Okay. So. Love Never Dies.
So Andrew Lloyd Webber musicals have been playing two-day runs on YouTube for a few weekends, as fundraisers for theatrical causes, since live theatre has been shut down during Plague Times and none of us knows when it’s coming back. Certainly doesn’t help that Broadway is in the heart of one of the world’s worst hotspots since the US response is being run by the least competent or compassionate government ever assembled by man.
They opened with Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, which I did not watch because I hate it more than anything, then came Jesus Christ Superstar which I also didn’t watch because I didn’t care enough… and then came the big gun, Phantom of the Opera. They aired a special anniversary production done at the Albert Hall (a proper full production, not an in-costume concert recital like those slackers on Les Miserables), and I’d seen many clips of it watching Lindsay Ellis’ Phantom of the Opera content (which is great, by the way, she’s very funny and highly knowledgeable about all things Phantom and film theory), and was definitely wanting to give it a look.
Capsule review: for all of its flaws, Phantom of the Opera FUCKS. I get why it’s Broadway’s longest-running show. If live theatre exists in 2021 I’d be tempted to see it live for a third time. I would have watched it twice in one day that weekend, but kept getting distracted and only made it to “All I Ask of You” on the second viewing before going to bed and finding it had been pulled in the morning.
The week after… Love Never Dies. The decades-later Phantom sequel Andrew Lloyd Webber wrote, claiming he wanted “closure” to the previous story. Which ended with the Phantom belting out “It’s over now, the Music of the Night.” Seemed… closed to me. Anyway, I watched it, and have some thoughts… thoughts that became the most popular thing I’ve ever done on Twitter, thanks to a retweet from the above mentioned Lindsay Ellis, who was clearly scrolling through #LoveNeverDies tweets and thought one of mine was funny/accurate. We’ll get to it in a moment because I have things to say.
Short version… Love Never Dies is bad and Lord Andy should feel bad.
Long version… strap in.
Okay. So. Quick recap of the story. It’s ten years after the events of Phantom, and the Phantom himself… who is just called “HIM” in this show, but I shall call by his canonical name “Erik” for reasons I’ll explain below… has been suffering writer’s block without having his muse Christine around. We then cut to creepy clowns, because that’s something the original was missing. Murder clowns. I am stunned that these clowns never kill and/or eat anyone on stage. See… Erik, after burning down an opera house and faking his death in Paris ten years ago, now owns a freak/burlesque show in Coney Island, managed by Madame Giry from the original, and starring Madame Giry’s daughter Meg (Christine’s bestest pal from the original). And wouldn’tcha know it, Christine, her husband Raoul (Erik/Phantom’s romantic rival from the original), and her ten-year-old son have just rolled into Brooklyn. Note I didn’t say “their” ten-year-old son. Like… it’s pretty obvious, really fast, where that’s going. It’s Superman Returns but much, much, much worse. (Superman Returns is better than y’all gave it credit for, fight me.) I will also come back to Raoul, but here are the basics… Christine has been hired to do a run at a New York theatre. Erik wants her to instead sing in his burlesque/freak show, which annoys Madame Giry and Meg, who have not sunk ten years into this show to be upstaged in it, or have it willed to some kid that 1905 science can’t exactly prove isn’t Raoul’s but we’re breezing past that. It also doesn’t sit well with Raoul, for reasons that seem obvious, but Erik appears at the bar Raoul’s spent the night at and they make a bet: if Christine sings in Erik’s show, Raoul leaves without her. If she doesn’t, Raoul gets paid and he and Christine live happily ever after. She sings, Raoul takes off, Meg kidnaps the kid, everything ends in tragedy, and Twitter’s finest Phantom stans are hoping for a third instalment where Erik and Raoul raise that kid together, My Two Dads style.
So those are the basics. Now, the larger complaints.
The Problem With Erik
I call him Erik here because there’s nothing Phantom-esque about him. In Phantom he has hypnotic powers over Christine, he throws fireballs, he takes away the prima donna’s voice mid-song, leaving only a croaking sound, he damn near wills a noose into existence to trap Raoul… he is a terrifying hidden presence in that opera house, and none of that is present here. He’s just… this guy. This guy in half a mask that owns a burlesque show but makes his assistant do all the managing. There’s nothing magic about him, and nobody acts like there ever was. When he floats majestically into Christine’s hotel room, she just glowers at him like “Well, if it isn’t this asshole.” When Raoul learns it’s Erik who lured them to Brooklyn, he reacts not with horror, but with the bitterness and annoyance any husband plagued by insecurity would have when his wife’s more charismatic ex rolls into town wanting to “catch up.” Erik is stripped of all his mystique, but is still somehow the romantic lead? He’s not the Phantom of anything, he’s Britta’s carney ex-boyfriend Blade from Community; she knows he’s a loser but he still somehow has a grip on her.
As to Raoul.
What the Hell did Raoul do?
In Phantom, or at least in good productions of Phantom, Raoul is Erik’s romantic rival, and they are on at minimum equal footing. Erik connects with Christine on a deep artistic level, but Raoul doesn’t kidnap her or try to keep her in a dungeon, and doesn’t murder anyone. Apparently Lord Andy read too many fanfics in the 2000s (I am told this show leans incredibly, suspiciously, hilariously close to many, many Phantom fanfics) and decided that would no longer do, because god DAMN does Love Never Dies needlessly shit on Raoul.
Within one minute of his entrance, we learn the following things:
- Raoul hates people using Christine’s more famous maiden name.
- Raoul resents Christine having a successful singing career.
- Raoul is a bitter drunk.
- Raoul has lost his family fortune on the roulette tables.
- Raoul sucks.
I legit cannot think of any sequel in any medium that puts this much work into giving a generally decent character a complete heel turn. Sure, it’s easy for Phantom to turn him into, in Ms. Ellis’ words, a poncy fuckboi, and yes in act one he gaslights Christine about the Phantom a little, but he’s okay! He is meant to be a rival, not Christine’s precious silver medal. But here he’s not even that. He’s the anvil Christine shackled herself to because her one true love faked his death and vanished.
Which brings us to…
Murders? What murders?
Jesus Christ they whitewash the original Phantom.
Once Christine’s done being pissy that Erik’s swooped into her hotel room a full decade after faking his death, they start dueting about their one night of romantic passion together, the night Christine’s son was conceived, and I was just thinking… fucking WHAT? Or more specifically…
WHEN THE FUCK DID THAT HAPPEN.
I had just watched the original one week earlier, and I had a pretty firm grasp of the timeline. 1) Erik pretends to be the “Angel of Music” Christine’s father used to talk about; 2) Erik finally appears to Christine, and she descends to his lair in a hypnotized, trance-like state; 3) Christine awakens from her trance, tries to put together some half-remembered details, and whips the Phantom’s mask off; 4) Christine spends the rest of the musical terrified of the Phantom, until; 5) Christine gives him a pity kiss (after saying “God give me courage,” something my dates say all the time and it is always a red flag) to keep him from murdering Raoul; Christine leaves, the Phantom fakes his death, that’s it until Brooklyn.
I do not, for the life of me, see when in that series of events they managed to sneak in any sort of consensual smush-time. The implication is that she “went back” at some point? So… during the period of time when she decided to marry Raoul and was, again, actively terrified of the murder ghost living under the opera house, she decided to take said terrifying murder ghost to pound town, then reverted back to being afraid of him? Is that what we’re saying happened?
No, Love Never Dies is saying that we’re reading it all wrong. He didn’t kidnap Christine, twice, forcing Raoul to run to he rescue the second time. He didn’t threaten her into being with him.
And certainly forget about the murders he did in the original, what murders? Even his diabolically creepy clowns don’t murder anyone, he must be a kind spirit who definitely didn’t murder a technician, magically assault a prima donna, and drug-rape a baby into Christine before burning down her place of work. They even admit to that last one right away.
As benign as they try to make Loves Never Dies’ Erik, he is still supposed to be literal horror movie monster the Phantom of the Opera, and no matter how little of that you put in the text, we remember. What’s that, you say? Love never dies? Yes, that is the title of the show, and its big central ballad (well, that one or “‘Til I Hear You Sing”), but why would the thesis statement of “love never dies” apply to a woman and her gaslighting kidnapper and not, I don’t know, to her husband of the last ten years? If love never dies, why does theirs?
This all brought me to one inevitable conclusion. This is a break-up play. This is Lord Andy poorly processing a breakup.
I get it, Lord Andy, I’ve been there, I once accidentally let my divorce influence my writing for… several years? That can’t be… minimum four plays? Wow. Yeah. That was a thing. But at least I was subtle about–nope, not true, The Spy Who Left Me was very… overt. But at least I was less problematic about the whole thing.
Christine forgives Erik for all the kidnapping and murder and arson and derailing her career by destroying her opera company, they invent some period of consensual sexy time that logically could not have existed, to turn Erik from a literal horror movie monster (he was once played by Freddy goddamn Krueger, come on) into the One True Romantic Lead of the story… and then Christine’s entire future is determined by a bet between two men that she isn’t even aware of? And then she dies? Her only agency, her literal only moment of choice, is whether she breaks a lucrative contract that, as far as she knows, is the only way to pay off her husband’s gambling debts, or reneges because her bitter, drunk husband doesn’t want her hanging around her totally normal ex.
Some of the songs are okay… I especially like that Meg’s big number in the revue, “Bathing Beauty,” starts as a B-grade Victorian cutesy burlesque number then gets reprised as the heartwrenching soul of the climax. And “Beaty Underneath” didn’t sound great when I heard it on the radio, but to borrow one last phrase from Ms. Ellis, it’s so lame it somehow shoots the moon and ends up rad again. Or it would, if it weren’t a duet between Erik and a small child. That was off-putting.
It’s a bad show. And everyone who saw a draft failed themselves and society by not looking Webber in the eye and saying “…Are you okay?”
Next page: A mid-blog speed round! That’s new!