It took me awhile to get around to indulging Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Love Never Dies, not in small part because I didn’t want the original musical to be spoiled. Some stories are perfectly encapsulated in a single telling. I have long been a fan of Gaston Leareuxe’s original novel. Though not particularly great writing, the story has always been one that struck a chord with me. Weber’s original musical told the story in a way that other productions, the movies and such coming out of Hollywood, typically do not. The Phantom musical recognized the story for what it is, a tragic love story, whereas most of the movies concentrate more on the horrific and climax with violent ends. In the end of Gaston’s book the Phantom, Eric, escapes but ultimately dies of a broken heart after letting Christine free.
So when I first heard of Webber’s extension of the story, I was both intrigued and perplexed. The production never came to American shores, and the reviews were mixed to lacking. All of which made it pretty easy to ignore. But as we were browsing about the used book and music store I happened across the cast recording. I enjoy most of Weber’s music, so I determined it was time to give this show a whirl. The music did not disappoint, and I found myself frequently going about my day-to-day business with its melodies echoing in my mind.
Enough of the angel of music’s songs resonated in my head that I was willing to give the video production of it a go as well. Not to mention that it’s a lot easier to listen to a musical if you can “see” what’s happening in your head. There are a number of substantial alterations to the arrangement order and telling of the story from cast recording (2010) to video (2012) that smooth the story out, so given a choice I recommend the video production.
The story? The story boils down to a Phantomphile’s wet-dream. Set ten years after the original in Coney Island (don’t pay too close attention to the dates, as some liberties are taken here), the Phantom, with the help of Madame Giry and Meg, has escaped Paris to run an amusement park full of freaks called Phantasma. And, if the story must be allowed to persist, sending Eric to America and that period of Coney Island works for me. It’s a perfect setting for the Phantom, and puts Eric in a new world. Webber seems to have taken off the Phantom movie theme that portrays Eric as a much younger man. Hey, a decade later the original Phantom would be much less limber and even less a prospective partner. Age doesn’t improve ugly unless you’re Sean Connery.
At Phantasma, the Phantom pines over his lost love Christine and plots to get her back into his life. Conveniently, Christine’s childhood love and now husband who confronted the Phantom in the original musical has become a drunken lout with massive gambling debts. That’s okay, we never liked him anyway. Christine and Raoul come to America with their ten-year old son, Gustave (seriously, Gustave??), for that same age-old reason–they need the money. Christine is set to sing, and her services are (secretly) outbid by the Phantom. Madame Giry and Meg, who has her own bit of infatuation going on with Eric, have been patiently plying their own plans to launch Meg into stardom. Neither are very happy to find that Christine is back on the scene.
Not long after her arrival, the Phantom reveals himself to Christine. The biggest leap in story imagination here, and the least tenable of all this, is the revelation that a decade past Christine returned to Eric “under a moonless sky” the day before her marriage where they consummated their love. Then, ashamed and afraid of Christine rejecting him again, Eric leaves her before she wakes, and so she ends up marrying Raoul after all. After meeting Gustave and showing him his world, it doesn’t take the Phantom long to do some mental math here.
Later the Phantom would prey upon Raoul’s predilection for gambling, wagering that if Christine sings for him, Raoul must leave alone. If she does not, the Phantom will wipe away all Raoul’s debt. If there was ever doubt that Raoul might come out the winner here, that star fades quick. In the meantime, Madame Giry has learned that Gustave is Eric’s son, and that he plans to give his fortune to him, even though the boy turned away from him in terror. Giry imparts this information to her daughter Meg, and it shatters the young starlet’s dreams for the future. While Christine is singing, Meg kidnaps Gustave with the intent to take him to the pier and drown him. The Phantom and Christine catch up to confront her, and Eric learns that Meg prostituted her body in order get him money to build his enterprise. Phantom tales aren’t given over to happy endings without heartache, and Meg accidentally shoots Christine with a pistol she brought along. Christine reveals to Gustave that Eric is his real father before dying in Eric’s arms. Gustave, who ran off at the news and somehow manages to find Raoul, returns. Eric gives Christine’s body over to Raoul (she’s dead, you can have her now) and despairs. Gustave unmasks him and touches his face without fear. Curtain close.
That’s the quick synopsis. Nothing as good as the original story, but they seldom are. What it does fulfill is all the PTO lover’s earnest desire that Christine and Eric were really meant to be together, even if that tragically doesn’t work out. Webber isn’t the first to imagine Christine and Eric having a child, as Susan Kay’s 1991 novel Phantom, which recreates Eric’s story from birth to death, also ends with progeny. The music is worth giving a listen if you enjoy Webber’s work. It is darkly rich and intriguing, and probably sold short given the original’s notoriety and this production’s lackluster fanfare.