I took my 9-year-old to see The Phantom of the Opera, and I’m still recovering – in the good way. It was my 3rd time seeing it. Once through the eyes of a teenager full of angst, once as a young adult falling in love with her future husband, and now as a mother, watching her child experience something for the first time. Each time, I’m moved by the story, affected by the music, and saddened by the ending.
I wasn’t sure my son would understand the story enough to love it, or even like it, but I figured the experience couldn’t hurt. Besides, fancy drinks and concession stand goodies late on a school night, are the stuff memories are made of.
He was engaged from the start, never taking his eyes off the stage. I’d prepared him for the jarring sounds and visuals, which he got through emotionally intact. No surprise, he connected with the music. His love for all things instrumental has been present pretty much since birth. (This is the same kid who asked for a harp from Santa on his 3rd Christmas.)
At intermission, he was full of words. He could barely get them out fast enough, “OMG the fire, the gunshots, and the chandelier!” As soon as the lights flickered telling us to take our seats, he was off down the corridor, warm chocolate chip cookie in hand, “C’mon Mom!”
From the first verse of “Masquerade,” he was transfixed. As the second half of the story unfolded, I realized I’d forgotten the intensity. He seemed okay but leaned into me as we saw the Phantom’s backstory explained through shadowy images projected on a wall. The shadows revealed how some characters had met their demise at the hands of the Phantom’s anger.
In the last scenes, the Phantom’s face is unmasked and disfigured – a startling visual for a 9-year-old. I watched my son’s expression turn to concern, unsure if he was reacting to the stage make-up, the change in mood when Christine Daae is being held captive, the intensity of the music, or the overall tension that filled the auditorium.
As the curtain came down for the last time, he clapped enthusiastically. Glancing sideways to check it was the end, hopeful it wasn’t. As soon as the applause quieted, I turned and waited to hear how much he loved it. Instead, he said, “I didn’t like the ending.”
“Why?” I asked, not expecting his reaction.
“I don’t like that the Phantom couldn’t be happy.” His face fixed in concern. I understood wholeheartedly how he felt – we’re conditioned to want a happy ending.
Our discussion continued in the car, and at home as he was putting on his pajamas, long after bedtime.
“Why couldn’t they make it so he was at least a little bit happy?” He said pulling a plaid fleece shirt over his head. Why did he have to be so alone?” And with tears in his eyes, as he reached for his toothbrush, “Are there really people who have that sad of a life?”
Parenting is not for the weak (or for those who like to sleep). My motto is: be honest whenever possible. The short answer was,Yes, people do have that sad of a life. But did we really need to cover the injustices of humanity at 11:30 on a school night?
My son’s a reader, so I grasped for characters he knew; hoping to insert a fictional buffer into our conversation. The depths of hardships faced by kids all over the world: abuse, neglect, poverty, bullying, would have to wait for an earlier time of day, preferably on the weekend, or when my husband wasn’t out of town.
He’s obsessed with all things Harry Potter, so I tried Voldemort.
“No Mom, Voldemort had a hard childhood, but he was bad from the beginning. He didn’t even try to be good. The Phantom was born with a different face and was put in a circus and put in a CAGE. Anyone would have turned bad after being treated like that!”
Ok, good point. And man this kid really paid attention to the plot.
“Are people really treated like that in real life?”
Clearly, he needed more, midnight on a school night or not.
Enter brutal truth. “Yes. Some children never get a fair start. They’re born into much different environments than you and your brother. Some kids are bullied their whole lives, and it changes them, and sometimes they make bad choices out of anger or fear. And we can’t always do anything about it. The only thing we can control is how we treat others. We have to remember that everyone has a backstory – even those who act in ways we don’t understand.”
Wheels spun behind his big brown eyes. “Yes, mom, like Snape! Everyone thought he was bad, but he was so good.”
Ok, we’re back to fiction, phew! “Yes, like Snape.”
“He is actually the hero. He loved Lilly the most. And James isn’t what Harry thought; I bet Harry is ashamed of James.”
Oh boy, we’re digging deep, and it’s not getting any earlier. “Well, yes, in some ways, but people aren’t perfect, even those we love the most. We have to accept all of them, even the parts we don’t like. And yes, even the good guys can be complicated.”
“Mom, James is a bully! And Snape loves Lilly so much that he protects Harry, even though he reminds him of James – who bullied him. And when his Patronus is a doe, it’s sooo saaad!”
Barely coming up for air, he continued, “And Mom, The Phantom was bullied and treated terribly, and the only way he could escape was to fight and to hurt the people hurting him. And no one ever loved him. It’s just so sad.”
Why couldn’t I have just taken him to see Storks?!
I had to get us out of this somehow before the sun came up. He hates mushy stuff and kissing, but I had no choice. Because school. We needed to put a period on this conversation and go to bed. It was time to talk about the ending that started this conversation. So. Long. Ago. So we talked about the kissing. Ewww!
“Why do you think Christine Daae kisses the Phantom at the end?” He crinkled his nose up a bit, but I noticed no signs of fake gagging or grunts of disgust.
He was thinking.
If we were going to discuss kissing, I needed to do the talking, but he was listening.
“Well I think it was to show him he was worth loving, he was worth something, and not a monster. And in turn, he let her go because he loved her.”
To my surprise, there was no cringing. No, Gross, Mom! Just a question.
“Mom, Do you think he ever found a friend or anyone who was nice to him? Or was he alone forever?”
Continuing with the truth-telling, I said, “I don’t know.”
And that was enough for now. He quietly climbed the stairs to his room.
He crawled into bed (taking a dog with him to cuddle) and said more to himself than to me, “But it was just a story.”
Yes, it was. A sad story. And his little boy heart will learn as he goes, what I already know.
The sad ones stick. The sad ones move you. The sad ones are often the most important to tell. They are the voice for those not destined for happy endings, but who deserve to have their stories told.
My son is sensitive. (Though we never use the S-word since I’ve heard it enough for both of us.) I tell him he feels things deeply. He does, he always has, which makes him complicated. I know how he feels because he gets it from me.
It’s a blessing and a curse. Just like James Potter, and Snape, and The Phantom, it’s what makes us imperfect and vulnerable, and sometimes taxing on the ones who love us most.
But it’s part of our story, and it’s the only one we know how to tell.