By JOHN DeMERS
I wish I could tell you to go see Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Love Never Dies on Broadway, but it never made it there. I wish I could tell you to go see the musical in London, but it closed. Really, I wish I could tell you the sequel to Phantom of the Opera is on its way to the Hobby Center, but as of now it’s not. Truth is, I’d begun to despair of ever seeing Love Never Dies – until last night.
The London production opening in 2010 was received by critics on that side of the pond (and this being Andrew Lloyd Webber and his Phantom, on this side as well), as a bunch of great songs in search of a story. A reworking or two helped mightily along the way, I’m told. And I’m persuaded that’s the case, since the show’s original narrative problems come through even on the CD filled with some of this composer’s grandest music. Last week and again last night, a filmed version of a reworked production from Melbourne, Australia, was shown in movie theaters across America; and based on what I saw, there’s no reason on earth this show shouldn’t find the admiration it deserves.
Of course, talking about the things that happen to a musical on its way to fame and fortune are pretty much “inside baseball.” A thousand little things are tweaked – I mean, really little things – but they end up making a huge difference. In the case of Love Never Dies, the problems all related to plot and character, never to music. Yet plot and character are, for all the hit songs a composer can pour in, what make audiences fall in love.
In Love, ten years have passed since the terrible events of the original Phantom, ending with the destruction of that opera house in Paris and the death (or disappearance) of the man behind it all. Opera star Christine has married Raoul, and the couple has a 10-year-old son named Gustave. Raoul also has a major drinking and gambling problem, which keeps the family perennially in debt. But…
On the far side of the Atlantic, at a beach destination called Coney Island, a mysterious figure known only as Mr. Y has developed an early 1900s version of the theme park, an entertainment spectacle filled with music, thrill rides, freak shows and dancing. Did I mention music? And it’s this Mr. Y who lures Christine, Raoul and Gustave across the ocean for one performance, promising the typically huge American-style payday. Is Mr. Y an opportunity to pay off all those debts and start over fresh as a family? Or is his the remembered voice of Christine’s past, her very real present and, just maybe, her future?
Interesting stuff, really. And in the Melbourne production directed by Simon Phillips with remarkable sets and costumes by Gabriela Tylesova, highly entertaining and seductive stuff as well. I’m glad Phillips and the composer decided to work together on making this film (which, happily, will be available as a DVD).
Love Never Dies is a wonderland of a musical score, arguably Andrew Lloyd Webber’s best, and that’s saying a lot. There are two classic blockbuster songs: the Phantom’s “Till I Hear You Sing” (filling in for “Music of the Night,” which admirably is not cribbed from once) and Christine’s title aria (basically Puccini on a plate). There are several other fine lyrical moments, some of which see Christine singing with her young son, which doesn’t happen in musicals much. And there are several other fun, lively production numbers evoking American popular music of the early 20th century, clearly a fascination of any British composer who, like this one, bothers to listen.
I can’t tell you where or how Love Never Dies will turn up next. But I can promise you that as sung in Melbourne by Ben Lewis as the Phantom and Anna O’Byrne as Christine, this music deserves to be part of our shared songbook. Yes, the original Phantom will keep on keeping on – a movie trailer last night breathlessly called it “the longest-running Broadway musical… EVER!” But Love Never Dies finally adds meaningfully to the story, deepens our understanding of the characters and profoundly touches our hearts. Starting with Andrew Lloyd Webber himself, all involved deserve plenty of credit for that.