I’m no longer embarrassed to admit that I’ve seen The Phantom of the Opera twenty-four times and, presumably, counting. Everyone knows this about me; really, at this point, who am I kidding? You can therefore imagine my trepidation over seeing Love Never Dies, Andrew Lloyd-Webber’s long-gestating (if not long-awaited) sequel to Phantom that had opened to lukewarm reviews at London’s Adelphi Theatre in March. I was obviously going to Love Never Dies while I was in London, but I was drawn more by duty than by expectation. Frankly, I expected it to suck.
It didn’t. Love Never Dies is better–much, much better, actually–than anyone could’ve reasonably expected. That isn’t to suggest it’s a masterpiece; on the contrary, at times its chief utility is reminding us how the “original” Phantom, for all its flaws, captured lightning in a bottle like few musicals before or since. But the show isn’t a total disgrace, either, and given its subject matter–not to mention the more-or-less blatant attempt at cashing in on one of the entertainment industry’s all-time most lucrative franchises–that wasn’t to be taken for granted. Its greatest assets are its stars, Sierra Boggess and Ramin Karimloo, who tower over Love Never Dies to such an extent that it’s difficult to imagine the show without them. Karimloo, in particular, is astonishing as the Phantom, his voice belying the fact he’s self-taught and got his start in a Tragically Hip cover band (seriously, watch this video and then imagine Karimloo singing “Twist My Arm”). The score, meanwhile, is enjoyable, and “Til I Hear You Sing” and “Love Never Dies” are two of the best songs Lloyd-Webber has written since Phantom first opened twenty-four years ago.
Some Phantom fans–I’d use the expression “phans,” but won’t because it makes me cringe–have been loathe to embrace Love Never Dies, which is neither surprising nor (I would argue) reasonable. Phantom itself isn’t a masterpiece: it’s musical theatre’s equivalent to a Jerry Bruckheimer movie and works almost in spite of itself. What surprised me about Love Never Dies is that is doesn’t actually presuppose an audience member’s familiarity with The Phantom of the Opera. The lone major nod to the original’s score is the swelling orchestral climax to “Notes/Twisted Every Way” (and even with Lloyd-Webber’s tendency to self-plagiarize it’d be way too cynical to suggest it was accidental). Most of the major characters who survived Phantom are back but get fleshed out anew. It’s possible–albeit unlikely–that people who see Love Never Dies will be able to evaluate it on its own merits. Alas, I couldn’t quite do it; in fact, four days later, I saw the original Phantom to remind myself why I fell in love with it in the first place.
I couldn’t imagine seeing Love Never Dies another twenty-three times, especially once Karimloo and Boggess move on. But that’s not to say I didn’t enjoy it–immensely at times, especially during the tense “Devil Take The Hindmost” and the so-über-cheezy-it’s-actually-awesome “The Beauty Underneath”–or that I wouldn’t recommend it to others, even those who waged internet wars against its creation. It isn’t a masterpiece. Then again, neither’s Phantom of the Opera–and it changed my life.