If you’ve been paying attention to the hype, steadily building over the last couple years, you know that Love Never Dies, the sequel to Andrew Lloyd Webber’s The Phantom of the Opera, opened this weekend in London. The sequel to the longest-running Broadway musical has been a long time coming.
Webber says that inspiration to write more of the famous story came from a lunch he had with Maria Björnson, the original production designer for Phantom of the Opera. Björnson complained about the story’s ending which (SPOILER ALERT) results in ingenue Christine marrying the handsome but bland Raoul instead of surrendering to the dark, twisted sexuality of the Phantom. As Björnson put it: “What kind of an ending is that?” Actually, the ending comes from the novel by Gaston Leroux on which the show is based. But the provided ending that was released in 1910 may not be so satisfying to audiences today.
Webber mused on the idea for years before finally sitting down to write a score to a book created by Ben Elton (who also wrote the Queen jukebox musical We Will Rock You which is wildly popular in London). The sequel abandons the Paris opera house for New York’s Coney Island, where all of the characters have ended up for poorly explained reasons. The initial score was destroyed when Webber’s cat Otto sat on the keyboard, deleting everything. This anecdote became a common joke among the smug theaterati – “Otto was trying to spare us all.” But Webber recreated the score, gave it the insufferably dull title Love Never Dies, and amid endless hype, finally mounted the production, directed by Jack O’Brien (who also directed the magnificent Coast of Utopia trilogy at Lincoln Center).
Love Never Dies embraces the darker side of the story’s characters. Raoul, the heroically dull aristocrat, has become a drunk. It is revealed early on that Christine’s son Gustave was not fathered by Raoul but by the Phantom himself. (Gasp! I never thought Christine had it in her. Although it does shed an interesting light on what happened in the Phantom’s dungeon that night…) Director O’Brien comments: “We all have this dark side within us. Just because it frightens us, that doesn’t mean we don’t like it. We like civilized danger.” The sequel shows that social conformity does not work so well. But does the Phantom really provide a better path?
Critics have been varied in their reviews. As London Times critic Benedict Nightengale points out, ‘For some, Love Never Dies is “Paint Never Dries”, and for others the composer is at his musical best.” The problem with sequels is that everyone has the opportunity to come up with their own idea for the story’s continuation. Phantom has been seen by literally hundreds of millions of people; it is a steady fixture of popular culture.
Like so many other thespians, I have a bit of a chip on my shoulder about Phantom. It’s flashy, melodramatic and a fair amount of the score was “borrowed” from Pink Floyd and Puccini- not exactly what I consider great art. Even I have to admit though: I’m kinda curious to see how it all turns out.
Darcy Zacharias, CC’10