Monday, May 18, 2020

My Thoughts on Love Never Dies (Phantom of the Opera II)

SO. As I have stated a few times at my social media and probably here as well, I am a great fan of Andrew Lloyd Webber and of his work, and among my favorites is Phantom of the Opera.
My love of this musical (and then Lloyd Webber a little later) began when I was about 6 or 7 years old when my uncle introduced me to the Phantom London cast recording starring the great Michael Crawford and one of my queens, Sarah Brightman. Since then, the story and music held great fascination for me and when I was able to go see it on Broadway years later (my first Broadway show!), it was very exciting to behold the story between the Phantom/Erik, Christine Daae, and Vicomte Raoul de Chagny unfolding on the stage. Not to mention the gorgeous sets and costumes!

As someone who was also a theater kid, much of my repertoire over the years, since I started vocal training at the age of 12 - often included music from Webber and Phantom. I have sung the role of Christine in a couple Broadway musical revues, cabarets, etc. and songs like "Music of the Night" and "Wishing You Were Somehow Here Again" have been constant in my voice recitals (I've even managed to sneak them into some of my rock oriented shows at times).

But my Phantom fandom does not stop at the Andrew Lloyd Webber music, oh no! I am also a great fan of the original early 20th century Gaston LeRoux novel The Phantom of the Opera (or Le Fantôme de l'Opéra)  and the 1925 film with Lon Chaney and Mary Philbin (along with other film adaptations, including the 2004 film with Gerard Butler and Emmy Rossum). I even did a Christine Daae inspired look for Halloween last October (along with the mini Phantom's lair that I made at my trainer's station at the gym):

There are also other stage versions that I like, including the Yeston-Kopit musical Phantom. From that stage version, "Home" and "You Are Music" (sung with a male singer singing the Phantom's/Erik's part) have also been part of my repertoire over my years of singing. And there is also a Rosen and Scheirhorn's Phantom of the Opera that I've started becoming familiar with.

So case in point, the story of the infamous Opera Ghost is very near and dear to me and I love the story's gothic romantic and horror themes. Thus when Andrew Lloyd Webber announced that he was writing was meant to be a sequel to Phantom of the Opera, later revealing the title as Love Never Dies, I was immediately intrigued. Especially when Ramin Karimloo and Sierra Boggess were set to play the leading roles in the original London cast.

Love Never Dies was first open to the public at the West End in London in early 2010 and it was then that the mixed reviews started rolling in. A lot of these reviews came from many Phantom and die-hard Lloyd Webber fans, much of whom expressed displeasure in the direction that Webber chose to take the story and characters.
While I don't like to allow reviews to dictate whether I'm going to watch/read or even enjoy something, it was when I read the synopsis that my excitement for Love Never Dies waned. After that I avoided it and kind of pretended like it didn't exist. That is, until a couple of weeks ago.

Over the course of this quarantine, a program called The Show Must Go On has been making many concerts and musicals available for free streaming. Andrew Lloyd Webber has also been performing pieces of his music on the piano as requested by his fans via his YouTube Channel. Phantom of the Opera was available for streaming (starring my one of my favorite onstage couples, Ramin Karimloo and Sierra Boggess), and soon after Love Never Dies followed.

When it came to Love Never Dies, I went back and forth on whether to take advantage of the free streaming. Then I saw a video message from Andrew Lloyd Webber on YouTube upon Love Never Dies becoming available. He spoke with such passion of it, talking of how much the musical meant to him. I was actually very moved by his message and that was what sealed the deal. I was going to give Love Never Dies a shot.

Before I proceed with my thoughts on the musical, I will also add that there seems to be some confusion over whether this was truly meant to be an actual sequel to The Phantom of the Opera. Webber has stated that it was meant to be a way to continue the story of Phantom and then close it out. Then there are other sources that reportedly Webber stated that it was never meant to be a sequel, but more of another story involving the characters, a stand alone piece. This would make sense as Love Never Dies does have some continuity and timelines that don't really sync up with the original Phantom (which I will elaborate more on in a bit). As for myself, I viewed it as more an alternative universe of Phantom of the Opera.

And before I begin my review, here is the actual Love Never Dies synopsis (as per The Guide to Musical Theatre):

The musical is set in 1907, a decade after the end of Phantom. Christine Daaé is invited to perform at Phantasma, a new attraction in Coney Island, by an anonymous impresario and, with her husband Raoul and son Gustave in tow, journeys to Brooklyn, unaware that it is the Phantom who has arranged her appearance in the popular beach resort.

If you would like to read the rest of it (spoiler fact, this whole review contains them), the link is below:
Love Never Dies Storyline at The Guide to Musical Theatre

When it comes to my review of Love Never Dies, I divided my thoughts into sections and here they are.

I will comment on the music first and say that in my opinion, the soundtrack is absolutely phenomenal and definitely the show's strong point. Webber does and excellent job conveying a dark, lush, romantic musical, much like his original Phantom while also giving Love Never Dies its own stand alone sound, even when he sneaks in some original melodies from Phantom of the Opera into some of the montages and dialogue.
I will say that when I went to stream Love Never Dies, I was hoping for the London cast with Ramin and Sierra (both of whom are on the original London cast recording), though the version they were offering was the Melbourne, Australia cast with Ben Lewis and Anna O'Byrne (both of whom were superb in their roles, by the way).

For me, the following songs were the musical's highlights:

"Beneath a Moonless Sky" - this is a very beautiful and passionate song sung between the Phantom and Christine. Beautiful as this song is (and as I said, it's one of my favorites in the musical), it is usually at this point in the story that Love Never Dies starts to lose many fans. Here's why.
In this song, it is revealed that on the night before Christine married Raoul (whom she chose to be with at the end of Phantom of the Opera), she ventured back down into the depths of the Paris Opera House and had a sexual liason with the Phantom and at the end of it all, she was ready to abandon Raoul and go with the Phantom...only the Phantom has disappeared into the night, never to be seen by Christine for ten years and therefore, she merely settled for Raoul.

Based on reviews I've read, many fans seem to take issue with this, and I myself have a hard time grappling with it and making sense of it. While I wouldn't say that it's completely implausible (because, yes, Christine is allowed to change her mind), it seems that when fans (myself included) look back on the final moments in Phantom of the Opera, the fact that Christine would just forget about and instantly forgive all those events - especially when they were still fresh in her mind - that led to her rejection of Erik and completely be ready to forgo what she had at that time with Raoul and how she felt for both men at the end of Phantom of the Opera seems a bit far fetched. For Christine to be able to go to the Phantom in such a way, she would - in my opinion - have to have come to terms with and even be kind of okay with some of what the Phantom did, which did include murder, and just instantly erase the trauma she faced during the events of Phantom.
At the beginning of Phantom of the Opera, Christine looks at the Phantom with fascination, admiration, and maybe a touch of fear and uncertainty. And there is a clear bond between the two. To her, he was the Angel of Music, sent to her from her departed father. In the Phantom of the Opera, Christine is still also grappling with losing her father and to her, the Phantom also provides a direct connection. Perhaps this is why she immediately takes to him in the beginning, however, an exchange between her and Meg Giry during the song "Angel of Music" indicates that despite all this, Christine is still frightened by the prospect of the Phantom.
As we proceed further into the unfolding of Phantom of the Opera, Erik's antics grow more sinister and Christine becomes more disturbed and traumatized by all that is taking place. Through the midst of it all, Raoul is constantly coming to her rescue and acting as a hero, someone she can feel safe with. And she consistently heads closer to Raoul, therefore deepening Erik's rage to a point where he openly declares war on both of them.
It is not farfetched to say that Christine is terrorized by the Phantom when all is said and done, regardless of whether we as the audience can easily sympathize with Erik's plight and lot in life which obviously led to him being the way he is. From Christine's angle, she was betrayed by her Angel of Music, among other things, even if - to him - he did do it out of love for her. And at the end of it all, Raoul was the one there for her as a source of strength through it (and again, this is regardless of how we the audience view the love triangle from the outside...this is about the characters and their journeys).

So with that said, while I don't necessarily take issue with where Webber took the characters, I think that the way it was done is a bit jarring and doesn't seem to make much sense to many fans, given the storyline of the original Phantom. I think if the writers wanted to take the characters in that direction, the following scenario might be a little more believable and palatable:

It is a year after Christine and Raoul have been married, and perhaps the two are going through a rough patch. In her moments alone, Christine's thoughts return to the events of the Paris Opera House of a little over a year ago. During this time, she has been able to allow it all to marinate and perhaps even forgive the Phantom and understand him and where he is coming from. So one night, she ventures into the Paris Opera House and down into its depths with the intent of making peace with the situation and somehow let the Phantom know that she forgives him. To her shock, she discovers him and that he is in fact still alive. They have a verbal exchange which ends in her saying that she forgives him and that she still holds a sort of love for him. It is in that moment that their remaining bond becomes apparent and while her intent is to leave in that moment and return to Raoul, they are drawn toward each other and one thing leads to another. Afterward, she feels a melange of emotions as she returns to Raoul. Anytime she returns to the Paris Opera House for a rehearsal and performance after that, Erik is no longer anywhere to be found and seems to have disappeared forever. From that moment on, she wonders if the ordeal had been a dream...until she sees him again 10 years later in Love Never Dies.

I understand why Webber and company took this particular turn with the characters, as later on there is a major story arc with Gustave, the presumed son of Christine and Raoul (you can probably imagine what the story arc is), though I think the story arc could have still been done with a slightly different way of going about Christine's one time moment 'beneath a moonless sky' with the Phantom.

Regardless though, the song exudes beauty, passion, and the tension that is prevalent between Christine and the Phantom through the show.

"The Beauty Underneath"- this is a song sung by the Phantom to Gustav as he takes the ten-year-old down into the depths of Coney Island. I absolutely love this song, especially as Webber flirts a little with Heavy Metal in the piece. I also LOVE the way Ramin Karimloo sings it on the London cast recording. Ben Lewis did a great job with it too! This is also where the Phantom and Gustav start to really bond.

"Love Never Dies"- the title song that Christine sings toward the end and is also the show's climactic song. It is the song that the Phantom wrote for her to sing during her gig at Coney Island. The lyrics and melody reflect the passion that the Phantom held for Christine all these years. A passion that never died. It really is as though what the Phantom asked of Christine in Music of the Night back in Phantom of the Opera comes full circle in this song.

I'm sure most will agree that the stage production is absolutely gorgeous, beautifully gothic, lavish and colorful. In Love Never Dies, Andrew Lloyd Webber takes the characters from later 19th century Paris, France to early 20th century Coney Island New York (the story takes place in the heyday of Coney Island). I was very much impressed with the costumes and sets, along with the choreography and staging as a whole. This is also a major strength of the production that I saw.

I already touched a bit on the story in the portion of the music, but overall I will say that in order to enjoy this show, you have to be okay with the idea of someone taking the much beloved characters of Phantom out of their 'comfort zones' if you will. You have to be okay with the exploration of a darker side to these characters, a side that steps outside of the characters that Leroux wrote in his novel long ago, and even the characters Andrew Lloyd Webber adapted from the Leroux novel. As long as you go into watching this aware of that and okay with it, I think you'll be fine.

One thing I do like is that Webber took the Phantom/Erik out of where he was very much a loathed outcast to where he was truly a master of his craft and could be out in the open more. In the story, he escaped from Paris to Coney Island in New York. In fact, Webber got the idea for the story from the 1999 novel The Phantom of Manhattan. It is a cool idea (and I might add that book to my reading list), but this is where I'm guessing he had to take some liberties with continuity and timeline.
Gaston Leroux's novel takes place in 1881, and it is also implied that the events of Andrew Lloyd Webber's Phantom of the Opera also takes place in that year (though the 2004 film version with Gerard Butler and Emmy Rossum takes place in 1870). The events of Love Never Dies take place in 1907, which is obviously well after ten years following the events of Phantom of the Opera. In fact, the prologue scene of Phantom of the Opera, right before the overture, takes place at an auction in 1919, only twelve years after the events of Love Never Dies. An auction at the Opera House that a very aged (probably 60s or 70ish) Raoul attends. In Love Never Dies, the Opera House has also burned down following the events of Phantom of the Opera, which even the prologue scene at the beginning kind of implies otherwise.
Case in point, Love Never Dies does require you to suspend disbelief and just take the story for what it is.

So with all that said, I don't think Love Never Dies deserves some of the scathing response it received, though I can understand where all the criticism is coming from. Overall, I enjoyed it and I'm glad I finally gave it a chance. I think like anything else, it deserves a fair shot but is not going to appeal to everyone. The music and visuals are amazing, and if you can accept the idea of the beloved characters of Phantom of the Opera being removed from their 'comfort zones' and into a completely different setting and timeline, you might enjoy it. I personally think that Love Never Dies Christine would be a lot of fun to play, and if I was ever given that opportunity, I would totally take it. As I said earlier, if you have to, just think of it as an 'alternate universe' Phantom (which it kind of is, in a way).

I am in the process of reworking my podcast and in one episode I do want to explore why people seem to love to hate Raoul (and also Cosette from Les Mis, for that matter). I may even title the episode "What did Raoul ever do to you??" :D

But til then, stay safe. :)


Thanks for watching! Go on a musical adventure with me through time where for five days I'll send you a new song or story, and a personal email from me!

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