I’m 15 years old, engulfed in the dim lighting of a small room as I'm about to watch The Phantom of the Opera through a projector screen. It’s the movie version with the enchanting Emmy Rossum and Gerard Butler’s questionable nasal singing chops (as if he was struggling to hold back a sneeze all the time). But right now, that doesn’t matter. I don’t even register the problem. Throughout the whole movie, I feel one thing: pity. It reaches its peak by the rooftop scene, after Christine and Raoul sing All I Ask of You, all but declaring their love for one another. They proceed to happily prance out of screen right after. Just then, a jealous Phantom reveals himself, rising from a high gargoyle statue; he’s seen the entire thing unfold, and starts his own sorrowful rendition of All I Ask of You. Gerard’s worrying colds aside, you feel the defeated sorrow in his voice, hear the held back tears more than see them. Eventually, the music slowly but surely swells into anger and a vengeful promise to an unknowing Christine that she will rue the night she so rudely fell in love with her childhood best friend, instead of him, her creepy and controlling, occasional kidnapper.
All the while, high school me, hopped up on the slightest tingle of a silly unrequited crush is thinking, ‘Poor guy,’ as I quietly shed a tear or two for the lonely Opera Ghost. At the end of the movie, I leave the audio-visual room with a deep sense of pity for Erik (the Phantom), and so do almost half of my classmates.
It’s only been six years since, when I finally watched The Phantom of the Opera again as a full blown musical in Solaire that I realized how truly problematic his character is. Not even the stellar stage production, impeccable acting, and breath-taking singing could have distracted me from the fact that here was a man obsessively stalking a young girl half his age, and masking (no pun intended) his destructive and controlling ways as acts of love. The worst part? He gets away with it. Nevermind the chaos he caused, the opera he terrorized, and the innocent people he killed, because it’s mentioned in the novel, and alluded in the play that he most likely dies of heartbreak in the end, and that’s enough retribution, right?
Notice how we’ve completely glossed over Christine, the female lead, if you can still recall. This passive tortured prima donna whose every choice throughout the story is made to benefit the male overlords surrounding her, is pulled to and from doing this and that, always for someone else, always for a man. She has no voice of her own, ironic as that might sound. Granted, Gaston Leroux’s original The Phantom of the Opera novel was published over a century ago, and women didn’t exactly have a Wonder Woman or Captain Marvel back in 1910, it’s still frustrating to realize that the tortured/dead girl trope still persists 109 years and four feminist waves later.
Fast forward to 2019, exactly a week after I watched the Phantom of the Opera at Solaire, I’ve found myself at the Newport Performing Arts Theater, once again staring at a proscenium ready to burst with production magic and the music of the Eraserheads. Ang Huling El Bimbo, in summary: riveting musical direction, gripping performances (Gab Pangilinan is notably captivating as Joy), enamoring stage production, a whole different story, yet the same tortured girl with zero agency whatsoever.
The musical starts with a covered limp body onstage. This is Joy. She’s our female lead. She’s already dead. Our three frantic male leads rush onstage, and Joy’s body disappears into their agitated pacing, setting the tone for the rest of the story. Immediately you’re made to realize that this isn’t about Joy, it’s about these three boys, the journey to discovering the unforgivable act that would explain their sweating buckets over a police call, and the play’s attempt to redeem them at the end, in some way.
To explain briefly, Ang Huling El Bimbo is sectioned into two parts: the present with our 30-something leads, and the past, where Hector, Anthony, and Emman—roommates turned best friends—are in college. After the initial exposition involving the adults at the start, the first act reverts them into the lightness of their youth. So does the tone of the play take a turn to a comedic and uplifting narrative. As the story goes, the three idealistic Iskos meet Joy, a bubbly young girl who sells them turon and helps out in her aunt’s karinderya. They quickly adopt her into their trio and eventually grow into a tight-knit foursome ready to take on the world together. That is, up until the tragedy happens. Days before they graduate, Hector, Anthony, and Emman take Joy out on a scenic ride to celebrate their impending achievement. However, their festivities are abruptly interrupted by a group of men who mug them, hold the boys hostage at gun-point, and rape Joy, completely derailing the gung-ho upbeat atmosphere originally set by the story. When it’s all over, shocked and terrified, the boys decide to do absolutely nothing. They take Joy home and painfully agree never to speak of it again. The lights in the theater go down, only a haunting red light remains, as if taunting an audience stunned into utter silence. The insides of my skin are still crawling.
Without much of a warning, we’re thrown into act two, 10 minutes later, and lo and behold, it seems Joy’s life continues to spiral down an unfortunate endless hill. Meanwhile the boys have turned into semi-successful men thriving considerably in their respective careers. Joy, now with a young daughter named Ligaya, still occasionally calls up the trio to check in on them. But it’s clear, through curt greetings and rushed goodbyes, that they want nothing more to do with her, as if they’re burying Joy in a past they’d rather forget and refuse to take accountability for. Suffice to say, Joy soon dies of an accident, her ghost ‘forgives’ Hector, Anthony, and Emman, and she ends up taking responsibility for her messed up life via a didactic letter that all but lays out the ‘lesson’ of the play. Out of guilt, the three men eventually find their redemption in the promise to take care of an orphaned Ligaya, and I leave the theater feeling unpleasantly defeated. Yes, it’s as tiring as it sounds.
Now here we are, from the operatic marvels of Paris, to the infectious jukebox kanto singalongs of Manila, over a hundred years apart, two women sacrificed to mold the ‘complexities’ within undeserving men. The question is: When do we grow tired of it? When do we stop rehashing the tortured (dead) girl, whose abuse is veiled by a thin white sheet, only to further the plot and personalities of male characters? When does the manic pixie dream girl transcend into more than just a dream?
Perhaps there’s a shared blame here that we’re not acknowledging. How many times have we watched and read of this same abuse in real life—on the news, in newspapers—and turned a blind eye to them? Maybe the subconscious knowledge that we’ve allowed this play of power to persist in our own plane, and the refusal to take responsibility for it, has caused a need to be consoled by fiction. Are we looking for some form of reassurance that, as long as we’re an audience distanced from the violence, it’s otherwise okay, because there’s a lesson to be had at the end of every story anyway? No need to bother branching out to real life. It almost seems like we’re stuck in a loop of consume and repeat that, as long as these kinds of stories draw in considerable revenue, the new Joy or Christine isn’t too far behind. But how do we break the cycle?
How about we start with our own stories? They say fiction is a mirror of reality, but the other way around can happen just as well. No more waiting for a society to catch up. We unfurl the white sheet and bring our girls back to life, tell narratives with women at the forefront, uneclipsed by men. All the stories of the female, glossed over, unheard of, untold, finally illustrated in the open. Imagine a Joy, alive and well, a desperate phone call to her former best friends doesn’t even cross her mind. A Christine who sings out of her own volition. She’s the opera’s prima donna, onstage on her own two feet. She brings the crowd to an enamored standing ovation.