Religion and theater have much in common. I suspect that this is one reason several religious traditions initially protested against the secular theater. Morality plays were one thing, but dramas about purely human matters are quite another. Being given the very generous gift of tickets to the Phantom of the Opera, I recently had the opportunity to experience Broadway’s longest continually running show. It occurred to me that theater can often, if done right, draw in huge crowds—the line to get in was certainly impressive—while other than megachurches and very conservative religious movements based on reaffirmation of one’s superiority, many religious houses struggle to draw people in basically for free. It could be argued that secular entertainment requires less of an attendee than a religious service, but I wonder if that’s true. To receive your money’s worth for a show, you must be willing to put yourself into it.
While Andrew Lloyd Webber has never been afraid of religious themes—think of Jesus Christ Superstar and Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, or even Whistle Down the Wind—Phantom of the Opera is loosely based on the early twentieth century novel by Gaston Leroux, the story of a hideously deformed musician who falls in love with a beautiful opera star. Although characterized as “a monster,” the Phantom is, after all merely human. Lloyd Webber’s adaptation leaves much of the story undeveloped, allowing the imagination to chart its own course. This is precisely where theater diverges from religious performance—imagination. Religions frequently claim to possess all the answers and questioning or imagining new approaches to age-old dilemmas is often discouraged. Unless, of course, the dilemma is how to draw more people in. Those who run megachurches learned the lesson of theatrics long ago.
For all that, Phantom of the Opera is hardly devoid of religious sensibilities. In one moody scene where Christine visits her father’s grave for solace, and perhaps advice, the first set piece visible is the cross atop the tomb. It is from this cross that the Phantom in the guise of the “angel of music” comes to her. Having the representation of death emerge from a cross is a powerful enough symbol. During this scene Christine’s plaintive cries to her father sound like a prayer. The prayer is heard, however, only by a phantom. The end of the story is ambiguous, something religious performance simply cannot tolerate. And yet, as I was being pushed and propelled down a crowded Broadway after the show, amid a flood of humanity that had emerged from many theater doors, I wondered if this “secular” experience might not be religious after all.