This show is, quite unmistakably, a modern-day version of a Romberg operetta. I’m not the first critic to have noted this: while most old-school operettas had more conventional happy endings than this, it still displays all the features of that classic genre. Yes, it’s stodgy, and the attempts at humor are rather weak, but like a real operetta of the day, it compensates with old-fashioned romance and gorgeous melodies and vocals. What it doesn’t provide is anything to equal the dark richness of atmosphere or poetic heights of romanticism found in the classic movie on which it was based.
The score, by the great Maury Yeston, composer of Nine and the Titanic musical, is glorious, with a richness of melody that really is comparable to Herbert or Romberg. But the lyrics, as is often the case with Yeston, are cliché-bound and maudlin, which was also a common feature of operetta but which provides a poor substitute for the film’s high-minded literary dialogue. The songs, beautiful as they are, don’t even approach the eloquence or complexity of their equivalent scenes in the film, and the soaring music can only partially compensate for the shallowness of the words.
Also, in the film, the character of Death, sympathetic as he was, still had a sense of unearthly menace about him that never let you forget who he really was; here, he seems little more than a typical operetta leading man, his torment over his romantic dilemma not much more than the typical emotional wrangling found in any example of the genre.
With all that said, this show is truly an old-fashioned musical feast the likes of which is seldom seen in our modern era, and its collection of ravishing melodies and a cast of glorious voices singing their hearts out has a certain self-justifying appeal. Given the bygone style it evokes, it’s not entirely surprising that the world of today didn’t have much room for it, but while it does fail to do real justice to its illustrious source material, if you love operetta, there’s a good chance you’ll enjoy it.