The exciting sounds of The Phantom of the Opera (from 25 years ago!)

The exciting sounds of The Phantom of the Opera (from 25 years ago!)

When it opened in 1986, The Phantom of the Opera wowed theater crowds with its exciting and novel electronic accompanying sounds. But two and a half decades later do these sounds still have the power to excite? Will your exciting sounds still be exciting in 2036?

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Earlier this year I had the pleasure and honor of taking the love of my life to see Andrew Lloyd-Webber's musical The Phantom of the Opera at Her Majesty's Theatre in the West End of London. I had the foresight to do a little research and find the exact seats that would be directly under the famous chandelier when it falls at the end of Act 1 (the center of Row D, just in case you might be thinking of going).

Also in Act 1 there is the signature number The Phantom of the Opera during which the Phantom lures the show's female lead Christine down to his secret lair.

This part of the show is wonderfully powerful and features in the orchestral accompaniment a drum machine and pounding synthesizer bass.

Now think back to 1986. The eighties were the heyday of electronically produced music. I say that because although synthesized music was strong in the seventies, in the eighties electronic sounds were dominant in popular music.

Now although The Phantom of the Opera is a musical, one theory concerning its success is that the people that go to see it feel like they are going to see an opera. They would be daunted by seeing an actual opera with its fat sopranos and high C's, but they feel flattered and sophisticated to be in the audience of something that they can kid themselves is the real deal.

Well I would say that The Phantom of the Opera is indeed an opera, and a very good one too. But one thing that you don't expect to hear in an operatic orchestral score is an electronic rhythm section.

So the combination of opera and electronic rhythm section would be novel and exciting in the 1980s. The question is, is it still exciting now?

Eventually in popular music people got bored with electronic sounds. It's true to say that in the eighties electronic sounds were fairly crude, but they became more sophisticated during the 1990s. In the 2000s however, popular music sounds went back to their organic instrumental roots. And where electronic sounds are used today, they are used in an organic way and less of an in-your-face 'this is electronic, so it must be exciting' manner.

So to my ears, the electronic rhythm section in this part of The Phantom of the Opera seemed incredibly crude and dated. The thought passed through my mind that composer Andrew Lloyd-Webber might at some point have considered re-scoring this section because the point of having electronics wasn't relevant anymore.

But then, as the number progressed, I found myself caught up in the flow of the music and the action on stage. And poor Christine... having to choose between the exciting but bitter-and-twisted Phantom and the noble but dull Raoul.

Yes, though I had tired myself of drum machines and pulsating synthesizer bass lines back in the 1980s, I was once again excited to hear these sounds. And to younger ears that were not so aware of musical trends two and a half decades ago, an electronic rhythm section amid an orchestra probably sounds new!

You might not be writing music for posterity but writing music that is new and exciting today. I believe that's the way to go. If people like your new and exciting sounds today, then the listeners of the future will probably like it too. There may be a point where it sounds dated, but a little further forward in time then it could come to be considered classic.

Oh no! I've just realized that what I have said might encourage more of the over-use of Auto-Tuning! What have I let the world in for...?

Publication date: Monday December 20, 2010
Author: David Mellor



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Earlier discussion on this topic...

Jaytee, Hargette, UK

It's funny that this particular music comes up and in this context, too! I remember, in the late 80's, using a recording of the show as an example of poor choice of instrumentation and a lesson in how bad production won't stop well written music from being successful. The clicky kick drum (DX or Linn? I can't remember) and brash, forward sounding synths just did not work with the orchestral instruments the way they were done, in my opinion. And I loved clicky kick drums and brash forward sounding synthesisers at the time. Still do. The recording - and I assume the live show to be similar, I never saw the damn thing as I hate musicals - was successful due to the songwriting and the zeitgeist of the time. In fact, I reckon the recording was successful in spite of the poor choice of sounds and dodgy production. So, it doesn't just sound cheesy now, it sounded cheesy then. I felt strongly at the time that it was an example of hubris - a classically trained team thinking this 'pop' music lark is simple but making the mistake of only seeing the surface of (at the time) modern production. The result being a tacky pastiche of 80s production laid over an orchestral foundation.
Tuesday June 21, 2011


who cares. It either sounds good or it doesn't. Wot ever genre.
Monday December 27, 2010

Christian, Rome, Italy

Ciao David, I agree with you. You & your wife may want to watch the "Phantom of the Opera" movie directed by Joel Schumacher. Other than having a hair-raising introduction, all tracks have been re-orchestrated by Sir Lloyd Webber... It's interesting though that the "Phantom" song you talk about still retains that old-fashioned electronica/rock song... I thought it was interesting that being able to orchestrate his product from scratch he essentially decided to keep that same sound. After all, I suppose that the Phantom is now associated with that sound... Which makes it intriguing and fascinating at the same time...
Monday December 27, 2010

Moriyon Oluwa Dexter, Lasgidi, Nigeria

well i have always been a fan of the opera, the orchestra is even mind blowing! its a food for thought about using electronic sounds but moderation is key
Tuesday December 21, 2010

Joe Hannigan , Philadelphia, USA

Very good points, and I can't help but wonder as well: Why not update the orchestration? Plenty of good (non-cheesy) sounds out there as well. I saw Le Miz in 2007 in London, and was stunned at the very thin sound of the few musicians left in the pit, supplemented by VERY BAD and dated sounding synthesized parts. (howlingly bad harp and piano, for starters.) How difficult would it have been to use some of the saved $$ on a few new synth samples to at least lend credence to the sound they're emulating? Great show, great cast, great singing, but terrible "orchestration", for want of a better term.
Monday December 20, 2010