So apparently people like it when I save them money and pawn off culinary parlor tricks. -takes note-
Next time, my dears. Don’t worry, it’s not a morbid self-reflection essay either. But we are taking a trip down Cultural Imperialist Boulevard.
The other night I saw the sequel to Phantom of the Opera, Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Love Never Dies.
Andy’s got balls. Or ego. Musical sequels never go over well. Could anyone imagine a sequel to Les Miserables?
But Andy also sits on £750 million, And Phantom is at least a $5-billion-franchise. So those cajones have some support and Andy’s noitorious for his passive-aggressive ego. From the get-go, most Phantom phans were outraged at a sequel. It was supposed to be based on the book (commissioned by Andy) The Phantom of Manhattan by Frederick Forsythe, wherein there are lovechildren, clown suits, and Raoul getting shot in the testicles. Fine literature there. Silly Gaston Leroux for not thinking of it.
It could always have been worse.
So how’d it do? Read on, my angels. Disclaimer: due to the nature of this review, consider it spoiled. All ye who don’t want to hear how Christine has her windpipe torn out by a circus dwarf and how the Phantom is diagnosed with OCD, close this browser now. Or go watch Game of Thrones.
Popping off the bus, I realized I’d landed in the wrong place. Goddamn you tfl.gov.uk! In need of navigational assistance, I flagged down a nice-looking guy who looked like he spoke English. I was born with horrifically direction skills but excellent asking skills. I could totally talk the Lucky into telling me where he hid his Lucky Charms.
This dude happens to be heading in the same direction so we forged ahead, sharing tales of wizardry and daring-do. Or the diversity of American accents and the epicness of Brazil during Carnevale. Parting ways we traded numbers. A drink with my name on it is a few days in the future. A nice start to the evening.
Curtain comes up and it’s some hot chick wandering around a music room. Wait, it’s just the life-size Christine doll. With upgrades. The Phantom, played by Ramin Karimloo, sings about his pain over Christine’s 10-year absence. Considering he was a lot older than Christine in POTO and approximately 50 years old in the book, this swank 60-year old mantoy is quite a catch.
This kind of song proves the ability of an actor to lift a piece. The lyrics are appalling:
“And years come, and years go, time runs dry
Still I ache down to the core
My broken soul, can’t be alive and whole
Till I hear you sing once more!”
Rule for Tragically Romantic Antiheroes: You lose manly points when you point out your broken soul. Suck it up and earn your emo outbursts. Pussy. But someone when Ramin hits those big notes, he’s able to lift it onto (slightly) more substantial shoulders.
Moving on. The Phantom (aka Erik from the novel) has set up shop on Coney Island, namesake for the Houston-based hot dog chain and America’s first amusement park.
Of course he had help from Madame Giry, who in her spare time as a ballet mistress studied business and entrepreneurship. Meg’s the star burlesque dancer and has developed a wee crush on the Phantom.
Freakshow, opera house, what's the difference?
At the tender age of 20-something, Meg has learned how to bring home the bacon.
But any plans for coquettish seduction are dashed when Christine shows up in New York to perform for Oscar Hammerstein!
Erik has also found a trio of sexy freaks who keep Coney in high fashion
This time around, Christine’s a mommy. Her kid is 10-year-old Gustave and her hubby is still Raoul…but this isn’t the white knight from the original. Trade “I’m here, with you beside you, to guard you and to guide you…” to “Blah, let me pour myself a drink and moan about my gambling ruining our finances and goddammit Gustave stop playing the piano!!”
Anyway, you know what they say about men getting more impatient as they get older? Same here. Raoul’s barely out their hotel door when the Phantom struts in through the window.
"Yo...I see you upgraded the dressing gown."
What follows is Andrew Lloyd Webber’s gift-wrapped Thank You to all the Erik/Christine phans who have helped POTO earn $7 billion. In the following song we learn…
- Christine and Erik had a one-night stand the day before Christine’s wedding
- There was, ahem, touching, embracing, kissing, catching, and taking, all “Beneath a Moonless Sky.” Because moonlit skies are for idealists.
- But then Erik realized this was way too out of character so he got the hell out of Dodge before Christine woke up.
- Because this musical is essentially a giant fanfic, Erik’s way touchy-feely. Remember “Music of the Night” and the almost-but-too-scared-to-really-get-close Phantom? I guess he watched too much American television.
"Yay, just like old times." "What old times? Last time all you did was creep around behind me and show off your creepy mannequin."
Still, this song is pretty intense onstage, due to the skill of the actors. You really do feel the tension and passion and yes, it’s pretty hot. It just feels out of character. That is, until Christine points out she can’t just waltz off with him. Then he threatens to kidnap her child unless she sings once in his show. Geez Erik, you really know how to woo a girl.
I will say, the music is quite pretty. But just that, for the most part — pretty. There is none of the discordant beauty of Sondheim or the nuances of Kander & Ebb. The libretto is where things take a nose-dive. Somehow Glenn Slater and Ben Elton thought it was clever to rhyme “That idiot Raoul” with “I’ll kill that drunken fool.” Elton used to write Black Adder. Where did the magic go?
Anyhoodle, Christine shows up at the venue and runs into Meg and Mme Giry. Whoa-hoh, shit just got real: Meg’s pissed Christine’s stealing her lead and Mme Giry is pissed Christine’s there at all.
"You're a wife!" "And you're a stripper!"
Mme Giry creeps around and snarls about the unfairness of it all. As we come to learn, she and Meg smuggled Erik to America, helped him buy a sideshow, and were his steadfast friends and helpers as he built Phantasma. And now that Christine’s here, they have been replaced. Man, what a bat…except she kind of has a point. If Ramin Karimloo weren’t so charismatic of an actor, the Phantom would come off as a proper jackass.
During all this hubbub, Erik’s three awesomely-costumed freakettes lure Gustave up to his penthouse. Even if Erik complains he can’t write music anymore, his inventor skills have gone through the roof. His house is made of awesome. The setwork is gorgeous. When the Phantom’s impressed with Gustave’s not weirded out by all his automatons and gadgets, we launch into the rocky number “The Beauty Underneath”
The music box got bigger...and deader.
It’s as out of place here as the title song was in the original. And it rocks in its own silly way. You have mechanical skull-faced gorillas, skeletal automatons, Medusa chandeliers, and Ramin getting to show off his upper register. It’s a technical marvel and the song is really neat.
Alas, Erik’s made a few leaps in logic. Or else the book writer just thinks the audience is stupid. The Phantom guesses that Gustave is his lovechild because he’s 10 years old and can play the piano. Uh…didn’t Christine marry Raoul the day after their shagfest? Does Erik think they just played pattycake on their wedding night? Oh but wait, Gustave is MUSICAL! Because Christine and her father are totally not famous musicians. I guess it’s just because Gustave appreciates “The Beauty Underneath.”
Our lovely rock number ends on a bumpy note, as the Phantom removes his mask and wig. ‘Cuz everything turned out so well last time anyone saw him maskless. Gustave screeches his head off and runs to Christine who’s just popped by. Thank God he covered up the life-sized Christine doll.
This is one of the few times in the musical where Erik acts anything like his old self. He cringes and scrambles away, once more a shunned monster. And grabs Christine by the throat and orders her to fess up.
Ok, so now Christine doesn’t have to sing, but she promises she will because Erik’s throwing a “my son hates me!” pity party. Erik then vows to give his fortune to put Gustave through college, pay for his braces, and let him shop at Whole Foods.
As the Phantom, Ramin Karimloo is amazing and arrests your attention. But the writing of the Phantom is ridiculous. There’s so much of a self-righteous tortured romantic hero slant to the staging and libretto that it makes no sense. He’s mad at Christine for not mentioning Gustave…when he left her in the first place? He’s portrayed as victimized but good person, but he’s not a nice guy. Yet everyone just bows and pets him.
Also, I don’t agree with this sweeping romance angle. If it’s going to be there, it needs to be much more subtle and nuanced. Because the whole time Erik’s moping over Christine, he’s not talking about her. He’s talking about her voice. Never “aww, I miss my pretty opera smuffin.” It’s always “I miss your music! I want to hear you sing again!” Granted, I always thought this was an interesting part of the original. Until the final scene he always seems more in love with the idea and sound of her — and the chance he could be happy — than Christine herself. Which makes the whole thing so friggin sad when he lets her go.
Not the Phantom 99% of the time.
What would have been more interesting (and less retarded) would be if all his scheming and blackmail was shown as wrong, but that Christine was still inexorably drawn to him.
Later, as he’s singing about having a son, he’s going happy-loony. Yes, lunacy, welcome back ol’ girl! Show him excited over his newest obsession! Oh wait…that would make him quasi-villainous again. So Erik leaves to do whatever he does on the weekends. I bet it’s golf.
But in the shadows Mme Giry has been watching. And she’s pissed.
Tonight's performance of Mme Giry will be played by Mrs. Danvers.
Woo, intermission and potty time!
Curtain rises. Raoul’s getting smashed at a bar. As he asks for more booze, he begins to sing “Why Does She Love Me?”. This is the saddest song in the show. In fact, the character I feel most sorry for in the show is Raoul.
The dude just can’t win. He walks off with Christine at the end of the original and everyone hates him because he’s too good and too classically heroic. Now he’s a broken alcoholic gambler who knows how far he’s fallen.
This song is really sad. And really gives him some depth. He can never understand her music and knows she outshines him in talent. He was her consolation prize on account he wasn’t a crazed murderer. And now he’s not even the gallant man he once was.
Scratch "Love Never Dies." I redub it "Raoul Suffers On."
Our sad little soliloquy is interrupted by Meg, who pops by for coffee after a morning swim. Meg mentions the dock by the bar is a common suicide spot, where people walk off once they have nowhere to go. Oh and BTW, Raoul in Christine should really get the hell back to France, since Erik’s totally not going to let Christine go after he hears her sing again. Meg scampers off to practice her routine.
Wait, speaking of crazed murderers…holy crap the Phantom’s switched places with the bartender!
“Not afraid of me, you say?”
And David Thaxton, who plays Raoul, is awesome. He seizes up like someone took a crowbar to his back. He’s terrified.
As far as characterization, this is the best scene in the show.
The Phantom’s snarky, cruel, and utterly in control. Raoul’s scared to death and you can see him remembering their last encounter when Erik’s noose was around neck. He’s shaking as he stands.
Seems like the Phantom’s reconsidered his get-out-of-jail-free card for Christine. He does something that Raoul can’t help but jump to — he makes a bet. If Christine sings, she stays with him. If she walks, she and Raoul go home, all debts paid. “Devil Take the Hindmost.”
The face of the dude who almost broke your neck has a sobering effect.
Raoul gathers his tattered courage and agrees. The Phantom taunts him with Gustave’s parentage. As they circle each other like a wolf and hound, Raoul takes a drunken swing at him. And Erik grabs him in a choke-hold and shoves him into the counter. This part is so tense my neck was tingling. Erik steps back, hold out his hand in agreement and Raoul spits at it. Erik snaps forward and drags him by the neck up to his toes.
Karimloo isn’t a particularly tall guy. Thaxton is a quite tall guy. But Karimloo’s also a boxer and beautifully muscled. Of course the clothes hide the musculature, but the coiled power he exudes is palpable. And it totally works as Erik holds up Thaxton, reiterating his demands, before slamming him back onto the counter. Mocking to the last, he straightens Raoul’s collar and leaves.
Now here’s song I was in some ways very interested to see. Because wowzers, this song has gotten more phan flack than any other. You’d think ALW wrote a song praising the Nazis.
It’s called “Bathing Beauties,” and it’s Meg’s big striptease…uh, number.
As much as I agree with a lot of critiques, this isn’t one of them. People have gotten their panties in a wad because the song is supposed to be terrible. It’s a satire of a cheap vaudeville number and it does it annoyingly well. Remember the operas from the original POTO? Same here.
Clothed once again, Meg’s totally psyched she rocked the house. Of course the Phantom had to be watching that showstopper! But Mme Giry has to earn the Decade’s Worst Mom award and tells her the Phantom’s chilling out with Christine in her dressing room. Meg sobs, Mme Giry rants, and all is woe.
Until we pop back to the dressing room where Christine’s dolling herself up for her concert. I guess she’s tiring of obsessive musicians and alcoholic husbands, because she tells Gustave they will take a vacation, just the two of them, after her show.
Raoul strides in, finally looking like a dashing Vicomte. Christine thinks so too and there is sweet reminiscing of old times. Gustave leaves and Raoul begs her to forgive him and vows to make things right. And to come away with him on a ship bound for France. It’s a really sweet moment. And sad too; it’s clear Christine does not love him the way he wants her to, but she still cares deeply for him. It’s this one big glimmering moment of what might have been. Raoul departs.
Of course Erik’s not going to let anyone one-up him on declarations of love. And he’s got a gift.
"Stay with him and you won't get flashy jewelry anymore!"
And so they sing a reprise of and gee Erik you think you could be excited about something other than Christine’s singing?
The next scene, from a technical standpoint, is very, very cool. Christine stands centerstage, deciding if she will sing. Raoul and Erik wait on either side. As they sing a reprise of their bar song, the stage rotates. It’s a great effect.
Unfortunately the “glorious aria” is kind of limp, despite Celia Graham’s awesome vocals. If by any chance “Love Never Dies” sounds familiar, it’s because ALW plucked it from an earlier show of his and changed the lyrics around. Oh well, at least he’s only ripping off his own music this time. Puccini’s family won’t need to go bonkers again.
Besides the vocals, the only thing that makes this song interesting are her lovers in the wings. Halfway through, Raoul shakes his head and walks off. Christine chokes up in mid-song as she sees him leave, but the Phantom makes a gesture and she composes herself for the epic (and very very high) finish.
The Phantom looks he had his own climactic finish and can’t wait to hear her sing more. But Christine’s more concerned more about a letter from Raoul. He’s gracefully bowed out.
"Little Lotte, I beg you – forgive me ... *insert adorably sad farewell note* ... May your angel of music watch over you now, and give you what I wish I gave you, somehow. Yours, with regret."
They turn to leave… but oh damn, where’s Gustave? He couldn’t have just wandered off. It must be kidnap! Of course Erik blames Raoul but his freakettes swear Raoul left alone. Wuh-oh, Mme Giry! The freakettes bring in Mme Giry. Nope, not her either. It could only be… Meg!!!
Our delicate, sweet little ballerina has gone a little nutty. To the pier!
The Phantom’s guess was right. Meg’s holding Gustave at the suicide pier, about to jump in and take him with her. As the gang arrive —
Oh noes! Meg has a gun! And she reveals…dun dun dun!…the only reason Mme Giry had enough money for Erik to build Phantasma was because she whored herself out and put their backers on their backs. And alllll she wanted was the Phantom’s approval. Letting Gustave scramble back to mommy, she turns the gun on herself. Ah, ok, everything’s cool. Erik and Christine leave with Gustave and Meg blows her brains out.
Except that’s no way to end a melodrama. Instead, Erik has a heart to heart about knowing what it’s like to feel rejected and ugly. He’s makes progress, the gun’s coming down, and he’s using his hypo-voice skills to calm her. Until he mentions, “We can’t all be like Christine.”
WTF? Erik of all people should know what NOT to say to a rejected loony. Seriously, what the hell?
“Always Christine!” Meg wails, waving her arms in sorrow. Too bad she’s still holding the pistol . Which of course goes off. Which of course hits Christine.
Somehow Meg survives long enough for Mme Giry to drag her off to find help. Why Erik is not tearing her throat out right now I’ll never know.
It irritates me that this could have worked with better plotting and characterization and decent lyrics. I could buy Meg developing a fixation with the Phantom, as her mother was his only friend. I could buy her harboring jealousy for Christine. Considering the reputation of ballerinas at the time period, I could even believe she’d turn to whoring. But she doesn’t even have a real solo. Beyond some chatting with Pimp Mama Giry, we never see anything that hints she’s about to crack up.
I thought she just had a feather allergy.
Meanwhile, Christine’s going down like the Titanic. Which means slooooowly. Gasping for breath she tries to tell Gustave who his real father is. Gustave races off in terror. Smart kid — are we sure he’s not Raoul’s?
A few minutes of dueting later and Christine dies in the Phantom’s arms. There is much woe, a keening “NOOOOO!”, and much sad sweepy music.
Gustave returns, holding Raoul’s hand. Just why was Raoul so close to a pier known for suicides, hm? Raoul sees Christine and the light goes out of him. As he approaches, the Phantom turns and begins to walk away. For once he looks almost ashamed. Raoul sinks to his knees beside his wife and Gustave throws himself into his arms.
Gently Raoul pushes him away, their foreheads still touching, and says something softly. Gustave pulls back and follows the Phantom. As Gustave lightly touches his back, Erik turns. His son gently hugs him. As Raoul weeps over Christine the curtain falls. It’s pretty damn fine last few minutes.
So was it worth all the wrath of the phans?
In some ways, yes. The lyrics are shoddy and the story is silly. The Phantom really gets shafted. In the canon he’s sneaky, manipulative, crazy, and very broken. Yet these flaws are always laid bare. They aren’t hidden behind some attempt to make him into a tragic hero. The Phantom’s also not a whiner. If he’s pissed he’ll go drop a chandelier, not sit and moan for three songs about it. He’s a paradoxical mix of defanged and jerkified. As good of a performer as Ramin Karimloo can rise above it, but that’s no excuse for a weakly written role.
Raoul gets a similar treatment. Thaxton is amazing and makes you pull for him, but the role does not provide all of the bang he gets out of it. On paper, Raoul comes across as a dumbass too. No wonder Christine wants to grab Gustave and go on a vacation.
Then of course there’s Meg and Mme Giry. I’ve read enough good fanfiction, rare as it is, to believe a lot of plot directions and character pairings can work…with a lot of character development and planning. Yes, even Erik/Raoul can work. But it takes development.
Musical theatre, when done properly, can capture an entire character in a song. That’s the power of music that’s virtually impossible to transfer into the written except by the most talented or the most fortunate twists in the English language. Take Sweeney Todd‘s “Epiphany” — you don’t need any more than that to see his motivation and feeling for the rest of the musical. You don’t need as much time to develop characters in a musical because it can be done in a few songs. But it does take talent to find the exact words, the correct flourish of music, and somehow connect them.
Love Never Dies has a disjointed feel. Like the musician and lyricist came up with their own material and smashed it together in the end. The characters are roughly drawn and it banks too heavy on a senseless love of empty melodrama.
But did I have terrible night at the theatre? Gods, no!
The music itself is catchy and has some interesting moments. When they aren’t covered up by crappy lyrics. There is a lot of neat stagecraft and acrobatics. And as I’ve raved, the cast is stellar. And there are times when good acting and music come together to create some magical moments.
I was not with the group that decried the possibility of a Phantom sequel. I was just very wary, and for good reason. I’ve read good fanfics, so why not a good musical? But it takes a lot more care to write a good musical. Care that was not always given.
Though there was care in crafting the glass unicorn!
Because I am a good girl I got my mom the CD. But I wouldn’t say it’s the must-see show in London, not by a long shot.
What is interesting are the previews for the upcoming Australian production. From what I’ve heard there are a lot of changes. I’d look out for it. Maybe someone will see it as more than a cash cow and do justice to the canon.