Saturday, January 16, 2016

Movie Musicals That Got It Wrong: Love Never Dies

This is a bit of a cheat, I admit.  Andrew Lloyd Webber's Love Never Dies is not a proper movie musical.  Rather, the cinematic version of this sequel to The Phantom of the Opera is merely a filmed performance of the stage musical.  However, having done such an in-depth review of Phantom, I can't pass this one by.

Often, the stage musical is filmed after a botched attempt at adapting it to the screen, to demonstrate how the musical is supposed to be.  Such was the case with the Final Performance of Rent, and the 25th Anniversary performance of The Phantom of the Opera.  Other times, the stage musical is filmed so that those who likely will never be able to see it live can still see what it's about.  That's likely the case with Love Never Dies, which won't be arriving on Broadway any time soon.

It almost feels cruel to kick a musical when it's down.  The critical shredding of Love Never Dies has been universal.  Most of it is of the nature of "You really thought The Phantom of the Opera needed a sequel?  Where this time, Christine stays with the Phantom?  That's fucked up!"  However, much of it focused on the musical's many drawbacks.  Some called it Love Should Die or --more damning-- Paint Never Dries.

Lloyd Webber came up with the idea of a Phantom sequel as early as 1990, but didn't start working on it in earnest until 2007.  Originally intended to debut simultaneously in London, New York, and Shanghai, Love Never Dies shut down after nine months in London due to poor reviews and never premiered in the other two cities.  Instead, it was reworked and premiered in Melbourne, Australia, where one of the performances was filmed.  The filmed performance then aired in select U.S. cinemas and was otherwise released on DVD.  Hence, we have Love Never Dies: The Movie.  Love Never Dies is still playing here and there, and it's even rumored to be headed to the U.S. for a tour.

Viewed as a separate piece, Love Never Dies isn't bad.  It's muddled, dark, and lacks humor, but it has some creative set pieces, lovely costumes, and great singing (a must).  Viewed as a sequel to The Phantom of the Opera, it's a "disaster beyond your imagination."


Plot Synopsis

The year is 1905, 10 years after the events of Phantom (despite Phantom clearly taking place much earlier than 1895).  After the Paris Opera House fire, the Phantom was smuggled by Madame Giry and her daughter, Meg, across the ocean to New York, where he established Phantasma, an amusement park on Coney Island.  Despite Meg and Madame Giry's every attention, he pines for Christine, now married to Raoul with a 10-year old son named Gustave.

When the Phantom learns that Christine is coming to New York to sing at the opening of a new opera house, he lures her and her family to Coney Island with the desire to have her sing for him once more.  It is revealed that Christine's marriage to Raoul is difficult, with Raoul drinking and gambling away all of their money.  Meanwhile, Gustave reveals heightened musical gifts, and the Phantom determines that he could be the result of a brief tryst with Christine the night before her wedding.

Will Christine refuse to sing and leave with Raoul, or will she finally choose to stay with the Phantom?  


The Good

Singing Performances.  If the performances had been bad, this would have been a merciless review.  Instead, the performances are quite good for the most part.  Ben Lewis and Anne O'Byrne took over the roles of the Phantom and Christine from Ramin Karimloo and Sierra Boggess (best known for their performance in the 25th Anniversary of Phantom), and both are of excellent voice.  Lewis can't quite bring the unhinged quality to the Phantom that Karimloo evoked so effortlessly, but no matter.  Simon Gleeson is good as Raoul, letting his humanity show when it's too late, but is underused.

The most impressive performance may be that of young Jack Lyall as Gustave.  Child performers are so hit and miss in musicals, and to its credit, Love Never Dies requires a performance that's at least decent -- no trotting on stage to sing a few cutesy lines and then die, like Gavroche in Les Miserables.*  Lyall meets this challenge while singing with the voice of an angel.  Enjoy being able to hit those high notes while it lasts, kid.


No one gives a bad performance except perhaps Maria Mercedes as Madam Giry, making the character too shrill and hammy.

Production Design (Mostly).  Love Never Dies received a production design revamp between London and Melbourne, and it really makes a difference.  Compare the London staging for "Beauty Underneath" to the Melbourne staging.  The London staging is so flat and cheap looking, it's difficult imagining anyone finding it "beautiful."  The Melbourne staging feels more vast and multi-dimensional.

While it can be tough to truly judge from a filmed version with constantly shifting camera angles, the Melbourne production looks as lavish as that of Phantom, albeit much darker.  So much darkness can sometimes be a drawback -- the reason it worked in Phantom was because there was a balance between the dark and brightly lit scenes.


The costumes are also excellent and quite a feast for the eye with their color and period accuracy.  (Though I don't know if in 1905, Raoul would have worn a top hat anywhere but to a black tie affair, quibble-quibble.)

Some of the Music and Songs.  It's Lloyd Webber at his most Lloyd Webberiest, which means that the music is frequently lush sounding and grandiose, and sometimes inspired.  There are several nice melodies, including for "Beautiful," "Beneath a Moonless Sky," and, of course, "Love Never Dies."  The song lyrics seem sharper than in Phantom, though that's clearing a very low bar.


While several of the songs are good enough, none stands out like "The Phantom of the Opera" or "Music of the Night."  The best are probably "Love Never Dies" (though I think I liked it better as "The Heart Is Slow to Learn") and "Beauty Underneath."  The latter has become a favorite of mine largely because with its rapid rock energy, it is the most like "The Phantom of the Opera," and features angel-voiced Gustave to boot.  That said, it's a little creepy that Gustave and the Phantom would sing about finding trapped creatures in glass cones beautiful.

* Though Gavroche's role demanded more in the earlier versions of Les Miz when there was a turntable and we could watch him die.  Grrrr.


The Bad

The Characters.  Oh Where to Begin?  Love Never Dies makes sense only if you consider it Lloyd Weber's homage to fanfiction.  As Lindsay Ellis notes in her two-part examination of Phantom of the Opera, once the Phantom lets Christine go, their story is over.  There's no need for a sequel.  Christine would probably never see the Phantom again, and if he resurfaced at all, it would be in the spirit of leaving a rose on her grave, like in the final moments of the 2004 filmed version.

But in the world of fanfiction, Christine can stay behind with the Phantom, who is like sooooo much better than Raoul.  Countless fanfics must portray this exact scenario.  In his two-hour homage to fanfiction, Lloyd Weber does what is necessary for such a situation to work: he completely changes the Phantom's personality.  And everyone else's.


Lest we forget, the Phantom is supposed to be shockingly ugly and disturbed.  Yet in Love Never Dies, the Phantom hardly even appears deformed.  Lewis's Phantom looks virile and handsome, and Karimloo's Phantom goes even further in the sexy department, escorting Gustave around in a tight-fitting open-collared shirt.

The Phantom in Love Never Dies isn't a deranged, angry misanthrope, but a morose, respectable businessman.  The transformation is so great that I can't even view them as same character.  Therefore, the Phantom in Love Never Dies isn't Erik to me, but Rick.  Somehow, in the 10 years after Phantom, Rick learned how to function in society.  He's still a creepy, controlling asshole, but in a Bruce Wayne in his bat lair kind of way.

Erik spoke in riddles, threatening and murdering people right and left.  Rick tries to save lives, pleading: "Give me the gun, Meg."  No, really.  The Phantom is suddenly a suicide counselor.

Erik selfishly manipulated Christine and outright kidnapped her.  Rick... well, he kind of does that, too.  But because he's sexier and more respectable now, he's sooooo much better than Raoul and is a worthy mate for Christine and father to Gustave.  And of course, perfect, talented Gustave can only be Rick's kid because even Raoul's sperm sucks.


That's a long way of saying that if Lloyd Webber was going to pull off this type of sequel, he really needed a story bridging the gap, explaining the transformation.  Of course we'll never get one, so we're left to wonder what the hell happened to everyone since Phantom.

We're supposed to believe that Madame Giry, who was always wary of the Phantom, would become so obsessively devoted to him that she'd not only smuggle him to New York City, she'd launch his business empire.  We're supposed to believe that the woman who considered Christine like a daughter (at least in the 2004 movie version) would plot against her.

Then there's Raoul.  I know the creation of Love Never Dies pre-dates the 25th Anniversary performance of Phantom, but it's as if Lloyd Webber looked at Hadley Fraser's douchebag spin on Raoul and said: "Yep, that's him!"  Raoul in both the novel and Phantom was kind and brave, and definitely showed no signs of a drinking problem.  But to make the Phantom seem sooooo much better, Lloyd Webber reduced him to a snobby, selfish drunk who is ruining his family.  It's to the credit of Simon Gleeson that despite this, I still felt more for Raoul at the end than the Phantom.


And call me crazy, but I'm fairly certain Christine was in love with Raoul when she left with him, no?  Not that she entered marriage with him reluctantly and was secretly pining for the Phantom the whole time.

Yes, about Christine.  In Phantom, while she was intrigued by Erik, pitied him, and thrilled to his melodies, she was never in love with him.  It was Raoul she sang "All I Ask of You" with, not the Phantom.  She was afraid of him:
Raoul, I'm frightened.
Don't make me do this.
Raoul, it scares me.
Don't put me through this
Ordeal by fire.
He'll take me, I know.
We'll be parted forever.
He won't let me go.
What I once used to dream
I now dread.
If he finds me, it won't ever end.
When the Phantom finally stole her down to his lair, she said:
The tears I might have shed
For your dark fate
Grow cold, and turn to
Tears of hate.
If there's love there, or yearning for sex, it is very deeply hidden.  Very deeply hidden.  As in non-existent.  Yet Lloyd Webber would have us believe that soon after she sang these words, she decided she was hot for Phantom after all.  It robs Christine of whatever maturity she achieved in The Phantom of the Opera, which is unfortunate, given what a passive character she is otherwise.

Overall, the taint of Love Never Dies leaves no original character untouched, except for Meg Giry, and only because she had no real character to begin with.


And might I add how odd it is that Rick's business Phantasma deals with carnival sideshows?  Given that Erik grew up as part of a sideshow, only to abandon that world for the Paris opera house, it seems unlikely he would want to return, much less sing "my world is beautiful."  Erik in Phantom didn't want to create gargoyles.  He was the gargoyle.  He wanted to create beautiful music that would enthrall the people above, and stayed beneath the opera house so he could hide his deformed self from the world.  But I digress.

Story??  Let's pretend that Love Never Dies is salvageable.  What would make it better?  To start, it might have made more sense to tell the story from Christine's point of view, as was done in Phantom.  We would begin with her family traveling to New York, where Christine would reflect upon her life and wonder what lay in store.  The mysteries of Phantasma would unfold for both her and the audience at the same time.  Instead, we meet the Phantom and the Girys before Christine, so that when Christine meets them, the audience is doing it for the second time.

At least telling the story from Christine's perspective might have given her something approaching an active role.  Here, she's so passive it's offensive.  In her very first scene, despite being the one addressed by the press, she doesn't say a single word for three minutes, except "Gustave."  The scene makes clear that her true purpose in Love Never Dies is to serve as the vessel to unite Gustave with his father.  Gustave is the one who gets to voice his hopes and dreams as they enter the carriage bound for Phantasma.  A better, if not necessarily good, musical might have emerged had the story been about a more mature Christine overcoming the Phantom's abuse once and for all.


Instead, Love Never Dies is told more from the Phantom's perspective.  We're supposed to root for him as he sets a trap for Christine when she reaches New York.  We're supposed to sympathize as he threatens to withhold her son unless she sings for him.  Sorry, I don't find manipulation and abuse sexy.

So you're left with a boring, asshole Phantom and Christine the posable doll.  That doesn't compel the viewer to care about their fate.  Christine is such a pointless character that after she's shot, no one makes any attempt to staunch the blood or take her to a hospital.  Once she's fulfilled her purpose of uniting her crotch dumpling with his true father, she's free to die.


Other aspects of the story also underwhelm.  We get hints of scandalous things the Girys, especially Meg, had to do to finance Phantasma, but they are so marginalized, they never become their own plotline.

Everything in Love Never Dies is shallow, shallow, shallow.  Even Phantasma underwhelms.  What might have been an intriguing character in the musical never feels fully developed.  But I guess that's no surprise.

No Humor.  I tend to prefer dramedies, so I don't usually clamor for humor.  But boy, did this musical need some.  Phantom's humor might have seemed forced -- how much ridiculous Carlotta did we need? -- but at least it existed to balance out the darker aspects of the story.  Without humor, the story for Love Never Dies feels too leaden and self important.  The viewer really needs something to make fun of -- otherwise, it might end up being the aspects we were supposed to take seriously. 

It's Boring.  That may be the greatest knock against it of all.  If Love Never Dies was at least fun, it could be a compulsive viewing experience.  Instead it plods from one leaden, self important scene to the next.  When Christine reunites with the Phantom for the first time, they sing for such a long, monotonous stretch that I was in danger of dozing before it ended.  Paint Never Dries indeed.   


Conclusion

If you like Andrew Lloyd Webber at his emptiest and most grandiose, if you like pretty costumes and lavish sets, and if you think Christine should have always ended up with the Phantom, Love Never Dies is for you.  If you were satisfied with The Phantom of the Opera and felt it needed no sequel, Love Never Dies will drive you to drink.

You can purchase it at Amazon.com to view the carnage, or find it somewhere on YouTube.


The above images were used under the Fair Use Doctrine.

2 comments:

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