The Phantom of the Opera is the most successful stage musical of all time, but what a lot of people ignore is that it is also one of the dumbest. It’s the story of a petulant child in the disfigured body of a man, who kills people when he can’t get what he wants, and kidnaps women in an attempt to force them to love him. Most people look beyond that to consider the inherent tragedy of his situation, but there are some things you simply can’t recover from.
Andrew Lloyd Webber, by now a very rich man indeed, decided that a sequel was at last called for. Never mind that the original show was still going in London and New York (and still is, for that matter). Never mind that, by bringing the Phantom back onto the stage, you undo the enduring mystery of the finale. Never mind.
Love Never Dies was unleashed upon the London public and was almost universally reviled. The Love Never Dies that we have received in Australia is not a replica production, but a new construction from the mangled corpse of the old. To make it work, you have to ignore almost everything that you were told in The Phantom of the Opera, because this show frequently, openly and catastrophically contradicts its source material.
But work it does. Strangely. Grudgingly. Paradoxically. It can only begin to satisfy if you’re heavily steeped in the lore of the Phantom; whether you’ve had a chandelier dropped on your head when you were five, or been dragged to the show that many times … and then you’ve got to ignore everything you know, and accept texture over logic.
It’s a strange, ornate, boutique experience, and it’s only for you. A true spectacle, but a small and intimate story besides.
Ten years after the events portrayed in The Phantom of the Opera, Christine Daaé comes to America to perform at the opening of an opera house. Upon arrival, she is picked up with absolutely no subterfuge by the servants of the Phantom of the Opera and brought to his park at Coney Island. The Phantom charges Christine with singing “just one song” for him, thus clearing her husband’s debt and reaffirming the love that they once shared. Complications arise when the Phantom realises that Christine has a son, and Meg Giry desperately tries to get the Phantom to notice her.
The first thing that you’ll have to accept if you’re even going to attempt to consume Love Never Dies is that the Phantom is a sympathetic, tragic figure, rather than the mass murderer we know from his more famous incarnation. We have to accept that Christine had feelings for him, apart from disgust and contempt, and that she felt abandoned by him. We also have to consider that Raoul always had the capacity to be a drunken gambling boor.
This is all Andrew Lloyd Webber’s idea, so it’s uncertain whether he actually ever got around to seeing the most financially successful theatrical show in history, but if we accept any given theatrical production as a pocket universe, and this one as its own pocket universe inspired by another, more famous and lucrative one. The inspiration is undeniably important, but Love Never Dies works best if it’s not straitjacketed to the orthodox continuity that the mind naturally wants to create.
The most successful aspect of Simon Phillips’ production of Love Never Dies is the design, which is consistently impressive and intricate. Phantasma and its denizens are colourful and inviting, but also nightmarish. The show begins with the Phantom in a lair that we never see again, playing an organ atop a carousel in his shrine to Christine, but then the curtain rises and we are introduced to the Phantom’s ringmasters, Fleck, Squelch and Gangle, whose sideshow exists on a turntable stage that expertly uses the relatively compact spaces of both the Regent and Capitol Theatres (yes, I saw this in both Melbourne and Sydney).
Periodically we are shown increasingly elaborate and wildly varied aspects of the park, but it is important to note that while Phantasm is the setting of Love Never Dies, the majority of the drama is internal – both literally and in relation to the characters’ multitude of emotional dilemmas. Phillips has employed a large ensemble, but only six roles are truly essential to the relative success of the operation. The ensemble may be bored with what little they have to do, but this is ultimately in service of the larger story: a love story that is honestly more genuine than anything that came before it.
The Phantom remains manipulative, but not murderously so. Now more than a man terrorising an opera house, the Phantom has been stripped of his ambiguous magical powers and been transformed into a human being. This lends the love triangle a much needed sense of realism. While the Raoul of the first act almost comically has nothing to recommend him, his first song, and the one that starts the second act, “Why Does She Love Me?”, puts him back into consideration. Both men in Christine’s life attempt to rob her of agency, but at least Raoul has the decency to feel bad about it.
The Phantom’s lack of attention to the larger details of Phantasma is narratively satisfying, because what we’ve been presented is a small and intimate love triangle against a spectacular backdrop. What happens here does not matter beyond what becomes of Christine, her son, Raoul and the Phantom, and this gives the audience something to focus on to the exclusion of all else. The Phantom doesn’t exactly realise that the world he has created is not the only world possible, but he does come to understand that something can be gained by letting other people in. The story that we come to be told about these people is perfect, in a way; it’s a shame that there are other elements that have to encroach on it, and they’re not as well developed, because I almost allowed myself to become emotional in the course of this show.
In the transition from the West End to Australia, one of the primary changes made by Phillips was the removal of large swathes of exposition from the book. While the seeds of the Girys’ discontent are planted in the text as presented, they are not emphasised clearly enough. Having recast the Phantom as a hero, Love Never Dies flounders in search of a villain that it doesn’t strictly require. By the time the curtain goes down, the show seems slightly uncertain as to what transpired in its final minutes. This is an aspect that has been slightly changed since the Melbourne debut; it’s possible that the staff are still not entirely satisfied with what they’ve created, but felt that they needed their ending to be definitive. This is not necessarily true, but what they’ve got in the way of a conclusion almost works.
Unlike Phantom of the Opera, which is largely about performance to fictional audiences, only four of the songs in Love Never Dies are diegetic, and only one of those belongs to Christine. The understated notion is that Meg is almost singlehandedly holding the Phantom aloft; along with the ensemble, she and her mother are the only people who actually work at Phantasma, and their efforts are unappreciated – and it’s not their fault if the material that they have to work with (in the context of Coney Island itself, rather than the show as a whole), lacks substance or meaning; they’ve been neglected by their apparent patron.
While none of the songs in Love Never Dies could hope to become the icons that large chunks of The Phantom of the Opera have over the last 25 years, there is more than enough to work with to create a show that isn’t terrible. “Till I Hear You Sing” is a perfect tone setter and an excellent showcase for Ben Lewis’ voice, and Sharon Millerchip’s bouncy vocals over “Only For Him” and “Bathing Beauty” perfectly convey the vacuous “oo laa laa” girl that she has been forced to become for her own misguided love. “Beneath A Moonless Sky” and “Once Upon Another Time” are a genuinely affecting pairing, with Anna O’Byrne allowing herself to own Christine in these moments.
Possibly the most well constructed song is the passive-aggressive quartet performance of “Dear Old Friend”, which is the most playful and thoughtfully choreographed scene in the entire show. “Devil Take The Hindmost” is one of Simon Gleeson’s only chances both to shine and to establish himself as human in the hitherto fore animal caricature of Raoul.
The only truly and deliberately odd choice in the entire show is the ridiculous “The Beauty Underneath”, which takes the silly synth of “The Phantom of the Opera” and replaces it with overt, self-conscious electric guitar. It has no real place in the show, but it works if we consider that the Phantom is showcasing the appeal of what he himself dubs a freakshow. As to “Love Never Dies” itself: it’s obviously supposed to be the emotional zenith of the show, but it doesn’t quite get there; it merely opens a gate before the show shoots itself and shuts itself down without quite enough grace.
Beyond all this, the show obviously echoes its predecessor, sometimes explicitly quoting it, frequently excising chunks of its score. Boasting more than nostalgia value, Lloyd Webber’s original work adds texture to the piece as a whole, and creates that same paradox: the more you know about Phantom, the more you’ll get out of Love Never Dies; the more you love about Phantom, the more likely you are to have serious issues with Love Never Dies. It’s a tough act and it involves a modicum of cognitive dissonance, but it can be done.
While Love Never Dies was damn near incoherent when I first saw it, I did a lot of studying in the intervening months and I couldn’t help but be somewhat affected by it, despite its many flaws. Where The Phantom of the Opera could be said to be a musical engineered to reach the broadest possible audience – and it is indeed the only musical many people ever see on stage in their lifetime – Love Never Dies aims at an incredibly niche audience, because anyone who truly cares about the original is going to have a tough time reconciling what they are seeing with what they already know.
Love Never Dies is a strange, misshapen beast, improperly tethered to its predecessor, but within the bubble that Phillips creates on stage for two and a half hours (including interval), it comes together. This is not transcendental theatre (is Andrew Lloyd Webber honestly capable of that?), but it’s more than the train wreck that people have reasonably come to expect. I can’t strictly recommend it, as it’s not good in the most conventional sense, but I feel like a somewhat better person for having seen and appreciated it a second time.