Wednesday, 6 October 2010

Thoughts on Love Never Dies

On Monday night, I was lucky enough to attend an original cast performance of Love Never Dies.  For those who don't know, Love Never Dies is Andrew Lloyd-Webber's new musical; and it is also the sequel to The Phantom of the Opera.  When Lord Lloyd-Webber announced his intention to write a sequel to the work that most people consider to be his crowning achievement, reactions ranged from gleeful expectation to guarded reserve.  The Phantom of the Opera has built up such an intense and devoted fan following that the new show was almost certain to disappoint, at least to some degree.  I don't believe, however, that it was ever Andrew Lloyd-Webber's intention to "top" Phantom, but rather to create a companion piece that would still be capable of existing separately from Phantom as a standalone work.  Therefore, when I went to the theater, I was not expecting a mere rehash of The Phantom of the Opera; I went with an open mind, remembering that, Phantom or no, I almost always enjoy Lloyd-Webber's music.

Reaction to Love Never Dies has been mixed.  Some of the negativity doubtless stems from "phans" who would see any sequel as unable to live up to the original.  As I've perused several of the show's reviews, however, I noticed that there were particular aspects of the show itself with which the critics took issue.  Many critics praised the music, the singing, and the staging but felt that the plot was absurd.  Looking back on my Monday night experience, I would tend to agree with these critics.  In the following paragraphs, I will consider both the positive and negative aspects of Love Never Dies; and I will leave it to you, the readers, to draw your own conclusions regarding the quality of the show from my observations.  I will begin with what I liked about the show.

By far my favorite part of Love Never Dies was the music.  I'm certain that Andrew Lloyd-Webber knew that the score of his new show would be pored over and scrutinized by the legions loyal to Phantom in order to ascertain its "suitability" as a successor to the original musical phenomenon.  The score for The Phantom of the Opera is unlike anything Lloyd-Webber has written either before or since, except for perhaps passages of his Requiem mass.  Though Lloyd-Webber has always incorporated elements of classical music in the scores for his productions (even to the point of being accused of plagiarism of specific classical pieces on numerous occasions), this classical influence was never so obvious as in The Phantom of the Opera.  I don't think a comparison with the work of Stephen Sondheim is out of place here; like Sondheim so frequently does, Lloyd-Webber created a musical score that echoes with repetitions of its motifs.  A handful of melodies essentially recycle themselves throughout the length of the show, sparkling differently in each of their different settings.  Mixed in with this are individual show stopping numbers, such as "Think of Me," "The Music of the Night," and "Wishing You Were Somehow Here Again."  In fact, this musical structure resembles the conventions of opera, with its juxtaposition of recitative and aria.  I was curious, upon attending Love Never Dies, to see if Lloyd-Webber would adopt the same strategy in his new show.

In short, yes, he did, but only to an extent.  The difference lies in the ratio between recitative and aria.  Whereas the original Phantom had several songs that essentially functioned as showpieces in and of themselves, Love Never Dies has fewer; additionally, most of these are duets rather than solo pieces.  There is the added problem that there are some songs that do indeed stop the action, such as the lovely "Look With Your Heart," but that I still count among the recitative not only because their themes are recycled elsewhere in the instrumental score, but because they also lack grandness.  Every time the action stopped in The Phantom of the Opera and someone sang, it occurred with all the grandeur of an operatic aria; the case is simply different in Love Never Dies.  There is a greater variety of themes in the new show; because there are more themes to go around, each theme is less represented than those in the original Phantom were.  Essentially, the musical tapestry is more variegated but less rich; but oh, what a tapestry it is.  The music of Love Never Dies retains enough of its obvious classical influence to be instantly relatable to the score of The Phantom of the Opera; but it develops a new, distinct sound all its own.  The Phantom of the Opera was bombastic, melodically precise, crisp, clean, and elegant while still managing to evoke a sense of voluptuous darkness in songs such as the title track, "The Music of the Night," and "The Point of No Return"; Love Never Dies expands and explores this darkness, reveling in its languorous, seductive beauty; even the obligatory rock number (for there is one) is darker and harder-edged than its predecessor, the title track of the original show.  The Phantom of the Opera was, in a sense, interested in imitating to some extent the forms of opera and classical music; when watching Love Never Dies, one never feels that the music is attempting to imitate anything; it is truly a standalone work.

One thing I must address here is the incorporation of themes from the first show into the score of the sequel; this was inevitable, but I also feel that it is necessary as well as appropriate.  Those familiar with The Phantom of the Opera will be thrilled to hear snippets of some of the shows original themes, such as "Little Lotte," "Prima Donna," and that part that came between the end of the title track and the beginning of "The Music of the Night."  At one point, Christine actually reprises a bit of her song "Twisted Every Way," although it has now taken on a whole new context; but more on the plot later.  Though, as I have already said, Love Never Dies has fewer "singles" (I suppose that's a good way of putting it) than Phantom, it is not wholly devoid of them.  I will now examine the four most memorable of them along with the musical's general theme and the vaudeville music that is incorporated in the show.

As everyone will recall, the theme from the The Phantom of the Opera was the title track.  The thundering DAAAHHHH-dah-dah-dah-dah-dah appeared over and over again through the show, serving as a musical reminder of the phantom's darkness and danger.  That theme does not show up in the new show (possibly because Andrew Lloyd-Webber didn't want to tempt fate, aka Pink Floyd, to sue him for plagiarism).  The new theme, which the orchestra plays after the opening scene (appropriately entitled "Prologue"), is called "The Coney Island Waltz."  This song has less of a presence in the show than the original theme had in Phantom, but it still manages to pop up from time to time.  One of the most significant differences regarding the use of the theme music is in its relation to danger or major moments. In The Phantom of the Opera, the theme was always used to mark the Phantom's entrance or during momentous occasions; for Love Never Dies, Lloyd-Webber has composed an entirely different tune for those moments that I refer to as The Danger Cue.  Interestingly enough, The Danger Cue shares its first chord with the theme from Phantom, which was probably intentional.  But I digress.

The Coney Island Waltz itself is remarkably indicative of the style of Love Never Dies and how it differs from that of The Phantom of the Opera.  Whereas Phantom's theme tempted me to think that Andrew Lloyd Webber had somehow managed to commune with the spirit of Richard Wagner and to receive a piece of his music written from amid the fiery torments of hell, the theme of Love Never Dies is nowhere near as assertive.  The Coney Island Waltz is a playful piece of music, as it undergoes drastic shifts in tone many times before coming to a close.  Overall, the predominate feeling of the piece is one of a mysterious, dark, and often capricious beauty.  The tune, rather than attempting to shock us backward into our seats as the theme of the original Phantom did, draws us into its opaque world and then has a great deal of fun tossing us about from one realm of its shadowy kingdom to another.  It's really quite a superb track, and it's great fun to listen to.  In fact, why don't you judge for yourself?

This is the new "Music of the Night."  If I recall correctly, this is the only song of any note that the Phantom sings completely by himself; it's also the first time we hear him sing in the entire musical.  The song is beautiful and yearning and, in my opinion, expresses his passion and yearning for Christine every bit as well as "The Music of the Night" did.  This is a devilishly hard song to sing, requiring a full-on chest voice belt well into the man's upper register; in other words, for tenors only.  Here's a video of Ramin Karimloo, the new Phantom, singing this song.

This particular song has a long history.  It's first incarnation was as a song Lloyd-Webber wrote many years ago called "The Heart is Slow to Learn."  From the very first, this song was intended for the Phantom sequel, which Lloyd-Webber began planning shortly after the success of the original Phantom. The song was first performed in concert by Kiri Te Kanawa the glorious and talented soprano from New Zealand.  The following video is her performance from the Royal Albert Hall Celebration of Andrew Lloyd-Webber's music in 1998.

As it didn't seem as if a Phantom sequel would be happening in the foreseeable future, Lloyd-Webber had new lyrics written for the song and included it in the score of his unsuccessful musical The Beautiful Game; it's new title was "Our Kind of Love."  It took a bit of looking, but I found a decent video of a performance of it by Simone Kleinsma, the Dutch singer and actress.  The quality's not so good, but it was either this or Donny Osmond, so you do the math.

I think that this is a beautiful song; but as it is Christine's only really big song, I would have preferred something a little more operatic and classically influenced to show off the singer's voice.  That's just a matter of personal taste, however, as even the show's negative critics all agreed that the title song was a triumph.  For those interested in Lloyd-Webber's long history of plagiarism, the first couple of measures of the chorus were lifted from a song called "Jealous Lover" which was later more famously incorporated in the theme of the movie The Apartment, by Billy Wilder.  Here it is in its final incarnation as sung by Sierra Boggess, our new Christine.

Although Love Never Dies abounds with duets, occasional trios, and one quartet, this is the big one.  Think of these two back to back duets (clocking in at combined time of 10.5 minutes) as "All I Ask of You," "The Phantom of the Opera," and "The Point of No Return" all rolled into one.  Although some of the lyrics are a bit silly (in general, lyrics are not this show's forte), the melody in the first segment is perhaps the most perfect representation of this new show's lush musical darkness and passionate energy.

Oh, this song has such a stupid name.  This takes place directly after the preceding song to form part two of the super-duet.  Once you get past the ridiculous phrase "one upon another time," you'll realize how gorgeous this song really is.  If any song from this production can claim to be the new "All I Ask of You," it's this one.  It's short, but its theme crops up in the score later on from time to time (I think).

Although I like this song, I don't feel like it's necessary.  It loudly interrupts the flow of the musical by introducing a sudden and dynamic shift in tone.  I really feel like the only reason it exists is because the title track of the original Phantom had rock influences and Lloyd-Webber realized that his "phans" would want something similar.  Once you get past the fact that what you're hearing is actually happening, it's really quite a cool song.  As I stated earlier, this song seems to have a darker musical heart and a significantly harder edge than "The Phantom of the Opera"; also, the rock influence is much more evident.  I wanted to post a video of a cool live performance, but the sound quality's not so good, so here's the cut from the original cast recording.  Ignore the little boy orgasmically yelling "Yes!" every so often.

So...In a few numbers, Lloyd-Webber decided to incorporate some of the vaudeville music endemic to the new musical's setting.  This music, however, is always satirically presented as inferior to Christine's true artistry; in other words, it's supposed to be bad.  And it is.  Oh, how it is.  I can't really say much more about it; you'll have to listen to this for yourself.

Now that I've finished my discussion of the music in Love Never Dies, I have to pay some attention to the interpreters who perform it.  Essentially, there are six main characters.  I will only critique the actors' singing voices in the following examinations because all of the main characters, without fail, give superb dramatic performances.  Since all of them are good actors, there's no need to examine their acting skills any further.

As you have already heard in the above clips, Mr. Karimloo has an exceptional voice.  He played the Phantom on the West End and appeared in the film version of The Phantom of the Opera in a silent role as Christine's father during flashbacks.  Though he doesn't have a conventionally classically trained voice, neither did Michael Crawford when he originated the role of the Phantom 24 years ago.  I think that Mr. Karimloo's voice is perfect for the material he has to sing in Love Never Dies; I really don't think anyone else would be capable of performing it better.  Mr. Karimloo's voice is the best in the show and one of the best that I've ever heard in musical theater.

Miss Boggess played Christine in the Las Vegas production of The Phantom of the Opera and originated the role of Ariel in the stage musical version of The Little Mermaid.  Miss Boggess is beautiful, young, and elegant; this grace is important, as it allows her to convincingly play a role originated by Sarah Brightman, who in my mind is the epitome of elegance.  Miss Boggess handles the difficult title song, as well as the rest of her material, with aplomb.  Though I was concerned by what sounded like a shrill top register to her voice in Youtube videos, this shrillness was not as apparent at the performance I attended. She has a lovely voice and the right amount of training and technical expertise to play Christine.  On the whole, I find her voice too bright for the original Christine; but I think this new material is better suited to her tone.  All in all, though, it would be a stretch to imagine her as "the soprano of the century," a claim Love Never Dies makes about Christine Daaé.

Raoul doesn't do nearly as much heavy lifting vocally as he did in the original Phantom, but Mr. Millson has the right voice for him and could easily play the original Raoul.  Good, but not remarkable.

Madame Giry, meanwhile, does much more singing in Love Never Dies than in Phantom; and Liz Robertson rises nobly to the occasion.  This 56 year old actress has an alto voice more powerful than you'd imagine in a woman of her age, and she uses it to sing with great strength and pathos.  Bravo, Ms. Robertson.

I don't know if Miss Strallen is a good singer or not, because Meg, in the show, is a bad singer.  Therefore, it is Miss Strallen's task to sing badly; if you listened to "Bathing Beauty," I think you can see that she has been successful in this endeavor.

Gustave, Christine's son, is played by many different child actors.  The one I saw on stage had a pretty muffled, closed off voice; but the child who appears on the original cast recording has a bright, crisp, almost ethereal boy soprano, which is exactly what the role requires.

The staging was, in a word, ideal.  The set design was fantastical and opulent and made particularly interesting use of a series of screens on which images were projected.  The end effect of these projections resembled holograms on stage; one review I read claimed that Love Never Dies has "the best special effects on the West End."  Also, there are trapeze artists in one scene - 'nuff said.

I really don't think I can bring myself to relive the nightmare of this show.  I've written for too long, and I'm too tired to put myself through it.  You can look up the particulars of the plot on your own.  Suffice it to be said here that the motivations and psychological profiles of all the characters in the original show that appear here are perverted and betrayed, Christine the least so and Meg Giry the most.  Also, the show asks us to believe that immediately following the events of the first Phantom, Christine sought out the Phantom on the night before her wedding to Raoul and had sex with him.  Christine would never have done that.  Why would she do that?  The Phantom already killed two people and kidnapped her, and she's finally able to escape his obsessive clutches!  And she goes back to him!  Why?!  Ugh.  Whatever; I'm so over it.

To sum up, the music - sublime.  The singers - talented, especially Ramin Karimloo.  The staging - innovative and enthralling.  The story - shit.  Absolute, stupid, unnecessary, insulting shit.  I would still recommend the show for its beautiful music; but if you're a fan of the original Phantom, you'll be mad about what happens in the plot.

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