Reflections on ‘Love Never Dies’

Posted by James Bell on March 29, 2010 in Blog tagged with

What with Dacre Stoker’s Dracula: the Undead and now Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Love Never Dies, there seems to be something of a recent vogue for sequels to Goth classics.

The basic problem is that The Phantom of the Opera requires no sequel. This is equally true of both Gaston Leroux’s 1910 novel, which sees the aged Erik die of a grief-induced heart attack, and Lloyd Webber’s musical, first opened in 1986, in which he appears to vanish into thin air.

How on earth to follow that? With difficulty, if Lloyd Webber’s new musical Love Never Dies is anything to go by.

Love Never Dies sees the Phantom safely ensconced in Edwardian Coney Island, designing theme parks a decade after the events of The Phantom of the Opera (The chronology doesn’t work, incidentally). Still pining after his protégé Christine, the Phantom lures her to America under false pretences, where he discovers he may have given her more than just a career in music. (The notion of Christine’s husband Raoul raising a Phantom lovechild has been explored by many authors, but never more successfully or more poignantly than by Susan Kay).

Pleasingly, Love Never Dies restores the steampunk elements of the original novel, which described how the Phantom created convincing automata for various Middle Eastern potentates. Here his various creations include a delightful glass carriage pulled by a clockwork horse, a four-armed robot in a powdered wig that plays the organ, and, er, what appears to be a sexbot in the shape of the long-lost Christine.

The genesis of Love Never Dies lies in Frederick Forsyth’s 1999 novel The Phantom of Manhattan, an authorised continuation of Lloyd Webber’s musical. Whether or not one accepts the need for a sequel (and I don’t), Forsyth’s book is undeniably well-written. The man knows how to tell a story. Love Never Dies junks what works about Forsyth’s plot, retains the soapier aspects, and adds new nonsense courtesy of Ben Elton. That the Phantom should become a theme-park tycoon seems plausible to me, but his newfound mellowness in Love Never Dies is completely out of character. Where is the venom and misanthropy an audience ought to sense bubbling just beneath the surface? Even his musical language has mellowed with age. The melodic compositions we hear in this show are worlds away from the violent dissonances of Don Juan Triumphant.

How did Christine track down this master of illusion for a wedding-night booty call? Not explained. There is no longer any definitive proof about young Gustave’s paternity, either. The Phantom deduces the child’s true parentage based on nothing more than their shared Goth leanings, in a gloriously staged sequence which, in the cold light of day, doesn’t make a lick of sense.

Besides the fact that the Phantom isn’t held to account for his earlier crimes (including several gratuitous murders), my companion on this expedition was offended by the radical changes wrought to familiar characters. Was it necessary for Meg the ballerina to become a murderous prostitute, for instance? And Raoul, Vicomte de Chagny, has morphed inexplicably from white knight to white-suited drunk. It’s cheap and unnecessary; worse, it’s lazy writing.

In the show’s defense, the staging and singing is glorious. There is a wealth of talent on display. The plethora of piers, striped bathing costumes and white linen suits suggests Visconti’s Death in Venice; and when Coney Island springs to vibrant life in the prologue, even this hardened cynic’s heart felt a childish sense of wonder.

In the lead, Ramin Karimloo’s magnificent singing was a revelation, especially after the indifferent performance I saw him give last year. At 32 Ramin is too young to play the Phantom, let alone in a sequel (though he is convincingly aged when unmasked). He would, however, have been perfect for a prequel, something which would also have made more artistic sense. The story requires no sequel, but what about the first forty-to-fifty years of the Phantom’s life? The thumbnail biography sketched out by Leroux, involving adventures across Russia and the courts of the Middle East, not to mention a spell on a pirate ship, could easily furnish the material for a great show.

In its current incarnation, there is much to admire about Love Never Dies. It is enjoyable, but by no means exploits the full potential of the material. Apparently Love Never Dies will be extensively reworked for its Broadway opening, which leads one to hope that the wilder narrative contortions will be ironed out.  Either way, we have not seen the last of the Phantom.

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