Today we are setting our sights on the revamped, rewritten version of Andrew Lloyd Webber's musical sequel to THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA which opens this weekend in Australia - the once-slightly muddled, but melodically rich and dramatically rife LOVE NEVER DIES. Simon Phillips - known for his extravagant opera productions, as well as his musicals such as the recent Australia premieres of William Finn's SPELLING BEE and the Australian, Toronto and Broadway productions of PRISCILLA: QUEEN OF THE DESERT, which just opened this season - has completely re-imagined the show complete with roller coasters, carousels and more thrills than Coney Island - which is just as it should be given the story! Finally - thrills, chills and some operatic trills. Plus - showgirls, freaks, a carousel, the Phantom's son, and more! Down once more to the Phantom's lair we go…
Beneath A Moonless Marquee
It takes a long, long time to get a show just right - years; decades, even, in some famous instances (1776, CHESS). When you are planning to put onstage not only a musical sequel - a sketchy and fruitless enterprise that has never been successful in the history of musical theatre outside of William Finn's Best Score Tony-winning FALSETTOS trilogy (and, even then, FALSETTOS is just MARCH OF THE FALSETTOS and FALSETTOLAND as Act I and Act II, without IN TROUSERS at the start as it should be, so it really doesn't even count) - you have the odds set against you. Big time. Hell, ANNIE 2 was a huge flop - so was BRING BACK BIRDIE. The list goes on. No stranger to changing up the game with every new show he writes - or, at least, that was certainly the case throughout the 70s, 80s and much of the 90s (and even into the new century) - Andrew Lloyd Webber has a Herculean challenge fit for the very Lord himself in creating the perfect, ideal version - at least to his liking - of the musical sequel THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA. LOVE NEVER DIES - which takes place at the start of the twentieth century in Coney Island and concerns Christine, Raoul, Madame Giry and Meg from the original, as well as, of course, you-know-who (who is now incongruously cast as a thirty-something stud as opposed to Michael Crawford's fatherly, spiritual essaying of the role in the original production - I guess: if you can't beat it, change it completely and hope no one will notice, was the thought process with this decision) - is an anomaly, even in the musical theatre universe. Plus - let's be honest - sex sells. Speaking of which: LOVE NEVER DIES possesses a very, very, very sexy score. I would be willing to say this is Andrew Lloyd Webber's most animalistically sexual and romantically threatening score - with the climaxes coming in the soft, gentle moments when the Phantom is by himself, generally (spoiler: and, later, with his son Gustav - who ends up removing his mask to see what the fuss is about. Bad move (at least the first time he does it)). The drama of LOVE NEVER DIES is fueled by the characters' recollection of one night of passion between Christine and the Phantom on the night before she was to wed Raoul and that moment provides not only the dramatic impetus for the show and the subsequent score, but the musical core of the sound of the entire score itself - and the driving central motif; the pounding and ecstatic "Beneath A Moonless Sky". LOVE NEVER DIES is - without question - Andrew Lloyd Webber's best quality score in its expansiveness, ingenuity, richness, scope and storytelling power, since, surely, EVITA. I say this is his best score since the seventies for all of those aforementioned reasons but, also, for its grandiose embrace of the over-the-top and seemingly garish - there's a prog rock, "Eye of the Tiger"-esque heavy metal number ("The Beauty Underneath"); a dirge oh-so-befitting of a Parisian ballet director like Giry; a sextet (no coincidence, I'm sure); et cetera - as well as some of Lloyd Webber's finest, clearest, most concisely moving and powerful melodies to date - "Til I Hear You Sing", "Love Never Dies", "Beneath A Moonless Sky", "Look With Your Heart", "Before The Performance", and, especially, the Act One Finale ("Tomorrow night / I'll sing with all my might / Sing for you again… then we'll go," is as dramatically, musically and theatrically spellbinding and thrilling as - and just plain preferable to - anything in THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA, at least to me).
Andrew Lloyd Webber knew that when he set out to write this score that he would have to come up with a game-changer to beat the band - heck, all the bands on Broadway, anyway (since it is the longest-running show in history) - quite literally. Lest we forget: THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA is the most successful entertainment of all time (bigger than Michael Jackson or TITANIC, even), which has grossed over $6 billion worldwide in its twenty-five-year-and-counting history. It is already the longest-running show in Broadway history by far - and, judging from the grosses at the Majestic Theater, it will be sticking around for another decade or two, no doubt. So, the big anniversary seems the perfect time to bring the sister show to Broadway - but, not until it is as finely-honed and carefully crafted to perfection as the Lord sees fit for this, a score he himself has claimed is among his best. And, it is - maybe his very best ever.
Now, what is Simon Phillips going to do with LOVE NEVER DIES that will bring the rest of the show up to the level of the score - Jack O'Brien's production in the West End didn't do the trick. It didn't work - not everything does; especially in the theatre. The simple fact that ALW has been consistently, constantly rewriting the show post-opening and continually adding in new material and cutting other stuff, along with Glenn Slater, the show's lyricist, is proof positive that LOVE NEVER DIES is not going to go the way of WHISTLE DOWN THE WIND and THE LIKES OF US - that is: never make it to Broadway. This show is going to make it to Broadway one way or the other - and, if you have heard the score you'd agree with me: thank goodness. It is time for some romance on Broadway again - as well as some chills, thrills and operatic trills. It's been too long - though, judging from the chilly reception to THE WOMAN IN WHITE and BY JEEVES, I am willing to bet the critics will not be kind. But, then again, this is 2011, so who really pays attention to critics anymore? Talk about unnecessary accoutrement.
Here is the television commercial for LOVE NEVER DIES that just started airing this week to help us get acclimated with the very different sights and sounds of the Simon Phillips production of the show, which is using a greatly altered score and text from what originally opened in the West End last year - and the changes have been reflected in the UK production of the show, as well, though the Australian production is said to be a draft ahead of what is in the UK.
Next, check out this fun and informative interview with Simon Phillips from the Australian TV program BROADWAY AT BEDTIME. In addition to getting a glimpse of the sitzprobe and "Til I Hear You Sing" - sumptuously sung by the Australian Phantom Ben Lewis, who, it sounds, is on the same impossibly high vocal quality level as Ramin Karimloo, who was one of the only near-flawless elements in the original London production of the show. Also be sure to check out the scenic design elements that can be seen here - including: a mask gate, three revolves, the carousel, 9000 lights, a horse-drawn carriage, a 40-foot-tall peacock fan, and much more - and, additionally, hear how Philips is making this production all his very own in every way imagineable. What an undertaking!
Here we have some observations by the other cast members of the Simon Phillip-directed Australian production of LOVE NEVER DIES - stay tuned to 3:25 to see and hear the white grand piano and lusty, tainted memories that inform "Beneath A Moonless Sky", as well as take a peak at some of the fabulous costumes designed for the kooky assortment of Coney Island characters - showgirls, carnival barkers, freaks and beyond - so integral to the equal-parts creepy and colorful universe of LOVE NEVER DIES.
Next, take a look at the twenty-seven (!) trailer-loads of set paraphernalia that went into creating the unbelievably complex and enormous physical production of the Australian LOVE NEVER DIES with a backstage tour of the Melbourne theater where the show opens this week before eventually moving to Sydney, Brisbane, and then on to Asia in a few months after its run has completed in Australia.
Now, slip into the world of Christine Da'ae with "Look With Your Heart" as performed by Anna O'Byre at the sitzprobe for the Australian production of LOVE NEVER DIES.
Lastly, sink into the sensuous and alluring romance of LOVE NEVER DIES with this capture of the Aussie Phantom himself, Ben Lewis, performing the opening number of the show - the Rodgers & Hammerstein-meets-Puccini (whilst still faintly pop-flecked, natch) ode to long lost love, "Til I Hear You Sing".
So, has Simon Phillips finally fixed LOVE NEVER DIES for good? Is Lord Lloyd Webber approving of all the many changes made to the show as it now stands and will the Australian production indeed act as the paradigm for the Broadway iteration of the show, which is still planned to premiere at the close of next season? I suppose we will only know for sure by this time next year, when - and if - LOVE NEVER DIES is playing on Broadway. With a score this endearingly powerful and achingly romantic, we could use it now more than ever in a Broadway littered with camp, comedy and schlock.
Also, Andrew Lloyd Webber himself checks out the set and gives his first impressions here:
It's all a waiting game until we hear the Phantom sing on Broadway once more…