There is a moment in Love Never Dies, Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Phantom of the Opera sequel that’s currently playing at London’s Adelphi Theatre, that brought tears to my eyes and made me want to leap out of my seat.
It is the moment in which the Phantom makes his grand entrance into Christine Daae’s fabulously gilded New York City hotel room, which looks more like the high roller suite at The Venetian. It’s the first time she’s seen him since the events of the original play. She’s still lovely—her famous chestnut curls have been heaped on top of her head like a mountain of soft serve, the only dim insinuation that she’s aged. You know what’s coming because the strings suddenly grow louder; the melody swoons. And in slinks the Phantom through a mirrored glass door, wearing the same outfit he’s been wearing for twenty years, surrounded by a wispy cloud of smoke.
Everything in this moment is theatrical perfection. It’s suspenseful and evocative of the original in all its familiar excess. Even the ruffles on Christine’s robe—a more blinged-out version of the wisp she wore last time—seem to fall in flawless order.
Only one thing seems off, and threatens to throw the whole proceeding off the tracks, except that it’s so utterly on-the-nose: Why, on the 40th floor of a New York City skyscraper, is the Phantom surrounded by a cloud of smoke? It follows him everywhere throughout the evening, as though he were a kind of Gilded Age Pigpen. Apparently the Phantom could not bear to leave France for Coney Island without taking along his smoke machine. This detail is so instantly meta, so much more about how the creators of Love Never Dies think an audience thinks of the iconic Phantom—you know, the guy on the billboard—than about real character development. Forget the strings. In that moment, I nearly swooned.
Of course, all of Love Never Dies is more or less exactly like this—visually sumptuous, blunt as a hammer and weirdly both aware and unaware of the fame of its predecessor, like Season 4 of The Real World. But like the original show, it tells a good story, and manages to do so with some actual emotion. If it were a film, it would be an instant cult classic for its shear audacity and melodrama. But with the recent announcement that it won’t make it to Broadway this season, and that an Australian run may come first, it seems likely that a major rewrite is in order. For me, I wouldn’t change a note.
Here are some other things the Phantom has working in his favor:
1. This show does not even pretend to fuck around.
From the enormous set to the overspangled costumes to the thick-as-concrete power ballads, no show turns it up to 11 quite like Love Never Dies. In an era when every producer is looking to stage a “scaled back” revival of everything, it’s as though this show’s creators thought the opposite: That they wanted to take an old idea and make it ten times bigger than the original. This is refreshing because it’s such a rarity, and because it requires such risk. Of course, the more-is-more treatment also applies to the show’s plot, and to less positive ends. For example, Love Never Dies insists that we make a couple of truly ludicrous presumptions about the original show that simply aren’t true. For anyone (everyone?) who’s seen The Phantom of the Opera, this disconnect feels more than a little uncomfortable. The show gets beyond this by telling a convincing love story, and the plot twist at the end is genuinely shocking. But really, this isn’t exactly a show to see for its nuance.
2. The tunes. You will hum them.
In an era that’s produced few truly memorable musical scores, this one is way less terrible than it could or should be. The songs aren’t brilliant—they are Andrew Lloyd Webber’s endlessly recycled pap, to be sure—but they stick. They feel like part of a coherent whole, and they work hard to highlight the dramatic moments. The Phantom’s anguished “Till I Hear You Sing” tries to be “The Music of the Night” for a new generation and doesn’t quite succeed, thank God, but there’s something thrilling about the big, unabashed note at the end, about theater songs that aren’t afraid to be theatrical. For those of us who cut our teeth on “Why God, Why?”, that’s not such a bad throwback.
3. Hey, the Phantom is hot now.
Michael Crawford was, by all accounts, a fine Phantom. But for all his fake-y voiced, history-making posturing, he just wasn’t that sexy. Some new casing has re-imagined the OG himself as, well… kind of hunky. Ramin Karimloo, with his shiny tenor voice, is more in the Marius/Chris pocket than, say, the Jean Valjean/Fagan pocket—a positive development for all of us who appreciate a little cheese with our whine and roses. This happened just in time, of course, for the Phantom to get himself a girlfriend, a better looking lair (It’s GOLD!), and a thoroughly creepy army of friends, toys and friend/toys. His face is still busted up, but as a billboard recently informed me, tonight belongs to the Phantom. And has belonged to him for decades. In a climate where musicals are working so hard to get smaller, it’s a relief to know that there’s at least one guy out there who’s willing to go big.
Photo: The Daily Telegraph