he in turn releases everyone else, beginning with Christine, then Raoul, and then finally, the opera house as a whole.

In the end, it’s a hard narrative to fully celebrate, much less normalize. That is to say, I don’t think there’s a prescriptive message here about how victims should always overcome their victimizers through unconditional love—that would not be right, in my view.

At the same time, when viewed with an open heart, it’s also hard not to be moved—at least, to compassion—and maybe even, to hope that all such devils—perhaps even, the devils that live within us—might one day receive the same compassion.