The Big Idea: Jen Comfort
While it’s true that Phantom of the Opera is leaving Broadway, author Jen Comfort is here to bring a modern, gender-reversed version of it to your reading list with her newest rom-com novel, Midnight Duet.
“You know how the 2019 theatrical release of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Cats was a visual, conceptual, and financial travesty of colossal purr-portions? Hear me out…”
It’s late 2020. My debut book hasn’t even hit shelves yet, and here I am–unreviewed by critics, untested by audiences, absolutely zero clout to my name–throwing utterly ridiculous book ideas at my editor with the outsized ambition of 2015’s Pizza Rat (may he rest in piz.. za).
“What if I did that with Phantom of the Opera, except the Phantom is a woman, the ingenue is a German hair metal frontman, and it’s a contemporary rom-com novel set in Vegas?”
Context is key: in late 2020, I’d been unemployed from my restaurant serving job for seven months, the world was burning down in figurative and literal senses, and I’d spent a great deal of time with only my imagination and my cats for company. I wouldn’t say I was going insane, per se, because that does a terrible disservice to people with real mental health problems, and they’ve already gotten enough disservice from our country’s abysmal healthcare system. I’m simply suggesting if I lived in the basement catacombs of an opera house and had dedicated my life to ensuring the establishment’s musical and theatrical success, and then that opera house were purchased by two ding-dongs and a rich muppet who wouldn’t know performance art if it accidentally landed on them like a one-ton chandelier, and then the love of my life abandoned me for said muppet and the ding-dongs ruined my theater in the way (insert director of your choice) ruined Star Wars… well, under those circumstances, the Phantom’s melodramatic rampage of terror isn’t entirely unrelatable, is it? Whomst among us, etcetera, etcetera.
I didn’t expect my editor to say yes.
Many times, while I was writing Midnight Duet, I wished she hadn’t. Because at the end of the day, I was tasked with writing a contemporary romance novel, which is a genre with a strictly regulated plot structure and tone. A rom-com should be voice-y and funny, full of delightful secondary characters, and host a plot laden with zany mishaps yet bound the confines of modern reality.
And then there’s The Phantom of the Opera–a musical set in 1870s Paris, about a mask-wearing, cape-swirling, possibly-magic-wielding anti-hero who lurks in an underground chamber with a pipe organ (how did it get down there? No one knows and no one cares) and an inexplicably endless supply of candelabras. There’s murder, fire, mystical mirror seduction, and a heroine who doesn’t see a problem with any of this, because her purpose in life is to be hot and good at singing, and good for her.
And as ridiculous as it all sounds, this is exactly what POTO fans love about Phantom of the Opera–the extra-ness, the over-the-top melodrama, the more-is-more approach to costumes, set decor, and song composition.
There’s nothing I despise more than a remake that’s worse than the original. It’s downright disrespectful. If I was going to write a true homage to this masterpiece–and that’s exactly what my inner, 14-year-old goth girl aspired to do–I had to construct it in a way that did justice to the sheer vibes.
Problem: Where in Pizza Rat’s unholy name am I getting Phantom of the Opera vibes in our contemporary world?
Answer: Vegas. Duh.
Problem: Why is Erika–our female phantom–so goddamn melodramatic?
Answer: She’s a theater major, a former Broadway star, and a diva of Mariah Carey proportions. And like a proper anti-heroine, no one in Manhattan actually liked her, which is why, after a face-scarring accident (naturally), we find our disgraced diva wallowing in self-pity in the Nevada desert, where she’s tasked with saving her family’s Gold Rush-era legacy from a familiar rich muppet. She needs money, so she rents her opera house to Christof and his band, Nachtmusik. (If you’re wondering whether that’s an on-the-nose reference to Music of the Night–of course, it is. ALW doesn’t believe in subtlety, and neither do I.)
Problem: Christof–our up-and-coming vocalist–is a modern musician. Why on Earth would he–Answer: Glam rock. Look, I love the Scorpions, and if there’s any musical style that fits with the words “dramatic” and “extra,” it’s glam rock. We’re making this whole thing work, Spinal Tap style.
There’s no way* to replicate the “anything is possible!” creative energy of 1986, when The Phantom of the Opera was conceived for Broadway. (*In this economy? No one can afford that much cocaine.) But I did re-write approximately 80% of this book in the final weeks before my deadline in what I remember being a sleep-deprived marathon of chocolate-covered pretzels, coffee, and desperation fueled by a terrible sense of having dug my own literary grave. And by all that was unholy: if I had to be buried in that grave, my coffin would be bedazzled in black sequins.
When I describe this book now, I call it a “loose collection of atmospheric goth vibes and horniness,” and I believe it is that.
It is also, I hope, a fitting tribute to the musical, which will finally close in April after 35 years of atmospheric goth vibes and horniness.
It’s too bad ALW never wrote a sequel. But like the Phantom’s love for Christine, my love for ridiculously over-the-top romances will never die.