Andrew Lloyd Webber's much-awaited sequel to "The Phantom of the Opera" is called "Love Never Dies," but the musical defied its title: after a short life in London, it died. Now he hopes it can be resurrected.
Lloyd Webber has quietly helped rework the musical for a current stage production in Australia and Americans unable to go Down Under will have a chance to see it when a filmed version hits movie theaters this month.
It's vastly improved work, coherent and visually beautiful, with a darkly haunting score. The composer hopes the film of the musical — available at hundreds of movie theaters across the U.S. on Feb. 28 and March 7 — will spark new interest in the work, even from Broadway producers.
"I'm very pleased with it. One just hopes that now that we've got that, maybe this production can come here," Lloyd Webber said during a recent interview high above New York in a Columbus Circle hotel room. "I think the production is as good as one could hope it to be."
Backed by a 21-piece orchestra, the revitalized "Love Never Dies" production captured at The Regent Theatre in Melbourne features a 36-person cast, including Ben Lewis as the Phantom and Anna O'Byrne as Christine. The filmed version, directed by Brett Sullivan, uses multiple cameras that both sweep across the stage and capture tiny facial expressions.
A new life for "Love Never Dies" would be a vindication for Lloyd Webber, who considers it to be his best score, but admits he wasn't able to properly oversee the show's London opening because he was battling cancer. It closed in London after 18 months.
"Andrew is like a bulldog with these things: He will not let anything go," said Glenn Slater, who supplied lyrics and the book for the sequel. "He has been fighting tenaciously for this to get its proper day in the sun. Knock wood, maybe this Australian production does it because it certainly seems to have changed peoples' minds about the piece."
The follow-up to the longest-running show in Broadway history had a rough debut in London in 2010, with one critic nicknaming it "Paint Never Dries." The sequel is set 10 years later in 1802 and shifts the location from Paris to Coney Island in New York.
The Phantom, still moping after his beloved Christine and running a freak show, lures her to America, where she arrives with husband Raoul and her 10-year-old son. Instead of the romance of "Phantom," the sequel is about a love triangle. Its atmosphere is more autumnal, more about regret than love, and the plot is about the consequences of the first musical. Critics were left confused and unhappy, and the creative team wasn't pleased either.
"Once it was up, we were able to see where the flaws were and we were able to see where we misjudged and where we miscalculated," said Slater during a recent phone conversation. "We hadn't quite nailed it yet."
Lloyd Webber scrapped a proposed Broadway transfer and enlisted director Simon Phillips and a new Australian creative team to stage a fresh production with a new cast. The composer also got original "Phantom" book writer Charles Hart to help with the rewrite because Slater was tied up with "Leap of Faith" in Los Angeles.
The Phantom that emerges is a little more dangerous than the one who appeared in London and Phillips — together with Gabriela Tylesova's sets and costumes — have made Coney Island fit better into the musical, mostly by leaning on a dark, Gothic style.
"It will get produced, there's no question about it," said Lloyd Webber, who estimates the right budget to be $12-14 million, higher than most musicals but not insanely so. "It's just a question of when."
Phillips, who also directed "Priscilla Queen of the Desert," said he was thrilled to get a shot at "Love Never Dies" in Melbourne after seeing a production in London. He said the new creative team confronted a story that had flaws, confusing moments and "fat on the bone," but they were excited by the material and Lloyd Webber was game to re-edit his music.
The sequel's score, which includes the haunting "'Til I Hear You Sing," the sublime "The Beauty Underneath" and the rocking "Devil Take the Hindmost," doesn't necessarily have a standout hit like "The Music of the Night" from "Phantom," but Phillips likes the new one more.
"I think the score across the board in 'Love Never Dies' is actually incredibly beautiful and stronger overall than 'Phantom,'" said Phillips by phone. "That's radical to say but 'Phantom' has a lot of diverging opera pastiche in it that doesn't really come anywhere near being as consistently musically strong as most of 'Love Never Dies' does."
The Melbourne production opened in May 2011 with Lloyd Webber in attendance and transferred to Sydney's Capitol Theatre earlier this year for a run until April. The movie version was filmed in September and will be released on DVD and Blu-ray this spring. Lloyd Webber has been inviting high-powered producers to private screenings.
The whole experience has given the composer, whose other hits include "Cats," "Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat," "Jesus Christ Superstar" and "Evita," another lesson in how fickle musical theater can be.
"The thing that one takes away from it is, I suppose, how fine the line is between these things working and not working," he said. "There's no question that the London production did not work, whereas this one does."
The composer said he's not writing anything new at the moment, not having found a story that really grabs him. But there seems to be a renewed interest in his big, romantic musicals at a time when comedy musicals are all the rage. Lloyd Webber will soon be watching as two revivals of his work — "Jesus Christ Superstar" and "Evita" — make their way back to Broadway. He's pleasantly surprised.
"It's sort of one of those things, isn't it? I haven't actually had anything new on Broadway in quite a long time now. And suddenly you get two of them," he said, laughing. "As Oscar Hammerstein wrote in 'Some Enchanted Evening,' 'Fools give you reasons; Wise men never try.'"
Lloyd Webber said he's aware that even a revitalized "Love Never Dies" might not be able to win over hard-core "Phantom" fans or certain critics who always seem to sniff at his work, but that hasn't discouraged him.
"All you can do in the end is write for yourself," he said. "It closes a chapter on a whole area of my musical life. I found it hard to write but I wanted to do that. I still find the end quite difficult to watch."
So no Phantom III? "No, that's it," he said.
Tickets to "Love Never Dies": http://www.fathomevents.com/performingarts/event/loveneverdies.aspx
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