If a movie makes a lot of money at the box office, you can almost bet that it will generate a sequel. Sequels are scarce in the commercial theater, but since Phantom of the Opera is the longest-running show on Broadway, raking in an estimated $6.5 billion worldwide so far, composer Andrew Lloyd Webber felt he had more to say about The Phantom, Christine Daaé and Raoul, Vicomte de Chagny. So he penned a follow-up to his monster hit – dubbed Love Never Dies – opening Tuesday evening at Fort Lauderdale’s Broward Center.
“I thought a sequel was a brilliant idea,” says the show’s music supervisor, Kristen Blodgette, who has been involved with Lloyd Webber’s various stage productions for over 30 years. “I wasn’t like, ‘Oh, dear, don’t do it.’ I thought, ‘OK, what is this man going to do. I’m sure it’s going to be brilliant.’ And it is one of the most stunning scores I’ve ever heard. Of course I say that about nearly every show he writes. I love them all, otherwise I couldn’t have done it for this long.”
Still, Love Never Dies has had a difficult launch to say the least. It began in 1990 when Lloyd Webber began discussions with novelist Frederick Forsyth (The Day of the Jackal) to brainstorm a plot for the sequel. Their talks eventually broke down, although Forsyth did publish a book of his storyline – The Phantom of Manhattan.
Lloyd Webber then collaborated with librettist Ben Elton (The Beautiful Game) and lyricist Glenn Slater (Sister Act), and that was the version that first met an audience at the composer’s country estate, Sydmonton. That was the version that opened in London’s West End in 2010 and was promptly panned by most critics.
Many composers would probably sigh, toss the script and score in the trash, then move on to their next project. But not Lloyd Webber. After nine months of healthy business – for theatergoers wanted to see a sequel to Phantom of the Opera, despite what those darned critics said – he closed down the production and completely reworked the show. It eventually ran a respectable year-and-a-half in London, but still Lloyd Webber was not satisfied.
So he started over again with a whole new creative team, including director Simon Phillips, and premiered this version in Australia. It eventually played Tokyo, Japan and Hamburg, Germany, before the production was recorded and broadcast in various markets around the globe. The original Love Never Dies had been slated to open in simultaneous productions in London, Shanghai and the United States, which never happened. But that reworked material has led to a lengthy North American tour, for which Blodgette has become involved.
She was enthusiastic about Love Never Dies since the first time she heard about it. “I’ve loved ‘Phantom’ for so long and been involved with it for so long. One part of me was very happy to know that I might have closure on the story, other than what I’d made up in my head for 30 years,” says Blodgette. “The other part of me thought, ‘Oh, no, I don’t want closure on the story.’ I took this very personally, I really did.”
Careful to avoid spoilers, Blodgette summarizes the new show’s plot like this: “It is 10 years after ‘Phantom’ took place and Christine and Raoul have gotten married and they have a son. Someone named Mr. Y has hired Christine to come and sing at the opening of the Manhattan Opera House in Phantasma on Coney Island. Madame Giry and her daughter Meg have been living there with the Phantom, but of course Christine and Raoul don’t know this. Raoul has deteriorated a tad, having issues with alcohol. They seem not to be doing financially very well, so she’s taken the job.
“She gets to Coney Island and Mr. Y turns out to be the Phantom and they are reunited. He gives her an ultimatum, to sing one more song for him. It’s a choice between Raoul and the Phantom – does she sing or does she not? – and really it’s almost not a choice because ultimately the music chooses her. She chooses to sing, because she cannot push away whatever it is about the music that captivates her so.”
According to Blodgette, the score to Love Never Dies is romantic and symphonic, similar to that of Phanton of the Opera. “I would say more lush. It’s just gorgeous,” she gushes. “With lots of leitmotifs of the original ‘Phantom.’ If you know the original score, you can pick the themes out here. Sometimes they’re quite hidden or buried in the density of the orchestration, but they’re accessible if you know ‘Phantom’ well.”
Not that you have to be familiar with the earlier show to appreciate Love Never Dies. “You could come see it and not have any knowledge of ‘Phantom’ and still be incredibly, emotionally and dramatically engaged by it,” she says.
Lloyd Webber is known for composing big musical numbers that burrow into your brain, and Blodgette feels certain he has done so again here. “The first song The Phantom sings is ‘Til I Hear You Sing.’ I don’t ever get it out of my head,” she says. “And then the song ‘Love Never Dies’ that Christine sings is just staggeringly beautiful. I think those would be the two most likely to stick with audiences.”
No, there is no chandelier in Love Never Dies, but the scenic design by Gabriela Tylesova is breath-taking nonetheless. “It’s physically a beautiful production, especially the presentation of Coney Island and the way that is structured,” says Blodgette. “It’s not a helicopter or a chandelier, but it’s pretty jaw-dropping.”
It is inevitable that Love Never Dies will be compared with Phantom of the Opera, which must have Lloyd Webber worried. “I don’t think that Andrew would ever say he was, but I think he must have been, y’know? I don’t know how one could avoid that. I think it’s very risky to do a sequel to ‘Phantom’ when you have something that’s just such a huge, huge success and so iconic, and then you’re trying to follow it up with something,” says Blodgette.
“But this is a piece that Andrew feels incredibly connected to. At every turn in this process, Andrew has been involved. It’s been most inspiring to see how he has taken personal care in it. He loves the score and the story, more so than with other shows of his, I believe.”
At some point during the tour, Lloyd Webber will decide whether Love Never Dies will go to Broadway or die on the road. “I know that the focus is on the tour right now, but I think Broadway is never far from anyone’s mind,” concedes Blodgette. “I know that Andrew in interviews has spoken of that, saying things like ‘One can only hope…,’ playing it very coy.”
Whether or not Love Never Dies is Broadway-bound, it should entertain Lloyd Webber fans at the Broward Center. “I think that it appeals to a variety of audiences,” Blodgette insists. “If you like to see spectacle, it’s beautiful. If you are looking for a romantic tear-jerker, it’s got a plot line that is riveting. And if you like good singing and beautiful orchestrations, it has some of the best singing that I’ve ever heard in my life. The roles are extraordinarily difficult to sing and we’ve got the singers for it.”
LOVE NEVER DIES, Broward Center Au Rene Theatre, 201 SW 5th Ave., Fort Lauderdale. Opens Tuesday, runs through Sunday, Nov. 19. $30-$160. 954-462-0222; browardcenter.org.