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Joz Norris


Tape 141: Becoming André

  • Tape 141: Becoming André

At the end of Withnail & I, Withnail comes to terms with the fact that he will never play Hamlet. This week, I have finally come to terms with the fact that I will never play the Phantom of the Opera, and I feel reborn.

It may come as a surprise to some of you that I’ve spent my entire adult life wanting to play the Phantom. My girlfriend keeps asking me why I have this untapped obsession with the musical, and I really couldn’t say. I just think it slaps. I love it when they plug in the big chandelier and the rad organ comes in. I love it when Christine and the Phantom punt through that underground lake while she sings her head off. I love it when the Phantom shouts “GO NOW! GO NOW AND LEAVE ME!” at the end, and genuinely have a hard time listening to it without crying. I now realise that the Phantom is an incel and an utter piece of shit, but as a shy teenage boy, I found him a desperately romantic figure. Perhaps this is at the heart of my deep emotional attachment to the show. Perhaps, as I watched the grotesque creep abduct his beloved to his squalid cave, sing at her for a bit and then hang his rivals, I thought to myself “Well, I also find it difficult to talk to girls,” before congratulating myself for having dealt with this objectively better than him. “There’s hope for me yet,” perhaps I thought, “but boy do I wish I could pull off that cape.”

The reason it probably comes as a surprise to you is because I have never done even one single thing in my life that moved me one inch closer towards playing the Phantom, despite holding onto it as a near-constant daydream. The thought just lurked at the back of my mind that it would one day happen. Perhaps I would establish enough of a good reputation in comedy that the people who run the show would get in touch and ask me if I’d like to come and play the lead as a special guest. To my knowledge, the Phantom, one of the most challenging and iconic roles in musical theatre, has never been played by a special guest comedian. I believe it has always been played by someone with a background in musical theatre. I don’t even know because I haven’t bothered to keep tabs on the musical itself and what’s going on with it and how it works. I just watched it once as a teenager and listened to it about two hundred times since, always assuming that one day the lead role would be mine (also, for those of you who think Phantom is lame and that my liking it diminishes my credentials as a music fan, wise up – the main riff from the show is stolen from Pink Floyd’s “Echoes,” so it’s actually really cool and so are its fans).

(Also also, a heavy caveat to all this – I believe that usually whoever plays the Phantom is expected to play it for months, maybe years, at a time, and I never fancied that. I’ve got comedy projects to be getting on with! In my imagination, I would perhaps have done a limited run of two or three shows. The idea that the producers might be reluctant to invest in rehearsing a new lead for the sake of two shows never really occurred to me).

This week, I was listening to Phantom again, as I do every now and again, and became aware of a momentous shift in my psyche. I was listening to “Notes,” the ostensibly comedic number sung by Firmin and André, the buffoonish managers of the theatre, and received a thought like a bolt from the blue – “The best I can hope for is Firmin or André. That’s where my life is headed.” My heart broke as I listened to their florid nonsense and realised that actually, even that would be a stretch. I could just about conceive of a situation where the producers of Phantom might get in touch with a comedian who was well-respected in his field but relatively unknown to the general public and invited them to play Firmin or André, but the more I thought about it, it started to seem almost as unlikely as them offering me the lead.

I skipped ahead to listen to the finale, and heard Michael Crawford belting out “Down once more to the dungeons of my dark despair!” and realised, with the bluntness of a simple fact, that I would simply never be paid to sing this. The dream was over. I could instead look forward to a future when me and another obscure comedian sang “It’s really not amusing, he’s abusing our position, in addition he wants money, he’s a funny sort of spectre” while waggling our fingers and doing a box-step.

“I don’t want to sing that drivel!” I said aloud to myself, before realising that nobody was asking me to. Nobody was asking me to sing anything from Phantom whatsoever. My girlfriend was actively asking me to stop.

I went on Facebook and found some old photos of me at a fancy dress club night dressed as the Phantom and wept. “Poor fool,” I said as my sobs subsided, before remembering that was also the name of a song in Phantom, and then I started crying again.

Here I am really enjoying a corridor in 2009. You’ll notice that my Poundshop Phantom mask made it difficult for me to drink from a bottle of Smirnoff Ice, so I had to perfect a method of pinching and lifting the mask’s chin in order to sip at the grey nectar.

Why am I writing about all this? Well, because I think we have different kinds of dreams in our lives. There are the dreams that we work at. And there are the dreams that we put away. “It would be lovely, but it’s not what I’ve chosen and it’s not who I am,” we say as we retire it to a different part of our brain. It becomes a part of our memory, not a part of our present, certainly not a part of our future. And then there are the dreams we forget to do either with. The ones we stubbornly refuse to put any effort or time into whatsoever, but we also insist on clinging to as though they define us in some way. I have always, on some subconscious level, thought of myself as someone who might one day play the Phantom. I have not worked at it. My personality has formed into what it is partly as a result of my having not worked at it, just as it has formed as a result of every other choice I have ever made, meaning I am now fundamentally unfit to play the Phantom.

This hit home the other day when I spoke to a friend about all this and she plainly said “You couldn’t play the Phantom. You don’t have enough of the Black Swan in you. You’d be Firmin or André.” I hadn’t even mentioned Firmin or André at this point. It all became clear then – it was time for this dream to be put away. I remembered Black Swan. I remembered Natalie Portman’s quest to find it in herself to become the Black Swan, and her subsequent descent into darkness. It was rubbish. I fell asleep. I couldn’t be bothered to do all that, and then watch all my fingernails fall off or something (not really sure, like I said, I dozed off). The dreams we neither work at nor put away are the worst ones, the ones that rob us of who we are. From today, I am no longer a potential future Phantom, because I now see that I have literally never been this. From today, I am simply who I have chosen to be, who I have worked at being. I am the White Swan. I am Firmin. I am André.

Anyway, this is all just to say, if anyone reading this produces The Phantom Of The Opera and needs a new Firmin or André in about ten years’ time, give us a bell, yeah? Cheers.

A Cool New Thing In Comedy – This week I had the pleasure of being part of a private work-in-progress reading of two of the scripts for Christian Brighty and Amy Greaves’ upcoming BBC Radio 4 sitcom The Many Wrongs Of Lord Christian BrightyThe show’s not being recorded until later in the summer, but this is your heads-up to keep an eye out for audience tickets when they become available, because it’s hilarious and full of bold, ridiculous characters and brilliant stories and gags and flights of silliness. They’re working on something very special and you should keep an eye on it.

What’s Made Me Laugh The Most – Definitely those aforementioned scripts, although I don’t want to spoil them by giving much in the way of details. There’s a subplot involving birds that really tickled me.

Book Of The Week – I’m currently reading Empire by Niall Ferguson, which is a history of the British Empire. Not really sure why I’m reading it except that it’s in a pile of books I’ve told myself I have to get through. It’s a bit dry, to be honest, but if you’re on the lookout for an in-depth analysis of how the British Empire was formed, you should definitely check it out because that’s what it is.

Album Of The Week – Stranger To Stranger by Paul Simon, which is an album he released in 2016. For so long, he was in a category of artists where I thought “Well, I’ll listen to the famous stuff from the 70s and 80s, and I imagine outside of that there’s not much to get excited about.” I was dead wrong! He made a great album with Brian Eno in 2006 called Surprise, and this one is maybe even better. It uses a lot of the ideas and custom-made instruments of music theorist Harry Partch, and it’s cool to hear someone like Simon continuing to be this innovative and interesting in his 70s.

Film Of The Week – IF, John Krasinski’s family film about abandoned imaginary friends. I really like John Krasinski, and I loved the premise of this so really wanted to enjoy it more than I did. It all feels a bit surface-level and doesn’t really get into the magic or the nostalgia of the premise, and there’s a twist at the end that serves to make the film’s central relationship feel completely mishandled, I thought. I’m really grateful people like Krasinski are being given the opportunity to make high-profile films telling original stories and I do hope this does well so that continues to happen, but it didn’t do everything I hoped it might.

That’s all for this week! As ever, feel free to send this newsletter to a friend, or encourage others to subscribe. Take care of yourselves until next time, and all the best,

Joz xx

PS I have no plans to actually charge for this newsletter or put it behind a paywall, but I do write it for free and the comedy and media industries are in a perilous state right now, especially for freelancers. If you value the Therapy Tapes and enjoy what they give to you, and want to support my work and enable me to keep writing and creating, you can make a one-off donation to my Ko-Fi account, and it’s very gratefully appreciated.

PPS Thanks to the Bill Murray for having me at their street party gig on Sunday. I particularly enjoyed Mark Silcox boiling 150 eggs in a samovar:

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