Love Never Dies (contains spoilers)

I’ll take a brief break from all the politics on this blog and take the chance to share my thoughts of a musical I saw this past weekend in Melbourne.  Love Never Dies is the sequel to Phantom of the Opera, Andrew Lloyd Webber’s attempt at a comeback to his career.  It was showing in previews in Melbourne, and in an Australian first, featured a completely new production started from scratch.  Before the show began, the director warned us that if there was ever a risk of one of the performers or audience members getting injured or killed, he would stop the show part way through – thankfully, that didn’t happen, though I was worried a couple times.  The only noticeable imperfections in execution, besides the set thing I point out later, were a couple missteps — at one point Meg is climbing a ladder of men and almost missed the top step (a dancer’s shoulder), and at another point Phantom stood on Christine’s dress while she was walking.  Also exciting — Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber himself was in the audience, somewhere, though he never did speak.

Note: THIS DOES CONTAIN SPOILERS, including how the show ends. Stop now if you intend to see it.


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Set and production

I’ll start off on a positive note.  Before even getting to the set, the theatre itself was astounding — The Regent Theatre is a 1920s theatre with beautiful interiors that I can’t even begin to describe.  But this didn’t inhibit a very modern and incredibly complicated set.  There were numerous moving catwalks at the front of the stage (that raised or lowered depending on the scene) designed to look like roller coaster tracks, to match the setting of the show on Coney Island.  I was more than impressed by the way these moved seamlessly, but equally terrified as I was in the third row and the catwalks often swung violently, especially in the final scene when the one they use is at an angle and people are running.  The stage itself moved as if by magic — it consisted of a series of circular pieces that rotated in and out imperceptibly – there were countless times where I gasped of “where did that COME FROM?”  The entire stage was moving practically the entire show – the execution of this was a work of art in itself. There was only one close call, in the first Act, where part of the stage has a retractable curtain which was almost snagged on another part.  Thankfully the actors noticed and moved it just in time.

Plot and continuity

I got really hung up on the plot.  The show itself is set ten years after the end of the original Phantom of the Opera – long story short, the Phantom didn’t die, the Girys (Madame Giry, and her daughter Meg) smuggled him to New York, sucked up to politicians and financiers, and helped Phantom create sideshows at Coney Island, where he, of course, lives under the park in his self-designed lair.

I’ve read the book (ages ago), and seen the original musical (twice) and the film (once was enough).  They did do a good job of incorporating bits and pieces of the characters and even expanding on some of the more subtle character traits from the original.  But then there were some really glaring bits of the story that really threw me off.  The major one was that virtually the entire plot is based on Phantom and Christine saying “Hey remember that one night we made love and it was really awesome and then I/You pretended to be dead and fled the country because you/I chose the other guy? And remember how awesome it was?”  At one point I actually almost screamed out “they fucked?! really??? WHEN?!”  I held my tongue though.  The best explanation I’ve heard for it was that in the original (musical) there were periods near the beginning when she first meets Phantom in person that they were alone together, offstage.  Of course, part of the plot of the original (but more so in the book version) is that they don’t even kiss during that time, and that only near the end when Raoul is in the noose (musical) / torture chamber (book) does she agree to kiss him, and even then only to save Raoul’s life.  Watching this entire show required a conscious effort to suspend all memory of the original musical.

This wasn’t the only issue.  It was entirely plausible that the Girys would help Phantom — there’s always this sense in the original that Mme Giry was hiding Phantom even in Paris.  What was less plausible was that they would build their entire lives around him — to the point that when they find out Christine is coming to New York, they don’t want anything to do with her, because she was so disloyal to Phantom by marrying Raoul and by continuing to live her life without helping him like the Girys did.  Nevermind the fact that she clearly thought him dead.  Or the fact that he tried to kill her now-husband, and imprisoned her, and created an effigy of her, etc, etc (these are also further reasons that it made no sense for Christine to feel all this longing and regret for having left Phantom).  Mme Giry may have been a little devious but stupid she was not – this strange belief she had made no sense.

There was also the language thing – it kind of made sense for everyone to speak English with a French accent in the original, because it was for an English audience. But for everyone to just pick up and move to New York at the turn of the twentieth century, all speaking perfect English, seemed implausible.  Also, Christine had an Australian accent — I wouldn’t have held this against her if it weren’t for a number of the other characters having perfect New York accents, Raoul having an English accent, Mme Giry having a French accent, and Meg Giry having an ambiguously American accent.  And some of the characters would randomly switch into old English and back into modern English every once in a while – for no apparent reason.

Then there was Raoul being an alcoholic and addicted to gambling, as well as a terrible father… after having been the dashing hero in the original.  By the end of it all I hoped she’d choose neither – they were both assholes.  It kind of became a strange episode of Dawson’s Creek.  And then there was the scene where Christine sings Love Never Dies, dressed as a male peacock.  I’m sure the costume designers had something beautiful in mind, but really, who doesn’t know that only the male peacocks have the pretty feathers?

Finally, the strangest (and most understated, except when it was really important to the plot) plotline was Meg being in love with Phantom, and all of a sudden getting so jealous that he didn’t love her that she would kidnap his/Christine’s son… this totally came out of nowhere, and made absolutely no sense.  Even less sense was Phantom turning from crazed obsessive trickster to skilled hostage negotiator in an instant to get out of the situation.  It was all so out of character — the whole ending made no sense!  Not to mention Christine getting shot when the gun wasn’t even pointed at her… and in a rather gruesome moment, Raoul rushing in after it all happened to get a little too close with her dead body, after Phantom already had his way with it.

Music

The music was what you would expect of an Andrew Lloyd Webber musical – good.  But it wasn’t his best.

First, continuing on the plot inconsistencies, the strange switch from operatic style to Coney-Island-freakshow (complete with dwarf) style was odd, to say the least — why Phantom would start curating sideshows and somehow become rich and famous on it, instead of using his wealth and/or fame to produce operas is beyond me.  But this meant the music was a little more generic-Webber than Phantom was, which was heavily opera-influenced.  It also, disappointingly, had less of the great music that Phantom had.

I liked some of the occasional allusions to Phantom — especially when the Girys learn Christine is coming to New York and Meg sings her “Christine, Christine” line from the beginning of Angel of Music.  While I didn’t expect the motifs to continue from the original (though they did – the melody on Gustav’s toy was a clever link to the past), I kind of expected similar musical style.  Given that Phantom was writing a lot of the music, this seemed even more likely.  But it didn’t happen.  The show was missing the grand brass fanfares and the exhilarating organ performances of the original.  It just didn’t hold a candle (pardon the pun) to the original at all.

As an aside, Beneath a Moonless Sky from the first act was a strange combination of the style that was missing from most of the rest of the show, and Cell Block Tango (“he had it coming”) from Chicago.  The opening of it is great and then it devolves into awkward.  Once it got into around the 3-minute mark I immediately recognised the melody and got a little stuck on it – I couldn’t help but think “he had it coming, he had it  coming, he only had himself to blame…” which was almost fitting.

Casting / performance

What the show lacked in writing, it made up for in casting.  The cast were excellent — especially after I’d been listening to the soundtrack of the Phantom film.  I didn’t catch the name of Christine, but she and the actors who played Phantom (Ben Lewis) and their son Gustav (unfortunately named George Cartwright Bush – assuming he was near the character’s age, he would have been born AFTER George W Bush was elected… such cruel parents) were all brilliant.  The show received a standing ovation at the end (the first time I’ve ever seen one in Australia — they don’t give them away like we do in Toronto), and I’m certain it was for the wonderfully talented cast more than anything (okay, maybe a little bit for the production).  They did an excellent job of taking an implausible show and making it sound amazing.  At the end of it all, despite my shock at the writing, I left the theatre impressed and happy because they had such astounding performances — in a preview, at that!

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12 responses to this post.

  1. Related: this girl’s rants are awesome. And make me very, very, glad I didn’t see the original. Yikes.

    Reply

  2. I found the original (pre-massive-revision) soundtrack on YouTube – apparently the bit where Mme Giry gets all mad at Christine for abandoning Phantom was originally a song where she gets mad at Phantom for still wanting Christine after all the Girys have done for him (“Giry Confronts The Phantom” became “10 Long Years”). That actually makes a lot more sense than the new version, but didn’t work in the new version because they dropped a big chunk of the plot from the beginning. They really need to go back to the drawing board with this one – the new version of the song is so illogical.

    (Strangely – the soundtrack that is available to purchase includes all the original songs which don’t follow the storyline used in the Melbourne version at all — they don’t appear to have re-recorded the soundtrack at all for any of the rewriters).

    Reply

  3. Posted by cindi bush on 2011/05/25 at 11:08 am

    George Cartwright Bush (who plays the role of Gustave in the Australian production of Love Never Dies) was named after his great grandfather ‘George Cartwright’…..a much loved and wonderful man. It’s unfortunate that there was a president named George Bush but George was NEVER named after him.

    Reply

    • I’m not going to get dragged into this, but I will clarify that my point was not that he was cruelly named after the US president, but that he was so named subsequent to there being such a president in full knowledge that he would now share a name with such a person. I entirely sympathise with the choice to include his middle name in his stage name. He’s an excellent performer (a better singer, in my view, than the performer who plays Gustav on the original London soundtrack) and my intent was not to put him down in any way.

      Reply

  4. Posted by cindi bush on 2011/05/25 at 1:02 pm

    Hi Neal, thanks for that…..was not upset just thought it would be nice to clarify….cheers!

    Reply

  5. Posted by The Lurking Librarian on 2011/05/25 at 2:01 pm

    I posted a review of the original recording to my own blog, you can read it here:
    http://thelurkinglibrarian.wordpress.com/2011/02/18/love-never-dies-the-sequel-to-phantom-of-the-opera/

    It seems from this review that the production team have gone to great effort to change many things about the show…. except the things that were really broken. The main problem with this show is the book – more specifically, the retroactive continuity inherent in the plot and the revisionist characterisation…. and even when judged independently of the original, the plot and characterisation are bothersome, because the plot development is dependent on the characters making boneheadedly stupid decisions and the characterisation is psychologically implausible in and of itself.

    Until ALW and his buddies get around to fixing what’s really wrong with this show, that is to say, the script – then all this tinkering with the production values is just rearranging deckchairs on the Titanic.

    Reply

    • Indeed, it sounds like the plot hasn’t changed drastically, other than eliminating the whole beginning which seems to have dragged but actually explained a few things. The show has so much going for it, but given that the whole premise of it requires revising the original, I wonder if the plot problems can ever be effectively resolved.

      Reply

  6. Posted by Elizabeth on 2011/07/18 at 11:13 am

    A couple of things I think you misunderstood about the show… While the Phantom does indeed die at the end of the novel, he doesn’t at the end of the musical. He simply disappears. It is established in Love Never Dies that many assumed he was dead, but Christine knew he was not. Its not the fact that she went to see the Phantom after the events of The Phantom of the Opera and before he went to America that is the problem here, its that we’re never told WHY. It is something that they should have done a better job explaining in the story of Love Never Dies.

    As for Meg… I’ve seen people say this a few times now… she’s not IN LOVE with the Phantom, she merely wants his approval because she believes he can make her the star she wants to be, and Christine’s arrival in Coney Island bring out Meg’s jealousy because Meg feels her talent is being tossed aside, that suddenly she’s not good enough.

    As for using his wealth to create operas instead of ‘vaudeville trash’ (as Giry describes it in the show)… that’s half the point of the Phantom wanting to reconnect with Christine. He fled to America, where people’s tastes were different. As the 10 years went by, he was creating Phantasma to build his fortune and be able to again write great music (such as the title song) but as is established in the opening scene, he is also having trouble composing without his muse Christine.

    I agree that the plot/story needs to be tightened up a little better, mainly in explaining why some of the characters have changed they way they have instead of just forcing the audience to accept it. But it doesn’t need the drastic re-writing that some claim it needs. It is still a fantastic musical, though, and completely worth seeing.

    Reply

  7. Posted by LNDFan on 2011/07/18 at 5:46 pm

    Saw it in London. Loved the show. Awesome score, one of the finest works of ALW. The story is moving. The casting was outstanding. And the Aussie version seems to be even better…

    Reply

    • Posted by Christine on 2011/07/19 at 10:42 am

      The score costumes and sets for this piece are absolutely astounding. It is definatelt one of Webber’s best works musically that he’s done in his entire career.

      Reply

  8. […] cartwright bush” – this entry comes second in a Google search for his name… this is the unfortunately-named but […]

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  9. […] plus Love Never Dies was in previews and I really wanted to see it.  My review of the show is here – it ended up being an unusual highlight of the […]

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