In honor of the encore screening of Andrew Lloyd Webber's LOVE NEVER DIES at Fathom-equipped movie theaters across the US today, March 7, following the rapturously received first showing late last month, this week we are highlighting the show's central stars, Anna O'Byrne and Ben Lewis, and speaking to them all about the spectacular Coney Island-set PHANTOM OF THE OPERA musical sequel. Following the previous interviews in this series with composer Andrew Lloyd Webber and lyricist Glenn Slater, this LOVE NEVER DIES series shines a special spotlight on the risky and ambitious new theatrical venture, which originally began in London's West End and has now been thrillingly filmed in its completely reconceived and rewritten Australian iteration directed by visionary innovator Simon Phillips. In an unprecedented move, Fathom will be presenting the elegantly designed film of the stage show in over 500 movie theaters nationwide, making LOVE NEVER DIES an absolute must-see for Broadway babies curious to see where the story of the Phantom, Christine and the rest ends up ten years later - and, also, a real treat for just plain entertainment enthusiasts in general out there. To paraphrase from the musical drama itself, the special screenings of LOVE NEVER DIES prove that love does, indeed, live on.
Today, in this preview of the upcoming complete InDepth InterView, LOVE NEVER DIES star Ben Lewis and I discuss his insights into playing the Phantom, working with the phenomenally talented cast featuring Anna O'Byrne as Christine, as well as what his impressions are of the final finished film version of the show now that he has seen it on the big screen - all of that and much, much more!
You can purchase tickets to the encore cinema screening of LOVE NEVER DIES in Fathom-equipped theaters across the US on March 7 here.
Why Does She Love Me?
PC: I have to say that I feel this may be Andrew Lloyd Webber's finest score to date - a truly sensational collection of songs that display the best of his abilities. It's certainly right up there with EVITA.
BL: That's great to hear, Pat, because I feel the same way. I think EVITA has been my favorite show of Andrew's up to this point, as well. I mean, I always approach my work from a dramatic point of view, first and foremost, and I have always found EVITA to be such a dramatic book - I just think it's fantastic. Now, I really think he has struck a beautiful balance with LOVE NEVER DIES that is really quite a joy to perform every night, I have to say.
PC: Had you ever performed a role in an Andrew Lloyd Webber show before LOVE NEVER DIES?
BL: No, I have never actually done one - obviously, I've sung a number of his songs before, but I've never been in a full production of his work before. I just knew from what I had seen and listened to, you know, what I really liked. I love EVITA and I would love to do SUNSET someday, as well - Joe would be a terrific role for me.
PC: Indeed it would.
BL: EVITA has always been sort of at the top of the list for me, though. I have to say, when I remember back to the auditions and I was just learning the music for this first off, I just had a really kind of natural, instinctive reaction to it - which doesn't always happen. I just felt really comfortable singing the material and I didn't have any problem just getting right into it. So, I think I knew from quite early on that this was going to be a fantastic experience.
PC: And a phantastic one, as well.
BL: [Laughs.] Yes, a phantastic experience - with a ph - as well.
PC: Speaking of which, had you ever seen the original PHANTOM OF THE OPERA onstage?
BL: Oh, yeah. I remember that the first time I saw PHANTOM was when I was living in the UK as a teenager - I saw it in London when I was 12 or 13.
PC: What were your impressions of the show back then?
BL: Well, my lasting memories of it are of the Phantom appearing when you least expected him to in some amazing part of the set somewhere - that's what I remembered most. It wasn't until the most recent Australian production that I actually saw it again, which was with Anthony Warlow and with Anna. My brother was actually playing Raoul in that production, too.
PC: What a fabulous familial PHANTOM connection! It's a very small world.
BL: [Laughs.] Yeah, we've got a bit of a strange PHANTOM connection! My brother, Alexander, played Raoul and covered Anthony, so he went on a few times as the Phantom, as well. So, we both have an affinity for the role now, which is lovely.
PC: So, Anna has played the original show with your brother and the sequel with you - how funny is that?!
BL: I know! I remember the first few days of rehearsals I would occasionally catch Anna looking at me funny - it was because she was trying to figure out the various traits that my brother and I share, but, also, sort of realizing how different we were, as well. It took her a little while for her to come to terms with the fact she was looking at someone quite different. [Laughs.]
PC: That's hilarious. Are you and your brother both bari-tenors or are you more a baritone, would you say?
BL: Well, he is a tenor now, but we both started as baritones. My brother is actually on the young artists program at the Metropolitan Opera and has been for the last year and a half, so he has always wanted to do opera - both of our parents were opera singers, so it has always kind of been in our family. He has always wanted to follow that, eventually, himself - so, he is there and he is going to be there next year, too, all the way through 2013.
PC: Good for him - and for both of your successes!
BL: In the last 12 months, since doing PHANTOM, his voice has transitioned up into this lyric tenor territory now. I don't think there's any danger that my voice will do the same - I think mine is well and truly rooted in the baritone tessitura, but that's OK and I am quite comfortable with that.
PC: As you should be! What syllogism between you two, then, having done PHANTOM and LOVE NEVER DIES in the lead roles.
BL: Yeah, it's a bit strange, but it's great at the same time.
PC: When Glenn Slater did this column, he said that LOVE NEVER DIES is approached more like an opera whereas PHANTOM is treated more in its style and staging and structure as a musical. How do you see LOVE NEVER DIES as someone coming from the opera world?
BL: Absolutely - I agree. You know, I have approached the role, vocally, in a very legitimate way - to use a technical term - rather than it being more pop-like. I haven't worried too much about sort of contemporizing the sound or anything particularly. I find that, for me, the scheme through the show is very legitimate and, then, there are moments of belt.
PC: Like "The Beauty Underneath".
BL: Right. Obviously, in the middle of "Beauty Underneath" you can kind of rock out a little bit. Essentially, I have approached singing the score in a kind of really legitimate way and what I love about that is that I really get to use every color I can think of vocally throughout the show. I know that, early on in the audition process, Simon Phillips said to me that he was really connecting to the darker sound in my voice. He thought that sound lent itself to this characterization very well.
PC: It really does.
BL: I made an effort to try and find that darker color in my voice where necessary, and, then, explore - particularly up at the top of my voice - some of the lighter moments, as well. Just as a singer and as a performer, you really get to use the full range of your instrument over the course of this show.
PC: Considering the concept album came first, were you familiar with the score for LOVE NEVER DIES before you became involved?
BL: No. I never listened to anything before rehearsals started - I learned the music straight off the page. I never saw the production in London and I didn't want to have any preconceptions.
PC: You wanted to start fresh.
BL: Yeah. What I think has worked out wonderfully for Anna and I is that we actually sing really well together and our voices tend to blend really beautifully.
PC: You can say that again.
BL: Musically, we are on the same page - with our musicality, as well. Sometimes that doesn't always happen - sometimes the person singing opposite you will maybe have a slightly different feel; not that it is right or wrong, but you just approach it from a different point of view. Whereas I think Anna and I can kind of sing together and we know, instinctively, how to make it work - our phrasing is very similar and we've obviously worked it all out ahead of time as much as we can. But, actually, we didn't have to do that much work because we both just clicked so well musically.
PC: How wonderful to hear.
BL: I think that that just sort of knocks that thing to the side so you can just pour a lot of your energy into the actual performance and storytelling, which is obviously such an important part of it, as well - particularly in this show.
PC: It's quite fascinating to discover you created the role from the ground-up even though you were not the first to play it, even though this new version of the show is vastly changed.
BL: Yeah - it's very rare in Australia to get new shows. You know, we get all the shows secondhand, often - created in New York or created in London. It's not all that frequent and common that you get the chance to create something from scratch here. Simon really gave us free reign to, you know, explore the roles as much as we wanted to.
PC: Lord Andrew really gave him carte blanche to rewrite at will, essentially, and shape the show he thought LOVE NEVER DIES could be.
BL: Yeah, I mean, obviously, Andrew had seen it all come to life once before, in London. So, I know that it must be very difficult to already see something come to life and then to see a group of new people taking it and bringing it in a completely different direction. But, we all felt that that was the mandate given to us: to really look at the show through fresh eyes.
PC: A new take.
BL: From that point of view, I had no hesitation in kind of blocking out everything that had come before and really just looking at the words and the notes and the dots on the page and starting from there.
PC: What was your first experience of LOVE NEVER DIES? Reading the script?
BL: Yes. Obviously, I had sung a number of the songs in the audition process and was given bits of script, but, once cast, that is always the first step for me - I'll just read it and make the notes that I feel are necessary to make. I like to have a really strong understanding of the direction of my character - as you know, the hard thing about musical theatre is that you have all of these other influences on that story, like the music and the production, that, if you are not careful, can drag you off what's at the center of your character and what is going on in the story.
PC: It's a delicate balance to strike.
BL: I always try to start with the words, and, then, once I have a very solid understanding of what direction we are going, I can begin to feel able to compute and to put all the other stuff on top of that.
PC: Tell me about when you first saw the film of LOVE NEVER DIES on the big screen. What was your immediate reaction?
BL: Amazement. It was just amazing. We had a showing for everyone that was involved in the making of it out here. First and foremost, we were all so proud of the work that we did - nothing like this has ever been done in Australia before; certainly not a commercial musical theatre show. So, we were all so, so proud of the work that we put into it and how it came off on film.
PC: As you should be.
BL: It was a wild ride watching it, I'll tell you, though! [Laughs.]
PC: I bet - especially for the Phantom himself!
BL: It was thrilling, but there were moments where I found it sort of difficult to watch, only for the simple reason that I am still doing it every night and I found it incredibly difficult to distance myself from that and to look objectively on what I was seeing.
PC: You're not alone in that - Anna told me quite the same thing about her difficulty in watching herself onscreen.
BL: I just thought that Gabriella's design came up so incredibly well onscreen, too. What amazed me most is that, even though the cameras were so close, the detail in our show and the production values really held up against that microscopic HD camera. I was just so proud of us - and it sounds so amazing, too! [Pause.] Look, it's just going to be something that I look back on for many years as something I am really, really proud of.
PC: What was it like adjusting the staging and scope of the show to fit the intimate HD filming process? It really flows like a film.
BL: Absolutely. We were aware at the time that it was all going to look a certain way. You know, we had big cameras in our faces a lot of the time and we had to move stuff off the stage - plus, the set piece cameras and things. So, we received some terrific direction from both Simon and Brett, the film's director, over the performances. It was a concern for us and did take some adjustment for us to make it feel like a film - of course, we wanted it to be seen as a film of a live performance, but there was always this interest to create something filmic itself, as well. So, we worked hard at pitching our performances slightly differently at times as compared to the performances we are giving for 2000 people every night, eight times a week.
PC: And it shows.
BL: It wasn't without its challenges, but, you know, I am just thrilled with the end result - just to be able to get in it and actually do it. I think it's nice that even people who were in the show and know it are able to watch a performance that they were involved in up close, which often they might not be able to see. From that point of view it was just incredible to watch.