March 14, 2010
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The Phantom of the Opera is the biggest entertainment phenomenon in history, having earned more than £3 billion worldwide and been seen by more than 100m people. Now comes the non-awaited, sorry, long-awaited sequel, Love Never Dies, and its legions of passionate “phans” are incensed, seeing this as a cynical add-on to a timeless masterpiece. (They’re only half wrong: Phantom is not a timeless masterpiece.) They’ve been tweeting, blogging and even bombarding us critics with emails.Meanwhile, Andrew Lloyd Webber himself has bemoaned “the whole sad culture of people who seem to only live by the old Phantom of the Opera”. I’m right with him. This does indeed seem a sad way to live. But what of Love Never Dies?
At the end of Phantom, you’ll recall, like the Marschallin in Der Rosenkavalier, but to different music, the freakish composer and brilliant impresario abjures his pursuit of Christine so she can marry her true love, Raoul. Now, a decade later, Christine receives a mysterious invitation to perform at the magical Phantasma funfair on Coney Island, New York, owned by a freakish composer and brilliant impresario called Mr Y.
Who on earth can that be?
So off she sails with Raoul and their son, Gustave, who is 10. Only when she gets there, and Mr Y/the Phantom reveals himself, does she sing: “I should have known that you’d be here!” Yes, you really should, my dear.
Christine isn’t just dim, she’s also a bit of a slapper. On the very night before her wedding to Raoul, “tormented by my choice”, she ran back to the Phantom. They “kissed”, “touched” and, as he puts it, reminiscing with a desperate, savage passion: “I took you!”
Yet Christine really did love the Phantom, and Raoul turned out to be a cad. He drinks, he gambles, he’s mean to little Gustave, he talks about “lower-class scum” and, with an eye on the Broadway audience, he sneers at “filthy American money”. None of this villainy was remotely hinted at in Phantom. It’s one of the many excruciating ways in which the original characters have had to be deformed to fit this childish and cheesy melodrama. (Babybelodrama, possibly.)
The writer principally responsible is Ben Elton — which, of course, means there are no decent jokes here, either. The Phantom was previously a murderous, gauche, doomed romantic. Now he’s a smooth, debonair operator, irresistible to Christine. And Gustave isn’t Raoul’s son, he’s the Phantom’s, although mercifully he hasn’t inherited his father’s unfortunate facial configuration, or we could be looking at another sequel.
It’s not only that this is implausible. The original Phantom, after all, featured a deformed genius who lived on a secret candlelit lake under the Paris Opera House, which hardly suggested the stern realism of Emile Zola. The trouble is, you have two completely different stories, ineptly yoked together and still audibly kicking and screaming in the traces. The clod-hopping, tin-eared lyrics are by Glenn Slater. “I just passed Meg’s dressing room, it was as empty as a tomb,” reports a character songfully at one point. I think “as cold as the tomb” might be the simile for which Mr Slater is unsuccessfully searching. Tombs aren’t usually empty, unless they’re Jesus’s; they’re simply stuffed with rotting coffins and old bones. But at least “tomb” rhymes with that pesky “room”. What else could we have had? “I just passed Meg’s dressing room. They said she’d sailed for Khartoum.” Another time, Coney Island becomes Coney Isle, to rhyme with “mile”.
At least, with Lloyd Webber, you’re assured of hummable tunes, some jolly burlesque numbers and a waltz or two. You’re also assured of weepy, sweepy strings and music that rises, tumesces and climaxes with adolescent regularity. Like Phantom, Love Never Dies aspires to be dark and passionate, but delivers merely a kitschy family-gothic. Inevitably, you keep thinking: why can’t it be Joseph, with its rock’n’roll numbers and wobbly camels? And if Love Never Dies, how do you bring the damn thing to an end? Answer: you kill off one of the main characters with a random gunshot. This victim of gun crime manages to belt out an impressive final aria for someone who has just been shot at point-blank range. Imagine Tim Roth in Reservoir Dogs, writhing around on the back seat of the getaway car with that stomach wound and still giving a fair rendition of Like a Virgin.
Ramin Karimloo (the Phantom) and Sierra Boggess (Christine) both deliver valiant performances, and their singing is excellent for its kind. The designer, Bob Crowley, whips up some lovely art-nouveau whorls and curlicues, a moon that rolls across the sky and becomes a Ferris wheel, and the Phantom’s lair, with its creepy mechanical devices.But such parts are no compensation for the whole. Picture Starlight Express crashing into Alton Towers and you pretty well have it. It will earn enormous amounts for Lloyd Webber to spend on his fantastic Victorian art collection, which he may one day leave to a grateful nation. So perhaps it’s all worth it.
Love is a flame that carries on burning!/Love sticks around like old chewing gum!/And Love Never Dies! It’ll carry on earning/For decades and decades to come!