Friday, April 1, 2016

Movie Musicals That Got It Wrong: Love Never Dies (Revisited)

After completing my review of Love Never Dies, despite finding the Australian production boring, I became curious about the original London cast recording.  So I wasted perfectly good money in order to have a listen, and came to develop a rather twisted fascination with the recording, and the musical as a whole.  Not fascination as in I suddenly found it good, but in that I wondered how it could have been made less bad.

It turns out that the Australian version is, in many ways, a significant improvement over the original.  The original is a train wreck.  That being said, it contained some interesting nuggets, and provided for some interesting contrasts, which I've detailed below.

1.  In my last review, I complained that Christine was "so passive, it's insulting," but remarkably, the Love Never Dies Australian production actually gives her more spine than she had in the original London production.  In the original production, when Christine first sees the Phantom, she expresses some feeble outrage, but doesn't really seem too angry.  By contrast, Christine in the Australian production gets genuinely angry, accusing the Phantom of telling "one final lie to fool us all."

Likewise, after the Phantom learns that Gustave is his son, Christine apologizes for having caused him "nothing but woe."  Apologizes to the man who kidnapped and manipulated her in the original, and who continues to manipulate her.  One of the best improvements made by the Australian production* was to have the Phantom be the one to apologize.  It remains one of the few highlights in the musical.

* Though it was actually introduced while Love Never Dies was still in London, judging from this clip (cut to 6:36).

2.  The original London production engages in the worst sort of victim blaming not only by faulting Christine for making the "wrong" choice, but also by laying the tragic outcome of Love Never Dies at the feet of Madame Giry.  In the beginning, Miss Fleck sneers, "That's the place that you ruined, you fool!  That's the world you destroyed with your greed!"  Yes, how dare Madame Giry feel unappreciated after working her tail off for 10 years to help the Phantom rise to power, only to see him bequeath his entire fortune to a son he met five minutes ago?  Of course it was her fault that after Christine's death, the Phantom burned down Phantasma and disappeared with Gustave.  Certainly none of it had to do with the fact that her boss was a selfish asshole who was also crazy as fuck.

3.  The original London production, I think, does a better job establishing Phantasma and providing more details about the last ten years than the Australian production with two segments: the opening Prologue and "Heaven By the Sea."  The Prologue presents Phantasma as this almost dreamlike world where society's outcasts could feel at home, while "Heaven By the Sea" sets up how Phantasma was created and the mystery surrounding "Mister Y."  Both are much too long, and "Heaven By the Sea" is frequently obnoxious, but they do reveal interesting details about the size and scope of Phantasma (referred to as a "city of wonders"), which the Phantom somehow built in just one year.  No need for surveys or environmental studies, apparently.  In the Australian production, these numbers are cut, which makes for better flow in the first half, but also renders Phantasma's size and scope much more of a mystery.  The Phantom appears to be doing well since he can afford to pay double the amount Oscar Hammerstein offered Christine to sing.  But it's unclear whether Phantasma is still a "city of wonders," or just a big carnival.

4.  Having Phantasma so built up in the London production makes it that much more disappointing it didn't have more impact on the story.  It was essentially window dressing for a very banal obsession triangle (I won't call it "love").

5.  As the original London production provides more information about Phantasma, it also provides more information about the Girys' role in the Phantom's life, and in his rise.  In the "In Paris" song Madame Giry sings: "Who helped you buy that side show?  Who helped you finance your scheme?  Who wouldn't quit 'til your act was a hit and your hit could become your dream?  Who plied the politicians?  Lured investors and the press?  No, not her."  Much of that is cut in the Australian version.  Likewise, during Meg's breakdown scene, she sings: "Who helped you raise the money?  Who helped the permits come through?  Who greased the wheels of your high-flying deals, bought you time when the bills came due?  Who swayed the local bosses?  Curried favor with the press?  No, not her."  Geez, if the Girys did all that, it's a wonder they didn't move on at some point and create their own empire.  I liked getting these extra details and missed their presence in the Australian production.

That said, the Australian production made one major improvement by having Madame Giry sing the "In Paris" song to Meg instead of the Phantom.  It just seemed wrong to have Madame Giry lambasting the Phantom to his face for two minutes -- he would have punjab-lassoed her before she hit the minute mark.

6.  Meg is a more brittle, less likable character in the original London production, but at the same time, she seems to have more depth than her Australian counterpart.  And she has an American accent now, despite being as French as her mother, who's been in New York just as long.  But never mind that.  With the added details mentioned above, her fragile state is clearer and her breakdown less out of the blue.  Australian Meg is nicer and easier to sympathize with, but without the jaded ambition of the original Meg, her unraveling seems less organic, more like something that needed to happen in order to move the plot toward its climax.

7.  Original London Raoul is much nastier than his Australian counterpart.  He practically snarls his lines in "What a Dreadful Town," and constantly snaps at the bartender in "Why Does She Love Me?".  In "What a Dreadful Town," he can't even be bothered to talk directly to Gustave, snapping, "Please tell the boy the answer's no!" (versus "Gustave, enough.  The answer's no.").  Lloyd Webber and company did right by softening Raoul in the Australian version.  He seems more like the man Christine fell in love with, which makes her "choice" to sing that much harder, because it seems as though Raoul still genuinely loves her and if she left with him, things might be better.*

* That's assuming, of course, the Phantom made the bet in good faith and actually let Raoul leave unscathed.  I'm betting he'd have punjab-lassoed him before he left the island.

8.  In the original London version, the Phantom invites Christine to sing at Coney Island under the guise of "Mister Y."  Travel across the ocean to sing for a mysterious man with no last name who owns a theme park called Phantasma?  What could be suspicious about that?  Sold!  Whereas in the Australian version, it's Oscar Hammerstein who invites Christine and the Phantom intercepts her.  The change makes the Phantom seem more manipulative, but at the same time, Christine and Raoul seem far less gullible.

9.  Not only is the original London Phantom less manipulative, he's also less... Phantom.  He never kills and rarely threatens.  His voice is as calm and soothing as a masseuse's.  In the Australian production, the Phantom regains some of his menacing quality from The Phantom of the Opera, as he threatens to kidnap and possibly kill Gustave to force Christine to sing for him.  It was a good change, a reminder of just how awful the Phantom can be, but at the same time, it made Christine's ensuing actions more puzzling.  Why would she let Gustave wander away when his life was threatened, and why would she ever choose the man who threatened her son over Raoul?  Once the Phantom was made darker, Christine's actions should have been changed accordingly.  Unfortunately for Lloyd Webber, that probably would have meant Christine rejecting the Phantom a second time and leaving with her husband.  

10.  The one time the original London Phantom shows his darker side is in the "Gustave! Gustave!" number and it is so hilariously bad.  Let me start by saying no one, not even Satan himself, can seem menacing when he yells, "Mr. Squelch!".  Otherwise, in his desperation to find Gustave, the Phantom begins threatening people right and left, including a vow to tear Madame Giry "limb from limb."  If Love Never Dies had any depth, I would wonder whether at this point, Christine would have second thoughts about choosing the Phantom.

11. Another song that is much improved in the Australian production compared to the original is "Dear Old Friends."  It annoyed me initially because it felt redundant to have the Girys and Christine and Raoul meet after we've already been introduced to them, but I've come to appreciate the Australian version of the song.  It actually recalls that when Christine and Raoul parted from the Girys, it would have been on good terms.  In the original London version, Raoul and Madame Giry immediately snap at each other on first sight, as if their last interactions involved a bad business deal.  This was the woman who taught you to keep your hand at the level of your eye, Raoul!

12. Finally, the actors in this production must have learned their American accents from watching old Disney movies from the 1960s.  And a scene involving Meg and her fellow singers sounded like Ariel and her sisters from The Little Mermaid.  Disney: the only thing more ubiquitous than Lloyd Webber musicals.

13.  Something that you can't hear on the soundtrack: I mentioned the sets being better in the Australian version compared to London, but also better are the costumes.  What were they thinking with the original costumes?  The Phantom walking around with a mullet and his shirt collar open?  Christine a dowdy matron with 45-year-old hair?

Overall, while the Australian production is deeply flawed, and the original London production interesting, the Australian production is much better.  The original London production actually makes me dislike Sierra Boggess, and I loved her performance in The Phantom of the Opera.  In any event, maybe in a universe where a sequel wouldn't be revolting, with a couple more rewrites, Love Never Dies might be a worthwhile production.

The above images are used under the Fair Use Doctrine.