by Zack Smith
This past Christmas, I received two books on the history of Broadway flops, Not Since Carrie and Second Act Trouble. They’re fascinating reads, both illuminating some hidden treasures of the theater and in recounting the brazen excesses that doom many a Broadway flop to its fate.
A review of the adaptation of Carrie, the musical version of Stephen King’s classic revenge story, which inspired the title of Not Since Carrie. A recent revival dumped the camp and was excoriated for NOT providing the insane spectacle the audience anticipated.
This is on my mind when I recently attended a Fathom Events screening of Love Never Dies, Andrew Lloyd Webber’s ill-fated follow-up to his seminal The Phantom of the Opera. Phantom is, of course, now the longest-running show ever on Broadway, but Love Never Dies never even made it to the Great White Way after a disastrous West End run.
Trailer for the Melbourne production of Love Never Dies, the version released to theaters and DVD.
A revised Melbourne production was better-received, though, and it’s this version I’m catching at my editor’s behest (it came out on DVD May 29). My schadenfreude is hoping for some sort of epic so-bad-it’s-good camp classic. Lloyd Webber is known for excess, and musical sequels are a dangerous game. Ever heard of Bring Back Birdie, Annie Warbucks or A Doll’s Life, the musical sequel to A Doll’s House? My point exactly.
Yet the pre-show interview with Lloyd Webber offers something potentially intriguing in the evening’s entertainment—a possible way to preserve rare musicals in filmed form. As Lloyd Webber goes on about his fondness for this filmed production, he takes note of the lack of filmed stage musicals and how he’d like to create similar filmed versions of such shows as his Sunset Boulevard. My imagination is instantly stoked.
Andrew Lloyd Webber discusses the filmed production of Love Never Dies.
There are certain musicals, often misfires by beloved creators, which engender a certain cult appeal. If everyone who claimed to have attended the original nine-performance run of Stephen Sondheim’s Anyone Can Whistle had actually been there, the show would have run five years.
Audiences outside of New York City rarely see newer musicals until they tour or there’s an overblown film version. The need for producers to keep up those ticket prices is most understandable, but Lloyd Webber’s proposal that original cast versions of musicals should be filmed early in their runs and preserved makes a great deal of sense.
Given how business often drops for even hit musicals when the original cast members leave, preserved performances could provide an additional revenue stream through DVD. For less-successful musicals, it could be an opportunity to engender a new audience and gain that cult appeal. It could even prove a way for smaller musicals to create a calling card of their production to help build an audience and gain funding.
Granted, it could also result in a lot of bootlegging and ultimately devalue ticket sales. But if you’ve seen any of the advertisements for such DPAC productions as Wicked and West Side Story, you’ll note that TV advertising for touring stage musicals increasingly relies on filmed segments and special effects. Filmed versions of stage musicals might provide some detriment to ticket sales, sure, but they could also accomplish the commercial effect—to get people in seats to see the spectacle live.
These thoughts weigh on my mind throughout the two hours of Love Never Dies, which are not so much a trainwreck as … well, painless.
Lloyd Webber's The Phantom of the Opera was no masterpiece of plotting, but there were at least some memorable tunes. And the falling chandelier. Love Never Dies’ Melbourne production has some of the most magnificent sets in existence with its recreation of 1905 Coney Island, but it’s doubtful any of its numbers will have the staying power of the original’s “The Music of the Night” or “All I Ask of You.”
The plot, set some 10 years after the original Phantom (the storyline comes in part from The Phantom of Manhattan, a novel by The Day of the Jackal author Frederick Forsyth) has the Phantom (Ben Lewis) hiding beneath Coney Island, having become a mogul through designing sideshow attractions, and luring Christine (Anna O’Byrne) to his lair to gain new inspiration from her. Christine also has a son; three guesses where this is going.
The story is flat and the songs are less than memorable, but what is fascinating in this filmed version is the style director Simon Phillips brings to it. Many films of stage musicals are like a multi-camera sitcom, combining a master shot of the entire stage with medium shots and close-ups of the individual actors (this was one of the critiques against the 1970s American Film Theatre series of filmed plays. This version is more cinematic, with the cameras swooping in around the actors in rapidly edited sequences. It is the closest I’ve ever seen to a live performance translated into a cinematic experience.
The members of the audience I chat with afterward (about two dozen people attended) are mostly enthused by what they’ve seen (many are longtime Phantom fans), but ultimately, Love Never Dies is most intriguing not for its plot, characters, music or spectacle (even the sequence where Christine does a number in a peacock dress against a peacock-decorated stage), but for what it could represent for the future of musicals in the age of new media.
Perhaps it is a step toward more filmed musicals and a way of preserving specific productions in a cinematic manner. Or, at least, it’s a way for those who fascinated by the kind of flops archived in Not Since Carrie to satiate their morbid curiosity. If only there was a filmed version of the 1988 production…