It’s only too easy to be cynical about Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Phantom of the Opera, and particularly about the excess and emptiness it stands for. While lavish money and attention have been spent on all aspects of this $8.5 million production—in ways that are guaranteed to impress the child in every adult—its packagers forgot the one ingredient that some theatergoers still, require: the story. For all the dressing, Phantom‘s story is so vague that even Cameron Mackintosh, the producer, Harold Prince, the director, or Lloyd Webber himself would be hard pressed to locate it. In his posthumously published The Musical Theater, Alan Jay Lerner tells an anecdote about Lloyd Webber’s earlier blockbuster Evita: “As a clue to Webber’s fundamental concept, he said to me one day that what interested him when he wrote was less the plot and more a visually exciting effect.”

Lloyd Webber’s success, according to the conventional wisdom, represents British appropriation of the American musical. But has anyone noticed just how simple his formula has been? While there might be some creative and financial risk in adapting Shaw’s Pygmalion (My Fair Lady), or Wilder’s The Matchmaker (Hello Dolly), or for that matter coming up with an original idea, Lloyd Webber hedged his bets right from the start. His first two offerings, Joseph and His Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat and Jesus Christ Superstar, were both based on a best-seller—the Bible. Since then, he has pursued and captured an even larger audience by manufacturing musicals for which language is no barrier. For Cats or Starlight Express the experience of seeing them is enough—their content is utterly meaningless. Even to call them musicals is insulting to the genre they claim to be part of.

Following the box-office success of Jesus Christ Superstar and Evita—his two breakthrough musicals of the 70’s—Lloyd Webber’s penetration of Broadway has accelerated, spearheading infiltration by other British musical products. Lloyd Webber’s Cats (1981) and Song and Dance (1982) seemed to pave the way for Me and My Girl, a revival of a 30’s British musical. The 1987 Broadway opening of his Starlight Express (1984) practically coincided with Les Miserables, also produced by Lloyd Webber’s regular producer, Mackintosh. And now his Phantom preceded the British Chess (in which Lloyd Webber’s ex-lyricist Tim Rice had a major hand) as well as Carrie.

As British theater critic Sheridan Morley puts it, “What also mattered about Evita was that, for the first time, an English musical had been marketed as if it were American: film rights were sold for a million dollars (though the film itself has yet to be made), Broadway and worldwide tours were soon negotiated, and there was no way of doubting, as Elaine Paige stood on that stage balcony singing ‘Don’t Cry for Me Argentina,’ that the West End musical had at last woken up and grown up. This, after 50 years of dodging the issue, was to be the bid for the big international blockbuster, and it worked: the night of a thousand nights became just that, and more.”

But in the struggle between American and British musical output, the declared war is complicated by the terms of the skirmishes. The Lloyd Webber contingencies have shrewdly discovered a way to make their offerings critic-proof. The logic goes something like this: open in London first and carefully manipulate the hype to build an advance sale in New York—rendering the opinion of the Times superfluous in the process.

Though Jesus Christ Superstar opened in New York in the fall of 1971, 10 months before it landed in London, it thrived on the record sales that heralded its appearance. More to the point, every subsequent Lloyd Webber offering had its premiere in London roughly a year before New York. In the meantime, Clive Barnes, who was then the Times critic, called the score of Jesus Christ Superstar “cheap, like the Christmas decorations of a chic Fifth Avenue store”—even Morley claimed that Jesus Christ was “designed to reassure the middle aged without actively alienating the young.” In response to Evita in 1979, Walter Kerr wrote, “Though the Rice- Webber score sometimes sounds as though Max Steiner had arranged it for Carmen Miranda, there are waltzes and polkas and threatening marches to keep us alert.” Today, Frank Rich has found Phantom “a characteristic Lloyd Webber project—long on pop professionalism and melody, impoverished of artistic personality and passion . . . as much a victory of dynamic stagecraft over musical kitsch as it is a triumph of merchandising über alles.” During this same period, any new American entry is denied the privilege of disregarding a Times review and its producers are quickly compelled to post a closing notice if “the Times didn’t like it” is uttered offstage.

But should Lloyd Webber be blamed alone when the audiences have been so receptive? He has come, and he has seen, but he has’ conquered only because the barbarians have been ready victims. If, as Mimi Kramer suggests in her review of Phantom for The New Yorker, a Lloyd Webber musical “seeks to impress an audience with financial rather than creative powers,” and “achievement . . . lies . . . in the idea of extravagance itself,” what could be a more fitting epitaph for our era?

The excess of Phantom begins and ends with its staging. Like Lloyd Webber’s last few arrivals, it is a vulgar circus—the latest reminder of what money and marketing can purchase as success. In addition to being told before, its story gets swallowed up by the technical wizardry—the theatrical ingenuity behind Phantom is so dazzling that no hyperbole can do it justice.

And herein lies Phantom‘s ambivalence. As it accomplishes its calculations, the staging proves enough to justify all the excitement—even the most discerning spectators must marvel at this unique presentation of what can now be realized in the theater. The mock opera sequences within the musical have uncannily recaptured the spirit of what appears to be the look and the tone of 19th-century opera. In its sweeping majesty, the “Masquerade” number that opens Act II seems to invoke Ziegfeld for an audience that can never know what that bygone epoch was really like.

Phantom opens with an auction of the contents .of the Paris Opera HoUse (the Majestic Theater itself), which will momentarily be transformed back into its heyday. Five massive layers of velvet and brocaded drapes rearrange themselves, opera boxes swing into position from the wings, the dilapidated chandelier recovers its glimmer as it miraculously rises up from the stage and ascends into place over the first dozen rows of the Majestic auditorium to recreate the Paris Opera House in all of its beaux arts splendor. The fabulous flashback mode, designed by Maria Bjornson, is heralded by a sudden burst of Lloyd Webber’s most garish organ chords, triggered in turn by the auctioneer’s comment, “Some of you may recall the Phantom of the Opera—a mystery never explained.” Unfortunately, two and a half hours later, the mystery still remains.

The phantom of the title in the end somewhat inexplicably relinquishes his hold on his beloved Christine—the beauty to his beast (at least she’s supposed to be a beauty, even though Frank Rich created quite a scandal in London papers by commenting that Sarah Brightman—Webber’s wife, who portrays Christine—resembles nothing so much as a “chipmunk”). Earlier in the “plot,” Christine was a mere chorus girl before the Phantom terrorized the opera management into featuring her as the lead soprano performing his own composition. Once Christine is released from the Phantom’s spell, she is free to walk off into the Paris moonlight with her other suitor, Raoul, a childhood playmate. But these characters, as well as the supporting cast which peoples the stage rather than inhabits the story, are all caricatures at best (although Michael Crawford as the Phantom and Judy Kaye as the displaced opera soprano both deliver worthwhile performances). By the end, it takes all we have got to follow the narrative, let alone give it any credence. The Phantom’s ultimate disappearance, leaving only his mask behind on his throne, is more enigmatic and pretentiously symbolic than fulfilling. Without even recovering from all the flashbacks. Phantom closes abruptly, perhaps suggesting a Phantom Two (to surpass the $17,500,000 worth of tickets sold before this extravaganza even opened).

For those who still feel that a theatergoing experience should be about something, it’s difficult to avoid resenting the situation. The masterfully executed design of the show appears calculated to divert attention from what should be the raison d’être of any musical: its score, its lyrics, and its book. If those fortes were all that this Phantom had going for it, it would be fortunate to run for a week.

Lloyd Webber’s score boasts only two pleasing melodies, which are repeated often enough to make the cumulative effect seem more substantial than it really is. Instead of a coherent story, sets literally evaporate or melt into new ones, and perspectives instantly change so that during a mock opera performance, the front of the stage becomes backstage. The real basis for the success of Phantom, in other words, is not M. Gaston Leroux’s Title original French novel, but any number of preceding musicals Webber & Company exploited. (Dreamgirls introduced the method for altering perspectives on stage, while Smile took this effect even further. The bridges that shift into place in Starlight Express have been used here for the Phantom to take Christine down to his lair, or for Christine and Raoul to climb to the roof of the Opera House. Even the cavernous lake that leads to the Phantom‘s quarters is not unlike the Paris sewers from Les Miserables, a far superior musical in almost every respect.)

Lloyd Webber’s hideously spectacular version of Phantom has prompted discussions of other variations on the French novel. But the one which seems most pertinent for evaluating Lloyd Webber’s version has curiously been overlooked: the 1974 Brian de Palma film Phantom of the Paradise, with an original score by Paul Williams. Though Williams took greater liberties than Lloyd Webber in departing from the original story, his lyrics were vastly superior at capturing the book’s essential sentiments. “And as I lost control /1 swore I’d sell my soul for one love / Who would sing my song / Fill this emptiness inside me,” goes one of the Phantom’s laments a la Williams. “To work it out, I let them in / All the good guys and the bad guys that I’ve been. / All the devils that disturbed me / And the angels that defeated them somehow / Come together in me now,” goes another. Compare these to the Phantom’s titlesong (a duet with Christine) in the Lloyd Webber rendition: “And though you turn from me / To glance behind / The Phantom of the Opera / is there—inside your mind . . . / My spirit / My voice / In one combined: the Phantom of the Opera / Is there—inside your mind.”

However we might feel today about the dated vernacular, Williams clearly displayed more responsibility to the story he adapted. In comparison, Lloyd Webber was more obviously motivated by the music-video spin-off and the disco-resale of the potential hit single he had fabricated, where words and meanings are about as relevant as bright lights at a discotheque.

The real story to this state-of-the-art technical prowess is the American Actors Equity’s attempt to prevent Sarah Brightman, Lloyd Webber’s wife, from repeating her starring role on Broadway. The Phantom, remember, would stop at nothing—not even murder—to ensure that the Paris Opera feature Christine. Lloyd Webber withheld and even threatened to cancel the American production of his musical until Actors Equity relented and permitted Brightman to perform this side of the Atlantic. Oscar Wilde’s suggestion that truth imitates art has become something of a commonplace in our increasingly surreal age; if only Lloyd Webber had managed to translate some passion from his real-life Phantom role into the product of his best marketing feat yet.