I recently saw the filmed version of Love Never Dies, Andrew Lloyd Webber’s sequel to The Phantom of the Opera. It was showing in a local theater, and two friends and I went. It was everything I had expected–it was terrible, and I had a wonderful time.
The short, quick review is that it is an awful, awful play, flawed on so many levels I can’t count them, funny when it’s not supposed to be, entertaining in much the way that Plan 9 from Outer Space is entertaining. The long review is going to be complicated and slightly incoherent, because there are so many flaws on so many levels at so many points, it’s hard to get structure into the review.
First, a few notes on biases: I did not come into this with an open mind. I expected to hate it. But I also didn’t come into it with an uneducated mind–I had read a lot about Love Never Dies and listened to about half of the soundtrack. Frankly, I had put plenty of effort into hating it, and I think that’s why I wanted to see it. I’d built up a vast amount of morbid curiosity. Another bias: I’ve been invested in my own idea for the last six years about how the Phantom’s life ought to turn out in a sequel (the brief version: he stays at the Opera House, becomes a renowned but never-seen composer, and marries Meg Giry). Some of my reaction may be based on “but it’s not how I want it to turn out.” But that’s not all the basis for my reaction. Love Never Dies really is terrible–on so many levels.
The story is set on Coney Island (already we have a problem), ten years after Phantom. Actually, it must be ten years and nine months, but more on that later. The Phantom, now going by the name Mr. Y (why? not a clue, especially when he has a perfectly nice name like Erik) is running a freak show on Coney Island and writing really bad sideshow performances for Meg Giry, while he mopes about Christine. Christine turns up in New York with Raoul and her son Gustave in tow, here to sing for Oscar Hammerstein in order to pay off Raoul’s gambling debts. The Phantom quickly finds her, and really, really, really wants her to sing for him on Coney Island. He offers money, plays on the sentimental past, and if that doesn’t work, threatens to kidnap her son–at least until he has a sudden GASP moment when he realizes how old the kid is.
That takes you about halfway through the play, and so many problems should already be apparent.
About the kid. Let’s start there. Christine and Erik have a duet about one magical moonless night they spent together. When was this in the first musical, you ask? It wasn’t. It was afterwards, I think (more on that in a moment). They spent the night, and then the Phantom left, convinced he was unworthy, unaware that Christine had fallen in love with him and also become pregnant. Result: Christine and Erik’s relationship and their characters are completely changed based on a scene that wasn’t in the last play. This also apparently torpedoed Christine and Raoul’s relationship (even though he doesn’t know about the moonless night), and in part sent him off on a spiral of drinking and gambling, totally changing his character too.
Other problems here (because there are more)–that moonless night annoys me so much, because it, like Angel of the Opera, reduces the Phantom’s problems and complications to just being unattractive. As long as she can’t see him, it’s all okay! Also, it’s worth noting that almost every previous interaction the Phantom and Christine had were in rooms without windows, and many of the key moments were underground. So…why does it even matter whether there’s a moon? As to when this happened, Christine apparently believed, after the moonless night, that the Phantom was dead. Except it’s also implied that he was “killed” by the mob and/or fire at the end of the last play. So she knew he wasn’t dead, because she went and found him (how? Not a clue) so…when did this happen? The lyrics in the original make it clear it wasn’t prior to the last scene of the first musical, and the lyrics in this one suggest it was the night before her wedding (well done on that one, Christine), but she also thought he was dead later on, so how does that make sense…? I don’t know. And about that fire–I can’t explain how the Opera House burned, when it’s still there.
But finally, a really big problem: the moonless night duet is a bad song. It’s describing the pivotal moment that sets up the entire plot, and…it’s bad. A lot of it is this back and forth of short phrases remembering the past. I’m sure it’s supposed to be some sort of passionate exchange of moments beyond words…but it comes out more like a really literal narration. “I kissed you.” “I held you.” “I touched you.” “I felt you.” And so on, and so on. It is a sad thing to put this song next to “Music of the Night” or “Point of No Return.”
So much for my many issues re: a single scene. Let’s talk about Coney Island next. There are all kinds of problems with the Phantom running a freak show. I can almost, not quite but almost, wrap my head around the idea of him gathering together everyone rejected by society, to create a place where everyone who’s different can be celebrated and respected. That may be what Webber was going for. It doesn’t come off that way, at least not to me. It came off as a cheap, Coney Island sideshow, where people parade through to look at the freaks. It’s well-established in the Phantom’s history that he was poorly treated in a freak show as a child, so the idea that he’d create a place like this is disturbing–not impossible, perhaps, but disturbing.
Equally disturbing is the music he’s writing for the shows. Poor Meg Giry has gone from ballet at the Paris Opera House to being “The Ooh-la-la Girl” at Phantasma. It’s tasteless (there’s even a strip tease–yes, really) and the music is…well, I refuse to accept that the Phantom is capable of writing anything as bad as “Bathing Beauties,” and I’m surprised Webber was capable of it.
I should tell you if I liked anything, shouldn’t I? I do try to be fair-minded and even-handed in my reviews. So let’s see… There are occasional well-told moments. There was a nice bit when Raoul very defiantly declares he’s not afraid of the Phantom. He turns around, sees the Phantom standing there, and jumps back a foot. I enjoyed that.
Many of the melodies (excepting “Bathing Beauties,” of course) were quite lovely. I wish I could say the same thing for the lyrics, but to Webber’s credit he wrote some beautiful melodies. They do have that Webber-trick of getting stuck in my head (which is disconcerting when they come with stupid words). I genuinely liked “Old Friends” and “Devil Take the Hindmost.” They were unexpectedly good songs, music and lyrics and even storytelling.
I’m also getting strangely attached to “Til I Hear You Sing,” the opening song. In some ways it sums up many of the ups and downs of this musical. It’s Erik bemoaning how empty his life has been without Christine in it. It’s a beautiful song, stirring, emotional, wonderfully sung–if you take it out of context. In context, I can’t ever get over the conviction that Christine is just not worth all this angst, that their relationship was totally unhealthy from the beginning, and he needs to pull himself together and move on because he could do so much better than her. But that’s a problem throughout the entire play. In context, I also just can’t take seriously the line, “Seasons fly, and still you don’t walk through the door.” Um…because he left her, and went across an ocean to New York, and she thinks he’s dead. Under the circumstances, she’s not going to walk through the door.
There’s also a fundamental problem in having the Phantom’s main desire be to hear Christine sing (no doubt he also desires something else, but that’s at least his stated desire). It’s a musical. She’s singing. Constantly. So the situation becomes, “I can’t have any peace until I hear you sing…and that duet we just sang doesn’t count.”
I will say it was good singing. The actors had very little to work with, but they were good singers. The acting tended to be over-dramatic, lots of arm-waving and gasping realizations of fairly obvious things. And Christine manages to faint once.
Any complete debacles I’ve missed…oh, plenty of them. But I have covered the character assassination that happens to pretty much everyone and the total mess of the plot (if I haven’t made that clear, let’s just reiterate that the Phantom of the Opera moved to Coney Island, it all centers on the love story of two people who should not be together and weren’t together in the last play, and a major plot point is a kid whose conception doesn’t make any sense timeline-wise or character-wise). The title song left me completely unmoved, and I can’t even tell how it was supposed to be moving the characters. Christine spends half of the song looking at Raoul, and then kisses the Phantom afterwards. So you’re in love with…who?
I do have to comment on the red rose. Christine remarks nostalgically about how Raoul used to give her a single red rose. Phantom fans, please, correct me if I’m crazy here–but the Phantom gave her red roses! It’s THE symbol of their love (such as it was). It’s on the posters next to the mask! I KNOW there’s a moment in the movie when Madame Giry hands Christine a single red rose with the comment, “He is pleased,” and I really, really don’t think she meant Raoul. How a Webber production can get that detail so fantastically wrong…I just don’t even know.
As to the ending, well, it’s all kinds of special. I hesitate to give spoilers, but I will say that it features a character who gets shot, and then sings before dying, and never bleeds. I know there are ways to make people bleed on stage, and this mess needed all the help it could get to be convincing. Also–the sentence “give me the gun” should never, ever be sung, especially as an isolated line of dialogue.
There’s a repeated line Christine keeps singing about “giving what you can give and taking what you deserve.” Erik, Raoul and especially poor Meg did not deserve what Webber did to them in this play. I don’t even like Christine, but she didn’t deserve this mess either. Neither did Webber’s fans. Oddly, I did really enjoy watching it. I sincerely hope my friends and I weren’t too annoying to the (few) people in the theater with us, because we laughed a lot (not when Webber wanted us to, I’m sure). There’s a theory that even if it’s bad, if you enjoy the experience then it does have value. Maybe so, but trust me–this was BAD.