Demanding the Phantom of their choice

`Phantom of the Opera' fans want Michael Crawford to reprise his theatrical role in the movie, and they are lobbying Andrew Lloyd Webber and his associates in a most vocal way

Pop Culture

July 11, 1999|By Robert W. Welkos | Robert W. Welkos,Los Angeles Times

HOLLYWOOD -- It is an emotional journey that has now lasted nearly a decade, a journey born in a darkened theater when the Phantom vanishes from his lair leaving behind only a mask for his pursuers to ponder.

As the houselights went up, Diane Flogerzi was so overwhelmed by Michael Crawford's performance in Andrew Lloyd Webber's hit musical "The Phantom of the Opera" that all she wished for was to get back in line at the Ahmanson Theatre in Los Angeles and -- like a child who can't get enough of the rides at Disneyland -- immediately experience it all over again. "I didn't want to leave," she recalls all these years later. "It was the best theater experience I've ever had."

Today, Flogerzi, a Federal Aviation Administration program analyst, stands center stage in another unfolding drama, her destiny as entwined with the mysterious Phantom as the heroine Christine in Lloyd Webber's stage production.

She and thousands of other Crawford fans from many lands remain so entranced by his long-ago stage performances as the horribly scarred, love-obsessed man living beneath the Paris Opera House, that they have mounted a public campaign to persuade Lloyd Webber and Warner Bros. to cast Crawford as the Phantom in any movie based on the musical.

Once, that dream seemed so promising. When Crawford left the Ahmanson production in 1990, "Michaelmania" was at its peak, and two seats to his final performance were sold at a charity auction for $27,500.

But he is 57 now, and all his fans have heard from studio executives and Lloyd Webber's emissaries is the same old story: Nothing has been determined; trust our judgment in these matters. "Trust their judgment?" the fans ask incredulously. After waiting all these years only to hear that the filmmakers are thinking the unthinkable: casting a "box-office draw" -- Antonio Banderas is the most frequently mentioned -- in place of Crawford? How dare they! So, they have formed the Michael Crawford Phantom Movie Campaign, voicing their outrage over the Internet, through the mails, at rallies staged outside Warner Bros. and in paid advertisements published in the entertainment industry's two major trade publications, Variety and the Hollywood Reporter. They have inundated the studio and composer with letters, some threatening in tone, some pleading on pink paper with little hearts dotting the I's.

Crawford's fans have no idea if their demands are taken seriously behind the guarded gates of Warner Bros. in Burbank or across the seas by the famous composer of "Cats" and "Sunset Boulevard." They only believe, perhaps naively, that if they ring a bell loudly enough in the right places, someone in a position of influence will put things right and the one and only rightful Phantom's performance will be preserved on celluloid for future generations.

The campaign was launched about a year ago after Flogerzi, who lives in Palmdale, attended a Crawford concert in Southern California and heard someone mention that the singer might not be cast in the film. With the help of her husband, Steve, they put up a Web site and included a guest book for visitors in cyberspace to jot down their thoughts. "I immediately started getting e-mails and people reacting and asking what can they do to help," she said. To date, the site has generated more than 40,000 hits.

To buy the trade ads, the campaign raises money either by staging Internet raffles -- a set of limited-edition porcelain Ken and Barbie dolls dressed like the Phantom and Christine paid for a $2,900 ad in Variety -- or by selling tote bags and T-shirts that carry slogans such as "Anyone for President -- Michael Crawford for Phantom" and "The role IS the man."

On its surface, "The Phantom of the Opera" would seem to be a logical choice, were Hollywood to make another big-budget musical. Set in Paris, circa 1870, its "Beauty and the Beast" theme deals with a mysterious, disfigured man living in the sewers beneath the Opera House whose romantic obsession with a beautiful, young soprano comes to a tragic end. So, why didn't Hollywood ever make the film?

Lloyd Webber's spokesman, Peter Brown, said the project languished on the back burner at Warner Bros. for years "because there were so many theatrical productions around the world -- five in North America alone. It had more legs than anyone thought it had." But now, he added, the movie is on the "front burner."

Studio sources say Warner Bros. is in "serious negotiations" with Shekhar Kapur ("Elizabeth") to direct the film, but they are still searching for a screenwriter.

Other sources, however, say that a screenwriter, whom they are not at liberty to name until a contract is hammered out, has already held consultations with the producers, and after a script is completed, casting can commence. Ah, yes, the casting.

At one time, there was talk of John Travolta starring as the Phantom, but after that evaporated the spotlight shifted to Banderas, who won over critics in 1996 with his portrayal of Che in "Evita."

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