“I come to bury Caesar, not to praise him…”
Last Friday I received some stunning news; on June 17th, it was announced to the world that Andrew Lloyd Webber’s ill-conceived sequel to his masterpiece The Phantom of the Opera was closing its doors for good in August of this year. This gave me a joy one can only describe as Schadenfreude, a delightful Germanic concept that means “deriving pleasure from the misfortunes of others”. This would be the second time in a week I would experience such sadistic enjoyment, the first being when my Dallas Mavericks demonstrated what they thought of LeBron James’ taking of his talents to South Beach. But I digress.*
You might gather from my language that I have a deep fondness for the Phantom in its original theatrical form. That would be the understatement of the century. In no uncertain terms, the Phantom of the Opera, in all of its myriad forms, has been an obsession of mine since I was a young girl and old enough to understand the complexity of its emotional landscape. From the moment I first heard the opening chords of the overture, I was lost. Hours later, I was both lost and found; lost in its spell and overwhelming emotion, and found in the sense that a lush world of supernatural, romantic, even baroque artistry had been revealed. As melodramatic as it seems, I was never quite the same again.
Like Christine, I reveled in the contrast of darkness and light, and discovered myself somewhere in between. After falling in love with the musical, I devoured the original text in both English and French, and opened my mind to other musical and dramatic interpretations of the narrative. Some were excellent (Lon Chaney’s 1925 silent movie), some were not (Freddy Krueger as the Phantom?), and some were downright absurd (Phantom of the Megaplex, I’m looking at you!). Somehow, I didn’t mind these varying interpretations of the original, no matter how much they strayed from the canon. They each had their merit and were easily compartmentalized as a unique part of the Phantom universe. All well and good. Until 1999.
In 1999 a book was written: The Phantom of Manhattan by Fredrick Forsyth. It was heralded as the sequel to The Phantom of the Opera musical and worked to tie in literary elements of the original novel by Gaston Leroux. All this would have been fine and dandy if not for one major difference; this book was endorsed by Andrew Lloyd Webber as the official sequel to his 1986 opus, thereby making it as near to Phantom canon as was possible by someone not related to Leroux himself.
The blood freezes in my veins thinking of it. I opened the pages with trepidation, fearing a story that would sour and ruin my beloved original. As I had feared, it was, in fact, complete crap. Whatever was worthy and beautiful in the characters and denouement of the original music was totally undone in this grotesque bastard of a sequel. This abomination multiplied when ALW announced that he would base a musical sequel to his Phantom off this book, which would debut in 2010. The horror! The horror!
Much like the Coney Island circus that served as the bizarre setting for this ill-begotten endeavor, the casting, development, and production turned into one giant freak show. Even the name inspired derision. Love Never Dies? Really? Is that the best you can do, ALW? This of course, provided endless fodder for the critics, who re-christened it “Paint Never Dries”. It quickly caught on with those Phantom fans already in dire protest of the mere existence of this work. Other omens followed.
It’s never a good sign when the lyricist that made the first production sublime wants nothing to do with its sequel. It’s also never a good sign when your new lyricists’ only major songwriting credits are a musical based on the movie Sister Act and a Disney animated flop involving singing cows. It’s doubly never a good sign when your lyrics get such widespread criticism that your boss calls in the biggest favor of all time and begs the first lyricist to come back and make substantial rewrites to your libretto.
You’d think someone could hire a fortune teller and get her to whip out a few tarot cards, including The Lightning-Struck Tower, to get these guys a clue that something wasn’t quite right with their concept. Don’t even get me started about animatronic horses, burlesque/stripper Meg Giry (dubbed “Nutmeg” by the internet), and vague songs about something that might have possibly happened under the pale moonlight maybe.
Interestingly enough, the changes to both set design and the libretto appeared to add atmosphere and gravitas to the production, giving it more the look and feel of the original and bringing the eerie setting back into harmony with the desired gothic tone of the mood and music. Even still, it wasn’t enough to save Love Never Dies from its major problem: the plot. Without giving too much away – because you really need to Google the plot synopsis to believe it – ALW managed to strip all dimension from the original characters, put several of them completely out of character so as to be unrecognizable, and then degenerated them utterly until they became caricatures of the ghosts of their original selves acting out an incoherent storyline.
Secret love children? Conceived on one’s own wedding night? Really? You’d think the husband in question might notice his wife’s immediate and inexplicable absence for an extended period of time. Also, Coney Island? How could you alienate your fanbase and become a source of ridicule by changing the setting to someplace so….silly? So lacking in every quality required to make this change in location a success? Why did this sequel leave out everything that made the original magnificent?
Why ALW felt the need to create this sequel has been the subject of much debate. Did he do it for the money? Did he feel he needed to capitalize on his last major hit in an attempt to recapture past glories? Did he actually believe in this crap story? We may never know the answer. For explanation, I must steal a few more words from Act III, Scene II of Julius Caesar and say thusly, “O judgment! thou art fled to brutish beasts,/And men have lost their reason.”
Perhaps his reason returned long enough for him to pull the curtain on this horrible idea, a fact for which I, and millions of other Phantom fans, are eternally grateful. Much of the beauty and poignancy of the original came from its bittersweet ending; the lonely Phantom remains alone, having sacrificed possession of his beloved through the grace and mercy of true love. This is his redemption, a hero’s noble sacrifice for the one he loves. On that note, he disappears into the night. While this ending might have left romantics longing for more, resolving the storyline in this way only serves to sour our enjoyment of the original. What is the purpose of the Phantom’s sacrifice in the original if he goes back on his word and actions in the sequel, whether days or decades later? All catharsis and redemption gone in the space of a few lines. Unlike the ending of Phantom, the tragedy of Love Never Dies lies in its pointlessness.
The closing of Love Never Dies fills me with a strangely powerful relief. To me, it shines like justice and breathes of victory; a stain on the face of this beautiful work of art has been removed and normal business can resume. Like making sure this Sweeney Todd sequel makes it to Broadway ASAP.
*Go Mavs!! #41!! Ich bin zeuge!! Ahem.