“Faust, a five-act grand opera, is by Charles Gounod with a French libretto by Jules Barbier and Michel Carré. It is loosely based on Faust, Part I, by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. Goethe’s lesser-known follow-up, 2 Faust 2 Furious, focused on a man who made a deal with the diesel.”
–Erik Forrest Jackson, pushing all my geeky English-major buttons in an explanatory footnote of Muppets Meet the Classics: The Phantom of the Opera
When I opened the book and saw that the epigraph was a quote from a renowned French philosopher and a line from an old infomercial, I knew I was going to like this book.
When I started laughing hysterically at the table of contents, I knew I was going to love this book.
When I finished reading it, I wanted to go back and read the original novel again to compare the two; the mark of a good book is that it makes you want to read more.
The original Phantom of the Opera is a suspenseful story filled with thrills and chills, but it just goes to show that everything is better with Muppets. On the surface, this dark tale of murderous obsession might not seem like the most obvious story to turn into a Muppet adaptation. However, at its heart, Phantom is the story about a lonely guy who doesn’t really fit in, whose evil deeds (and they are evil) stem from the fact that he is starved for compassion and understanding, and if it’s not too much of a spoiler, ultimately it’s the power of love that redeems the Phantom and resolves the plot. And if that isn’t a solid foundation on which to build a Muppet adaptation, I don’t know what is.
It had been a few years since I had read the original novel, but I’m well acquainted with the Phantom through several of his many incarnations–the novel, the Lon Chaney silent film, a melodramatic parody written by a local playwright (which doesn’t have much to do with the novel, apart from the title), the renowned stage musical, and finally the movie of the musical–so I’m comfortably familiar with the story.
Therefore, I was pleasantly surprised to see how seamlessly the Muppet characters blend into the original novel. Jackson does a good job of using each Muppet character to serve the story while simultaneously keeping each Muppet character true to himself/herself. For some characters, it’s easier than others. Obviously, no Muppet is so well suited to play the Phantom as Uncle Deadly, and my only complaint in that regard is that we didn’t get to see enough of him.* Statler and Waldorf are clearly the most logical choice(s) to play theater-owners Moncharmin and Richard, and they fit the roles so well that if you didn’t know better, you might think Leroux wrote the parts specifically for them. It’s seems like an easy matter to turn the novel’s ballerinas into dancing chickens (making the corps de ballet into the corps de poulet, arguably the most Muppety joke in the entire novel).
On the other hand, Johnny Fiama becomes a composite of lead baritone Carolus Fonta and ballerina Meg Giry, seemingly for the sole purpose of having his mother play Madame Giry. And yet, it works. Similarly, it makes sense for Constantine to play Kermit’s older brother, le Comte de Chagny. In so doing, Jackson turns Constantine into a much nicer character than he has been in the past, though still recognizable as Constantine. Jackson also makes a point of explaining why Constantine has a Russian accent but Kermit doesn’t–although I think it would have been much funnier if he hadn’t bothered–and shoehorns Constantine into playing Janice’s love interest…which is an interesting pairing to say the least.**
Similarly, while it makes sense for Kermit and Piggy to play the lead characters in just about any Muppet story, these roles in particular might not seem like a perfect fit, at least not at first. Piggy’s hot-and-cold personality seems more suited to play prima donna Carlotta (a role that ultimately goes to Yolanda Rat) than ingenue Christine. And yet, Christine has a lot more assertiveness and pluck than a lot of literary heroines of this time period; even though she spends a lot of the novel as a damsel in distress (primarily psychological), she tells Raoul off when he starts getting too high-handed with her. Leroux himself acknowledges that, between Christine and Raoul, Christine is the “stronger of the two,” and ultimately it is Christine, not Raoul, who ends up saving the day. Therefore, rather than being a bad fit, the role of Christine gives Piggy an opportunity to show more of her complete personality–more of the sweeter, more nurturing, more vulnerable sides–that we see all too seldom nowadays.
Conversely, Raoul–while not the plodding beast that some of the more strident Phantom “phans” would have you believe–is not the most appealing leading man in all of literature. He tends to be ineffectual and whiny, and while the casual male privilege that he asserts would have been largely unremarkable when the novel was published, it leaves a bad taste in our mouths today. And yet, by casting Kermit in the role, Jackson reclaims Raoul for the good guys’ side by infusing him with Kermit’s kindness and ethos, making him into the hero that he should be, without compromising Piggy/Christine’s agency.
If you weren’t familiar with the story, or if you were familiar with the adaptations but not the original novel, you might not always be able to tell where Gaston Leroux stops and Erik Forrest Jackson begins. For example, it was Leroux’s idea that Raoul de Chagny should plan a naval expedition to the North Pole (or, at least, the Arctic) but it was Jackson who decided that the point of the expedition is to find Santa Claus’ base of operations (which would come in handy approximately a century later when Kermit and friends want to deliver letters to him–but I digress).
On the other hand, there are times when it is easy to tell where Leroux ends and Jackson begins, particularly with regard to the anachronistic references to contemporary things like YouTube and Ariana Grande. Some of these references are quite funny, (the Phantom’s verified Twitter account is offered as proof of his existence, and a theater-goer is disappointed to find out that Hamilton is playing “three blocks over and two centuries away”) but most of them are just distracting. They actually muddy the issue of when this version of the story is supposed to take place; at times it seems like this version, like the original novel, is supposed to take place in the latter 19th century, but all the anachronisms made me wonder if maybe this version was in fact supposed to be taking place in contemporary times.
The anachronisms also include quite a bit of contemporary slang, which makes me cringe slightly because I think it will make the book feel uncomfortably dated in a few years’ time. One criticism of this novel that I read on one of the Muppet fansites said that the Muppets sometimes say things that are “out-of-character” because they’re playing characters other than themselves, but I felt it was much more jarring when they were slanging it up because it didn’t really fit in with the original novel and its characters, nor does it feel entirely organic to the Muppets (except Janice and, arguably, Pepé).
Nevertheless, by and large each Muppet character’s voice and personality emerge largely intact and true to form–and good thing too, because this book is absolutely crammed with Muppets. The Muppets play all the characters in the novel; there’s no human actor like Michael Caine, Tim Curry, or Jason Segel to anchor the story and–unlike, for example, Muppet Christmas Carol–there’s not a single character that was created specifically for this book. So if you like a lot of Muppets–well-known and obscure–in your Muppet material, this is the book for you.
With that said, the wall-to-wall-Muppet nature of the book is something of a double-edged sword. The original novel might be alternately described as a horror novel or a murder mystery (not a “whodunnit” but a “howdunnit”). In either case, a lot of characters die. Jackson decreases the body count from the original novel and, fortunately, most of the remaining deaths happen “offstage” or in flashback, and Jackson does a good job of handling them with a subversive edge of absurdist humor; the unfortunate Muppets who expire in the novel tend to do so in a veritable Mad Libs of “freak _____ accidents.”
And yet, in a way, having characters that we care about, and are already invested in, die in the story brings a deeper level of emotion it. For example, it probably is not too much of a spoiler to say that at some point in the story, the chandelier falls into the audience and kills somebody. In Leroux’s novel, the victim is someone whom (a) we literally met only about three pages prior, and (b) doesn’t have any dialogue or even the dignity of being a named character. Her death is meant to invoke shock and fear, not sorrow and pity. I won’t tell you whom the Muppets’ chandelier lands on, but it’s someone that we know and love, which somehow makes the scene even more evocative than it was in the original novel.
It may be a spoiler to say that the character who dies in the chandelier crash is a character who tends to endure a lot of hardship and whom we have seen die before, only to come back in future Muppet productions. And now that I think about it, I’m not sure why I’m being so coy about it when the publicized illustrations make it blatantly clear who the character is.
Which seems like a perfect segue to the topic of the magnificent illustrations by Owen Richardson. Rarely have the Muppets been rendered so beautifully, with such obvious love and affection. The illustrations are all so detailed, and the Muppets are all so expressive, that the illustrations practically tell the story on their own (of course, that’s easy for me to say since I know the story already). To be completely honest, there’s a teensy-tinesy part of me that wants to tear the book apart so that I could frame those pictures and hang them on my wall. If Disney doesn’t offer these illustrations up for sale as prints and posters, then their priorities are even more askew than I think they are.
And, of course, that brings us to the elephant in the room, and I’m not talking about Seymour, the fireman of the opera. The purpose of this review is to answer the question “is this book worth reading?” The answer is a resounding “yes!” As to the question of whether or not you should buy it…that’s a question I leave up to individual conscience. It’s an acknowledged, well-established fact that the more successful this book is, the more likely Disney will be to continue the series. Therefore, it might be worthwhile to send a message to Disney that we appreciate quality Muppet projects made by people who really care about the characters.
Then again, the folks at Disney may just pocket the money and laugh in our faces while making substandard direct-to-video Muppet projects with photoshopped covers.
*Part of the Phantom’s menace–I swear that I didn’t intend that as a Star Wars reference–in the novel is that he tends to lurk in the shadows except at key moments. Also, the Phantom’s backstory has been heavily revised for the purposes of this novel, so he doesn’t get the long introduction in flashback that he gets in the original.
**As a matter of fact, it just goes to show that even I have trouble sometimes telling where Leroux stops and Jackson begins. The romance between Count Constantine de Chagny and prima ballerina Janice Sorelli seems to have, in fact, been the invention of Jackson to give the elder Chagny brother a happier ending than he gets in the original novel.