Fisher Theatre audiences will get the jump on the rest of the country as “Love Never Dies,” Andrew Lloyd Webber’s sequel to his wildly successful “Phantom of the Opera,” will make its North American debut Tuesday in Detroit (the show runs through Oct. 29).
Detroit usually gets a show some time after a Broadway run, but the long and winding road to this North American premiere was due to several factors, most notably that the original London production of “Love Never Dies” was put together while Lloyd Webber was being treated for cancer (he has subsequently recovered). And while his lush score drew raves at the 2010 London premiere, the British composer and the critics weren’t entirely happy with the pace of the show and other aspects of the production.
Australian director Simon Phillips (“Priscilla Queen of the Desert the Musical”) offered a fresh pair of eyes and his reworked version of the show premiered in that country in 2011. By all accounts, the changes made the story clearer and sharpened the characters. The Australian production pleased Lloyd Webber and drew positive reviews.
A subsequent German run was successful, and now the British composer will be in Detroit to oversee the latest, and all hope, best iteration of his work.
“Love Never Dies” takes up the story of the Phantom, the masked, disfigured musical genius, in 1907, a decade after he’s somehow escaped the Paris Opera House fire. He now lives in a lair underneath an amusement park in Coney Island and is the reclusive impresario of a seedy vaudeville house. The show opens with the beautiful “Coney Island Waltz,” peopled with carnies and showgirls set against a colorful, shabby-romantic turn-of-the-century milieu.
“I feel like Detroit really is the beginning of a whole new chapter of the piece,” said “Love Never Dies” lyricist Glenn Slater. He’s happy that 30-plus North American cities will see the show first, “through completely fresh eyes, without prior preconceptions. Being able to unleash it on this new audience is pretty exciting,” Slater said.
In “Love Never Dies,” the Phantom’s romantic obsession with the beautiful singer Christine Daae has not faded; in fact, he plots to lure the singer, her husband, Raoul, and their 10-year-old son, Gustave, to his Coney Island lair. Christine’s marriage is rocky, and her friend from the Paris Opera House, Meg, is now the Phantom’s lead ingénue. Meg and her scheming mother are reluctant to see Christine come back into the Phantom’s life to displace her. And who is 10-year-old Gustave’s father, really? (Hint: Gustave is musically gifted).
Yet, continuing the story of the characters from “Phantom” isn’t the point of this work, lyricist Slater insisted.
“The impetus was not just to continue the narrative, that was one of the least important aspects,” Slater said. “What was more important was, how did these people’s circumstances change emotionally?”
He describes how “Love” differs from “Phantom:” “Vocally, we’re inescapably drawn to the way the fires of youth turn into a more concentrated emotional state as you get older. Things that feel very important when you are young tend to change into other things. ‘Phantom’ is a bright and lively fantasy with horror aspects to it. ‘Love Never Dies’ is a more sober-minded and adult story driven by regret, driven by the wish to change the way things were, and driven by emotions that have enriched, deepened and matured and grown even more forceful over the years. There’s a sense of emotional urgency to it that is huge.”
Lloyd Webber had such a firm idea of what the story would be that he wrote the dramatic music first, and then Slater wrote the lyrics to fit the music.
The composer offered to play some of the music for Slater. “What he played for me was almost an hour and a half of music he had recorded with a 90-piece orchestra,” Slater said. “He’d looked at the story, figured out what the key emotional moments were, and came up with musical themes. Those themes were absolutely glorious and hypnotic. It was the kind of music that lyricists listen to and say, ‘Oh my God, I must write for that because I’ve never heard music that lush in my life.’’
It’s a bit of synchronicity that Bloomfield Hills singer Alyssa Giannetti is a swing with “Love Never Dies.” It’s her first tour with a musical after graduating from Northwestern University last year.
Not only did her parents, Jeff and Kathy, walk down the aisle in the 1980s to a song from “Phantom of the Opera” — “All I Ask of You” — but in 2011 their daughter sang the role of Christine in an Andover High School production of “Phantom.” That experience led her to switch her focus from being a professional swimmer to study opera and musical theater.
As a swing, Giannetti is ready to step in for any of six female characters, as well as understudying Christine, the lead role.
“It’s huge that this is the first time American audiences are seeing this show live,” Giannetti said of the Fisher premiere. “I assume that ‘Phantom’ fans have been watching it on YouTube. But seeing the show live and in person in a theater is so different. On YouTube, you’re getting close-ups of Christine and the Phantom and Raoul and the circus characters, but it’s breathtaking to see it in its full form on the stage.”
Being a “Phantom” superfan — they’re called “phans” — has given Giannetti a unique insight into the sequel. She challenges other true “Phantom” fans to listen to the score for the little moments when, for a few seconds, the echo of a melody from the original can be heard.
Slater realizes the high bar “Phantom of the Opera” set for “Love Never Dies.”
“It’s so hard, because you’re dealing with the knowledge that you may never recapture what that first one did. And yet you have to find the stakes and the story that warrant this work to exist on its own,” he said.
While it’s hard to live up to the original “Phantom,” Giannetti said she believes fans of the original won’t be disappointed, because “Love Never Dies” has its own dark appeal: “a creepy, spooky, freak show phantasm that the ‘Phantom’ has created, very ornate and unique,” she said.
Susan Whitall is an author and longtime Detroit News contributor. Contact her at susanwhitall.com.
‘Love Never Dies’
Music by Andrew Lloyd Webber, lyrics by Glenn Slater, book by Andrew Lloyd Webber and Ben Elton, additional lyrics by Charles Hart
The Fisher Theatre
3011 W. Grand Blvd.