Sequels are synonymous with Hollywood summer blockbusters, but less so with Broadway musical smashes. So when British composer Andrew Lloyd Webber announced he was planning a sequel to The Phantom of the Opera called Love Never Dies, many theater critics were already tut-tuting before a note was written.
The track record for stage musical sequels isn't a good one. The one-week 1981 Broadway flop Bring Back Birdie was spawned from the 1960 hit Bye Bye Birdie. And the disastrous Annie 2: Miss Hannigan's Revenge closed after its Kennedy Center tryout in 1989 ( an off-Broadway Annie sequel called Annie Warbucks successfully emerged in 1993, but it is produced far less often regionally than the 1977 original ) .
Yet Lloyd Webber felt that there was more to be explored in the Svengali-like relationship between the physically deformed Phantom and his opera soprano love Christine Daaé beyond the original 1910 Gaston Leroux novel.
And what makes Love Never Dies so interesting from an artistic and box office standpoint is that Lloyd Webber's original 1986 musical The Phantom of the Opera is still running in London's West End alongside the new sequel. ( Love Never Dies is slated to hit Broadway in early 2011, where the original Phantom is also still running. )
So would the sequel cannibalize the original's business? And would the original's reputation be tarnished by the sequel?
I made a point to see for myself during a trip to the United Kingdom in April. I made it a Phantom-filled day by taking in both shows with a matinee of the original and an evening performance of its follow-up.
The Phantom of the Opera of course is known for being a critic-proof worldwide sensation ( the billions it has taken in has made it one of the most successful shows in theatrical history ) . I've seen Phantom in Los Angeles and multiple times as an usher during its "Music Box" national tour incarnation, so I knew what to expect.
Yet there's something special about seeing Phantom in Her Majesty's Theatre, the original London venue that launched the musical phenomenon. There's the historical aspect, but also the physical production has special trap doors for rising candelabras and stage openings for people to jump through that are only approximated in the touring version.
Yet even after all these years, the Phantom still offers amazing value for the money you shell out. The late designer Maria Björnson's neo-baroque sets and costumes are still an eyeful of spectacle and director Harold Prince's cinematic staging is one for the ages.
True, I could discern some of the actors walking through their roles ( who wouldn't after all these years in a long run ) . Yet where it counted the most, the company delivered with David Shannon's impassioned take on the title character and Gina Beck portraying the best-acted performance I've seen of Christine ( Beck's operatic coloratura was shaky at the performance I saw, so I can't say she's the best-sung I've seen ) . Instead of just being the usual cipher, Beck truly got across Christine's fears of a young woman torn between her childhood love ( the wooden Raoul of Simon Bailey ) and the manipulative ghost-like Phantom.
Clearly Lloyd Webber sided with the Phantom in his pursuit of Christine, which is probably why the sequel Love Never Dies came about at London's Adelphi Theatre. The sequel follows the efforts of the Phantom ( Ramin Karimloo ) to woo opera star Christine ( beautifully voiced Sierra Boggess ) away from her husband, Raoul ( played by Joseph Millson as an abusive drunken gambler ) , and son, Gustav ( Richard Linell ) , amid the New World settings of Coney Island, N.Y. ( Yes, that's the sequel's setting. )
It turns out that the Paris Opera's ballet mistress, Madame Giry ( Liz Robertson ) , and her daughter, Meg ( quite the strong song and dance girl in Summer Strallen ) , believed in the genius of the Phantom and smuggled him out of France so he could help make them a theatrical fortune in New York. But despite Meg's best efforts to get the Phantom's attentions, he is still obsessed with winning back Christine.
Staged by Broadway pros director Jack O'Brein and choreographer Jerry Mitchell ( Hairspray ) and featuring a very talented cast, Love Never Dies isn't the unmitigated disaster that many predicted. But it isn't far off from fan fiction typically found on an Internet blog dedicated to Phantom fanatics ( you know, the kind of fan who would stay up late writing screeds and scenarios on why Christine could never truly love Raoul when the Phantom would fulfill her so much more artistically and emotionally ) .
There is a post-Sunset Blvd. sound to Lloyd Webber and lyricist Glenn Slater's score ( particularly the first entrance of Christine ) and there are echoes from the original, particularly the reunion song "Dear Old Friend" which ends with a flourish like the original's "Prima Donna" and the obligatory rock/pop number "The Beauty Underneath" that sticks out just as much as the guitar-heavy title song of the original.
And like the original Phantom, some audiences may discern Lover Never Dies songs that sound like they're from other sources ( particularly the title tune that sounds like a theme from Adolph Deutsch's 1960 film score to The Apartment ) .
For Love Never Dies, the overriding artistic look of designer Bob Crowley is of Art Nouveau, coupled with some gothic touches for the Phantom's new sideshow henchmen ( who don't actually do much in the show than look sinister and creepy ) . Projections also play a much larger part in the design, which is masterly handled by designer Jon Driscoll to scenically transition the beginning flashback.
For longtime Phantom fans, the chance to find out what happens next in Love Never Dies will make the sequel into a must-see. And there are just enough interesting theatrical flourishes that will hold the interest of casual theatergoers.
But despite the admirable job put on by cast and creative team for Love Never Dies, it never fully answers the "why?" question about the reasons for its existence. The characters and situations of Love Never Dies aren't as emotionally moving as the original. Because of this, the raison d'etre behind Love Never Dies feels more like a Hollywood sequel created solely to rake in more dough rather than a truly artistic endeavor to illuminate and reveal more about its beloved characters.