When was the last time you saw a show where people started freaking out at each other as soon as the lights came up? And I mean shouting in anger – not in rapture – about what they just saw.
This happened to us at a recent film screening of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Love Never Dies at the mammoth AMC movie theater on 42nd Street. (The last of these screenings happens tomorrow night in theaters across the US.) The screening ended, there were a few moments of prolonged Phantom-ly darkness, and then the lights came up and everyone started yelling.
“You ruined the whole thing!” shouted one guy, across ten rows and an aisle, to the women in front of us.
“You should have just left!” came another terse comment from the back.
This continued for a solid five minutes after the film ended. The first guy was particularly indignant. “That’s operatic style!” he moaned. “Ruined by these people from New Jersey.”
He was not just referring to a group of women sitting in front of us specifically, but to entire sections of the theater. Because during the two-hour screening – a recorded version of the show’s recent production in Australia – entire swaths of the theater were laughing. And I mean laughing at the film, not with it.
But I don’t think those women disliked the show. In fact, I think they had a wonderful time – as we did – and would welcome the chance to see Love Never Dies again. So what gives? Why is this show so much fun to hate? Maybe because the hatred is fond in its intentions, sentimental in its regard for Lloyd Webber and his work, and utterly deserved.
And maybe it’s because this is the rarest of rare theatrical gems: a truly camp musical.
Granted, I don’t think Andrew Lloyd Webber sees the show that way. In a series of pre-show interview clips, the venerable composer describes Love Never Dies as basically the best thing he’s ever written, and maybe the best musical of all time. So we’re talking about total disconnect between artistic intention and audience reception, here.
Andrew Lloyd Webber’s sequel to The Phantom of the Opera is only a couple of years old, but it’s already had several lives – a poorly-reviewed London production, a fully revamped version of that same production, and then the Sydney staging. Despite bad reviews, Lloyd Webber seems determined that the show should continue; rumors of a Broadway production are still swirling.
In Love Never Dies, we meet the Phantom ten years after the original story ends, after he’s left France for America and is doing business on the Coney Island boardwalk as Mr. Y, a mysterious impresario. Christine, his former love, is now married to an alcoholic, down-and-out Raoul, and has a young son. When Mr. Y tricks Christine into coming to America to make her American singing debut, there is – naturally – a fraught reunion that puts Christine’s marriage in jeopardy and throws her son’s paternity into question.
Having seen the original version in London in 2010 and now the Australian version on film, I thought it was delicious trash. The premise itself – that the Phantom, formerly a menacing murderer, is now a sensitive romantic hero and an eager dad – is nutty enough. But the style of the show, in both incarnations, is so overwrought that it’s impossible to take it completely seriously. In the current film version, Ben Lewis, as the Phantom, plays most of the show in a cartoonish, agonized grimace while Christine, a catatonic Anna O’Byrne, stares straight ahead in a series of feathered, bedeazzled dresses that would make Big Bird jealous. Meg Giry is now a low-rent dancer on the boardwalk, and an alto. Raoul has been transformed from a dashing young vicomte to a mustache-twirling supervillain.
And yet, despite its obvious flaws – its cheesy ballads and failing attempts at creepiness – there is something thrilling about this Phantom, something that is much bigger than the show itself. Because it’s impossible to deny: Love Never Dies is hugely, unabashedly fun, and funny. It’s so funny that I even wondered if the London production was intentionally so, if maybe Jack O’Brien Jerry Mitchell – the show’s original creators, who’ve since left – were hip enough to understand that the show’s strength was in its absurdity.
In one scene, Christine must choose between the Phantom and Raoul, as she does in the original show. In this moment, the audience is asked to believe that the best this beautiful, talented, grown woman can do is a callow, abusive drunk and a disfigured former-murderer. But the whole circumstance, despite the sweeping strings, is so banal at its core. It’s the boring choice that real people make every day between things that just aren’t that exciting, but circumstance forces the choice. Go to work or have a depressing day at home? The construction worker or the accountant? The dirty jeans or the slightly less dirty jeans? Life with the Phantom or life with Raoul?
This silliness plays like a scene from any of the Housewives reality shows. Love Never Dies, after all, banks on more or less the same principles as those shows – opulent costumes, a lot of overplayed yet ultimately insignificant interpersonal drama, and the total absence of any nuanced thought or human feeling. The guy in front of us was mad that other people were laughing, but maybe it’s escaped him that this type of entertainment is more or less the sum total of what people laugh at these days.
And in a weird way, Love Never Dies seems to represent a kind of fruition for the Phantom. It won accolades and awards in its time, but the original show is unabashedly melodramatic and excessive, like the decade that surrounded it. Not even Sir Andrew himself would quibble with that. I can hardly be a surprise that Love Never Dies turns things up to eleven. It would be a disappointment if it didn’t.
Maybe I’m in the minority, but I wouldn’t mind seeing Love Never Dies on Broadway. I’d probably see it more than once. Throw in dreamy, big-singing Ramin Karimloo as the Phantom and I’d see it a lot more than once. Because not everything has to be Sondheim or Guettel, and this show is more fun than anything they’ve ever written anyway. And hey, maybe Kim Kardashian will be available to play Christine.