Competition in television can work both ways, lowering standards in hope of attracting a broader audience or raising standards to outshine whatever else is in view. The three networks, under ever-increasing pressure from cable television, independent stations and the demon VCR, are having to go the Gee Whiz route to hold audiences.
A glittery case in point is NBC's $10-million, four-hour miniseries version of Gaston Leroux's 19th-Century melodrama, "Phantom of the Opera," airing 9-11 p.m. Sunday and Monday on Channels 4, 36 and 39, with a fresh scenario by playwright Arthur Kopit ("Indians"), direction by the movies' Tony Richardson ("The Loved One," "Tom Jones") and a starry cast headed by Elmer Gantry himself, Burt Lancaster, with Charles Dance of television's "Jewel in the Crown" and the film "White Mischief" as the Phantom. The filming was done in Europe, much of it in and around Paris.
Those who have read the original Leroux novel or seen the Andrew Lloyd Webber musical extravaganza version may well wonder how Lancaster fits into the proceedings.
The answer is that Lancaster, thanks to Kopit, solves an expository problem that Leroux made a botch of. The tricky question facing the novelist was, how do you give the Phantom a history? How do you reveal to an audience what the Phantom would just as soon not tell about himself and his past?
Leroux attacked the matter by inventing a character called The Persian, who somehow had known the Phantom in better days.
"The novel," Lancaster said one recent morning in his high-rise Century City apartment, "was schlocky even for its time, a real melodrama. The Phantom in the original was a terrible man, a murderer who killed a lot of people. The Persian had saved his life once; that gave him some control over the Phantom."
But the relationship was awkward on the page. It was Kopit's bold stroke to give the Phantom a father, and producers Edgar Scherick and Haim Saban's bold stroke was to make the father Lancaster.
In Kopit's script, Lancaster is Carriere, lately dismissed as the manager of the Paris Opera by its new impresarios and all too aware of the lurking troubles in the dark caverns below stage. The father-son tie is not immediately revealed, but it is clear that the relationship between the two men is close and sensitive, and it makes the Phantom's presence in and under the opera house the more logical.
Lancaster himself has been a music-lover--with a particular taste for opera now yielding somewhat to a fondness for chamber music--since his boyhood days as a mailman's son in the Bronx.
"My mother had a collection of John McCormack recordings which I played on our Victrola. Yes, the big horn and the dog's face listening, that one. I learned the Irish songs, 'Kathleen Mavourneen' and 'Mother Machree,' and I would sing them in the street. I was a boy soprano; quite a good voice. When I sang, mothers would bring me glasses of milk and pieces of cake." They were the first tangible rewards of show business. Lancaster reckons he was 10 or 11.
"There were a lot of Italian people in the neighborhood, and one of my pals, Nick, had very little education but he loved opera. His mother had some Caruso records, and we listened to them all the time. Whenever we could, we went to the Met, the original wonderful Met on 39th Street. You could get standing room for $1.10, and we heard Rosa Ponselle and a lot of the great singers. I liked 'Boheme' and 'Pagliacci,' all the warhorses."
Doing "Phantom of the Opera" for 11 weeks (a remarkably long shoot for television) was thus a particular treat for Lancaster, who attended all the music rehearsals he could. "The singer who dubs Christine (played in the miniseries by newcomer Teri Polo) has an astonishingly fine voice."
The Paris Opera itself was being renewed, so the interiors were shot at the Odeon. "But we did the entrances and exits at the opera," says Lancaster, "and we did the finale on the roof of the opera. Breathtakingly beautiful up there."
Working with Richardson, Lancaster found to his pleased surprise, reminded him of his experiences with John Huston in "The Unforgiven" 30 years earlier. "He's like John. Listens to your ideas very carefully, very politely, might even try one. Then he says, 'Let's try it this way, shall we?' He does his own thing, and it's right. Marvelous director, brilliant ideas. And we did it like a movie, none of that television rush."
Like Huston, Lancaster says, Richardson was confident enough to abandon his preset plans if something more interesting emerged during rehearsal. "He would say, 'Maybe it works better if we don't see you quite so early in the scene.' He'd be right." Despite the unrushed approach, Lancaster says Richardson brought the production in significantly under budget.
These days Lancaster attends fewer operas than he used to, he says, because he does not find the great voices that he once heard. At least one contemporary tenor of some renown, Lancaster notes sadly, "sometimes screams his head off like a bull." Lancaster has retreated to the intimacy of chamber music, drawn first to Bach and Mozart, now working his way through Bartok.
Yet there is finally no thrill for him like the glorious human voice, as he rediscovered during the rehearsals of the music for "Phantom of the Opera." He had no trouble identifying with a role as a career opera person and no trouble understanding the fateful attraction of Christine's golden voice for her phantom suitor.