It’s almost never a wise idea to make a sequel to a stage musical; with pretty much the sole exception of William Finn’s Falsettos trilogy (which didn’t really become famous until all three parts were finished anyway) and perhaps the Nunsense franchise (depending on how high your standards are), they nearly always end up as garish disasters.
Granted, there were a few other successful examples back in the pre-Oklahoma days, but the rules were different back then, and it’s worth noting that the only musical sequel from that era that anyone still cares about, Gershwin’s Let ‘Em Eat Cake, was also a flop (albeit an admired one). Hell, even Grease 2, which was merely a sequel to a film based on a stage musical, was a spectacular failure, which shows you how deep this problem reaches.
Still, Andrew Lloyd Webber’s sequel to Phantom of the Opera actually seemed on paper like it might buck that trend. It didn’t pose any of the usual conceptual problems that did in other infamous musical sequels; unlike Bring Back Birdie and The Best Little Whorehouse Goes Public, the show, despite being over twenty years old, had stayed in the public consciousness enough that the general audience would actually be interested in seeing its story continue, and unlike Annie 2, it seemed to have an ending that actually left room for continuation.
Unfortunately, this show, which was announced for Broadway as far back as 2010 but has yet to make an actual appearance, proved to be no exception to the musical sequel’s ‘curse’, as it seemed to completely miss all the things that made the original so great. The hopelessly trite plot plays like a piece of bad fanfiction until the climax, when it swings completely into left field with one of the stupidest endings ever. In a truly bizarre move, Christine’s friend and confidante from the first show, Meg, is here turned into the same tragic, insane unrequited lover that the Phantom was in the original, and she figures heavily in the show’s absurd conclusion.
In the end, what Love Never Dies is really trying to do is to adapt the beloved Susan Kay novel Phantom to the stage. This was a bad idea partly because the novel is structured in a way that it completely unsuited to being a stage musical. This was in fact the whole reason Kay wrote it in the first place…she wanted to tell the entire story of this character, which the musical couldn’t do, but which a novel could. On top of that, the novel is not really suited to being used for a sequel to the original show, which is what they wanted here, given that Kay’s Phantom dies a few months after the end of the original story.
But still, every idea in this show’s head is a one-dimensional distortion of something that was done much better in the Kay novel. One result is that the Phantom is stripped of all the dangerous and desperate qualities that made him such a compelling antihero in the original. Kay’s Phantom may have been more complex and sympathetic than in even the original musical, but the effect was to make him more tragic and pitiable, not less. This version of the character doesn’t really seem to have any problems anymore, so we don’t really feel sorry for him, and what’s left of his villainous behavior comes across as less desperate and insane and more petty and selfish. He’s not really a tragic psychopath anymore so much as a manipulative jerk.
Also, Raoul is distorted into a cartoon villain here, whereas Kay’s Raoul was probably the most sympathetic in any version precisely because he was made more fallible and believable than the usual stalwart portrayal of the character. The very ideas Kay used the humanize him are used here in an attempt to rob him of humanity (although, as I’ll note later, it doesn’t entirely work). Also, in Susan Kay, the existence of the Phantom and Christine’s son (called Charles in the novel and Gustave here) was to posthumously reconcile Raoul with the Phantom by having him raise the Phantom’s son and eventually come to love the boy more than he had ever loved anything, even Christine. Here, Raoul completely ignores Gustave even before he finds out the boy is not really his son, and the child serves only as a device to artificially draw Christine and the Phantom back together.
I’m aware that the creators wanted to bring Christine and the Phantom together, and it’s true that Kay is probably the only person who ever truly managed to make Erik and Christine seem like a viable couple. But there’s a reason Kay’s book takes place mostly before the original story, not after (and why the ‘after’ part mostly takes place after Erik dies)…the entire point of the book is to humanize the character and establish his psychological motives going into the original story’s conflict so we understand better why he does these things. Kay’s ideas just don’t work in this structure, and the show seems to have a very superficial understanding of them in any case.
The score is generally livelier than Webber’s last effort, The Woman in White; there are a couple of legitimately fine songs here, particularly the ravishing “‘Til I Hear You Sing” and the title-song (although the latter is actually a recycled melody from The Beautiful Game). And several of the other songs have merit as music, even if the show’s ludicrous dramatic situations make them rather disastrous in actual performance. The Phantom and Christine’s duet “Beneath a Moonless Sky” describes a patently ridiculous situation and is laughably melodramatic; “The Beauty Underneath”, sung by the Phantom to his long-lost son, is far too sexualized and seductive a number to be anything but disturbing when sung by a grown man to a ten-year old boy; and Raoul and the Phantom’s intense confrontation duet “Devil Take the Hindmost” is riddled with disturbing implications, with both men treating Christine like a game chip with no will of her own; but all three feature fine, stormy, dramatic music that would be quite enjoyable in another context.
But there is also quite a bit of dull material, such as the stock opening chorus “Heaven By the Sea”, the doggerel-verse quartet “Dear Old Friend”, the tuneless striptease numbers for Meg, and the slog of endless, boring quasi-recitative that takes up the entirety of the last two scenes.
“Why Does She Love Me?”, the only full song to recycle music from the original show (it’s that show’s title-song slowed down into a mournful ballad), provides a moment of uncomfortable honesty, not only for the character of Raoul, but for the artifice of the show itself. It’s presumably meant to be one more artificial demonstration of how Raoul is wrong for Christine, but its self-loathing sorrow ironically achieves what Webber never managed to achieve in the original show—it makes Raoul more sympathetic than the Phantom. That’s probably the danger of trying to co-opt Susan Kay’s ideas for this purpose…she meant them to make Raoul more sympathetic, not less, and they still have that effect when used here.
At the time of the premiere, the lyrics were apparently so bad they attracted jeers beyond all the show’s other obvious problems, and even after being punched up by original lyricist Charles Hart, they are so utterly uninspired that they make you realize the original’s lyrics were better than most people ever gave them credit for.
This show is probably not Andrew Lloyd-Webber’s worst show ever (that honor probably still goes to the original Jeeves musical), but it’s definitely a close second, and provides one more reason why you probably shouldn’t make a sequel to your stage musical under the belief that you are somehow an exception to the unwritten rules of the genre.