There are many dangers and difficulties associated with creating the sequel to history’s most successful musical. Not only does one have to add a new side to a well-established story but to also overcome the conceptions of old characters created by previous audiences. All in all, making Love Never Dies a worthy sequel to The Phantom of the Opera was always going to be difficult. Everybody from musical lovers to critics to Andrew Lloyd Webber knew this.
When Love Never Dies opened last year in London, it received mixed reviews. It was applauded for its haunting melodies but ultimately brought down by the weakness of its book. It is therefore understandable that when director Simon Phillips approached Lloyd Webber, he was given “carte blanche” to create an entirely new production. Although the ability to produce an entirely new, Australian production before Broadway should excite any lover of musical theatre, this freedom created reservations for me. I saw Love Never Dies in London before the initial additions and cuts were made and, despite the obvious flaws in the narrative, I enjoyed it. (On right – Anna O'Byrne. Photo: Jeff Busby)
Although a sequel, Love Never Dies was originally conceptualised as a musical that would eventually be able to stand on its own. This initially created barriers for Phantom ‘phanatics’ (like me) but this was to become a notable aspect of the production. It allowed the dramatic changes in the characters to be more palatable and plausible to new audiences. It was therefore surprising to see Phillips’ production make continuous references to Phantom despite stating that the differences between the sequel and its predecessor were to be significant. Original Phantom melodies and references have been interwoven through the show and this actually provides audiences more comforts than possibly intended and re-establishes sentiments with the original characters.
Phillips has altered the original narrative, which clearly reflects his understanding and acknowledgement of West End criticism. The show is no longer told as a retrospect, which has also resulted in a rearrangement of the score. It is now opened with “Til I Hear You Sing,” a powerful melody revealing the Phantom’s tormented love and longing for his Christine. This new arrangement has meant that songs from the original production have been either dropped or combined with other songs. This is unfortunate because songs like the “Prologue” has had part of its lyrics combined with the previously instrumental “Coney Island Waltz,” and the since-dropped “Heaven by the Sea” actually helped recreate the heart and pull of Coney Island – the people’s playground.
Furthermore, alterations to the musical arrangement unfortunately fail to provide further depth to characters needed to fill the holes left by the weak narrative. Throughout Act 1, Meg Giry still has obvious connections to her original character from Phantom. Despite the decade that has passed, Meg still exhibits an innocence that is illustrated through her constant need for approval from both her mother and her master, the Phantom. This is mainly a fault of the book. However, Phillips’ rearrangement seems to bury not only the burning ambition that drives Meg to continue to perform songs like “Bathing Beauty,” but also the damage that she has received in doing so. It is not until later in Act 2 that the obstacle created by Christine’s presence reveals a deep-seated jealousy within Meg. This sudden loathing of Christine seems rushed, making Meg’s actions at the end of the show somewhat unbelievable.
Sharon Millerchip as Meg Giry. Photo: Jeff Busby
However, despite my personal grievances with Phillips’ “carte blanche” take on Lloyd Webber’s Love Never Dies, this production does have its own merits that make definite contributions and improvements to the original.
Set and Costume designer Gabriela Tylesova is to be commended for her stunning recreation of Coney Island and of the dark, mysterious world that belongs to the Phantom. Rollercoaster rails that frame the stage not only provides a simplistic and glamorous scenic backdrop but also act as a symbol for the tumultuous ride that both the narrative and characters take. Tylesova’s brilliance is fully revealed in the song “Beauty Underneath” where the Phantom’s weird and wonderful mind as manifested through Coney Island’s freakshow.
Additionally, the casting of the principals is what really makes this an enjoyable experience, most notably Anna O’Byrne as Christine Daaé and Ben Lewis as the Phantom. Despite their youth, their onstage romantic and musical chemistry is clearly visible but, more importantly, the Phantom’s ability to ‘possess’ Christine is believable. Lewis’ performance is haunting and has remnants of Michael Crawford’s Phantom. O’Byrne performed as Christine in the most recent tour of Phantom and this has clearly helped her handle the musical demands of the character. O’Byrne’s Christine is played with conviction and demonstrates a deep understanding of the character’s troubles. Maria Mercedes as the ambitious and meddlesome stage mother Madame Giry should also be commended.
Ben Lewis and Anna O'Byrne in Love Never Dies. Photo: Joe Armao
Overall, Phillips’ production does add to the original Love Never Dies and should be celebrated as a fresh and innovative Australian production. Whether or not this production makes up for the flaws that plagued the original, I'm not completely convinced. Love Never Dies is no Phantom and whether or not it can actually stand alone as a worthy sequel only time and audiences will tell.