I’ve previously written here about what a tough act to follow Andrew Lloyd Webber has given himself in re-visiting The Phantom of the Opera, as he’s long been planning to do.
And I’m not the only one who has doubted it: just yesterday, Lloyd Webber overheard two people preparing for today’s press launch of Love Never Dies saying, after they ran a short film listing the previous edition’s many accomplishments, that he must be mad to try to follow it - and wondered aloud what he proposed to call it: “Ugly Bastard 2?”
There have been several false starts over the years, including a prior collaboration with Frederick Forsyth that ended up with Forysth turning it into a novella of his own, “The Phantom of Manhattan”, instead of it into a musical; it marked a departure for Forsyth from his usual genre, but he said at the time, “I had done mercenaries, assassins, Nazis, murderers, terrorists, special forces soldiers, fighter pilots, you name it, and I got to think, could I actually write about the human heart?”
But for Lloyd Webber, of course, the original Phantom — which opened exactly 23 years ago tomorrow - was a return to writing about the human heart, after two musicals in which he had written about cats and trains. And it became a very personal cry from his own heart about the creative muse, with his then-wife Sarah Brightman cast as the adoring object of the Phantom’s veneration, the opera soprano Christine Daaé.
But this morning, as he formally announced the opening of Love Never Dies to the media at last, there were some strangely unanswered questions. Where, for instance, did Shanghai disappear to? Or, for that matter, to the original plan to open it simultaneously in London, New York and Shanghai? (Today’s announcement included dates for London and New York, and a proposed date for Australia). And though director Jack O’Brien confirmed that a New York theatre has been signed, they were not at liberty to divulge which one.
Nor, despite the fact that the entire cast has already been gathered together to record the full score (for release the day after the show opens in London next March), was Lloyd Webber able to announce who the rest of them were, besides Ramin Karimloo and Sierra Boggess. He let slip that Summer Strallen was confirmed to play Meg Giry, before censoring himself on the rest.
And asked whether Cameron Mackintosh, who co-produced the original Phantom, had sought to be involved in the sequel, Lloyd Webber replied, “I don’t want to talk about that”, before going on to say that Mackintosh had heard the score - and sent him the kindest and sweetest handwritten letter afterwards. Sarah Brightman, too, had heard the recording, and given him a couple of notes.
But though he was at great pains to insist that it was “not a sequel, but a stand-alone piece”, there also seemed to be some uncertainty about exactly who was being credited with writing the book: Lloyd Webber mentioned himself and Ben Elton (whom he had originally gone to after Forsyth) and Glenn Slater (who has written the lyrics), but Jack O’Brien - who wittily characterised himself as “the shrink”, asking the questions, “Yes, but why?” at every creative opportunity - pointed out that since the narrative is told through its songs, the responsibility for the book falls largely on the shoulders of the composer. Clearly no one has worked out what to put on the press release yet.
There’s also the question of the release of the album: stars Karimloo and Boggess didn’t know when it was being released, so I had to point out to them that the press release stated that it will be released on March 10 - the day after the world premiere in London. Lloyd Webber, asked why he has chosen to delay it until then instead of releasing it ahead of the opening as he had pioneered with Jesus Christ Superstar and Evita, mumbled something about piracy that he’d recently been speaking out against in the House of Lords (and pointed out that he feared that the song we’d heard that very morning, “Till I Hear You Sing Again”, was even now online somewhere as a result).
It’s true that The Phantom of the Opera has been a global phenomenon; as the press release puts it, it has been seen “by over 100m people, making it the single most successful entertainment entity in history.” But that means there are 100m people who already know something about the power of the Phantom, and may be keen to revisit it again. (In London, they’re even scheduling the matinee days for both on Tuesdays and Saturdays, so theatregoers who want to make a double-bill of it could potentially see one in the afternoon and the other in the evening). And if anyone can carry it off, Lloyd Webber can. I’ve already previously mentioned here how he’s breaking the marketing model for West End musicals by providing Twitter and Facebook updates.
But ultimately, the show will stand or fall by whether it delivers. And course, the received wisdom on sequels is that you have to be twice as good as the original, since people’s memories are unreliable and will remember something as better than it was; but when its actually as good as The Phantom still is, that responsibility is amplified even further.