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Drowning in the noise…. UPDATED!

As the first night of Love Never Dies approaches, it’s becoming difficult to avoid the droning sound of both friendly fire and enemy attack overhead. Of course, part of is that you simply can’t avoid the PR machine: here’s Andrew Lloyd Webber and his star Sierra Boggess on The Jonathan Ross Show, reprising the title number that they previously premiered on the South Bank Show Awards; there’s another interview feature with his Lordship.

Edward Seckerson, writing up the latter in last Friday’s Independent, warmly declares that Lloyd Webber’s “work a throwback to a bygone melodic style - more gracious, more opulent. His lyric ballads are surely unsurpassed since the heyday of Ivor Novello, Frederick Loewe and Richard Rodgers. The middle-eight or ‘release’ of ‘Look with your heart’, another song from the show, is pure Rodgers; it sings and plays like an affectionate homage. But it’s what I call the emotional memory of these melodies that give them such dramatic potency. The Phantom’s big number in Love Never Dies, ‘Till I hear you Sing’, is one of the best ballads Lloyd Webber has ever written - an absolute corker - but it stays with you because something about the ache within it won’t let go. When Christine agrees to sing for her mentor one last time she does so to the same tune and the frisson of recognition it engenders makes for a real goosebumps moment. That’s what great melodists do - hard to define but easy to recognise. It’s where the next note seems somehow inevitable the second after you’ve heard it. Rodgers once said ‘a great melody implies its own harmony’ and Lloyd Webber certainly holds true to that maxim.”

Maybe, of course, you listen to this score a few times to get its full measure. That’s presumably why Lloyd Webber has had copies of the album sent - individually watermarked, and labelled “unique and traceable” to prevent us, from trying to share it with anyone - to critics ahead of next week’s opening.

He tells Seckerson modestly, “I always think of something Richard Rodgers said to me when I got to know him slightly towards the end of his life. He told me how depressed he’d got by the reviews for The King and I whose score was compared unfavourably with his previous shows. But even he - perhaps the most gifted popular melodist of them all - realised that it’s not always possible for audiences or for that matter critics to take in what they are hearing on a first or even second hearing. Musical theatre history is littered with bad reviews for now classic pieces.”

And as a journalist, I am being swept into the Lover Never Dies fever myself: on Monday I interviewed star Ramin Karimloo for a feature for this weekend’s Sunday Express, and last Friday I met Jack O’Brien for an interview for next week’s Stage. O’Brien commented to me that he was well aware of the challenges and dangers he faced in bring this to the stage: “Nobody is going to thank us for doing this. And honest to God, we are not going to know what anybody thinks for a long time. There is too much noise. One has to just say, this is the course I am sailing, these are the people who are going with me, I really believe in this, and I am having a wonderful time. Then we have to let everybody settle down and work it out. Because some people are going to be enthralled, some people are going to be appalled, some people don’t want us to do it, some people are terrified. The expectations cannot be matched and they can’t be sorted out. We can’t do that. We have to be faithful to this music, this decade, these people and this situation.”

That noise, of course, is coming from every direction. As well as the planned press attention, there’s a whole weight of public opinion that simply cannot be controlled once the genie is out of the bottle. Some of that has come from people who’ve not even seen the show yet, but object in principle: as Michael Riedel reported in The New York Post last week, “It’s already become a lightning rod for some Phantom fanatics, who’ve been e-mailing theater critics and reporters in London and New York denouncing the show, even though they haven’t seen it yet. I got 15 such e-mails yesterday. But don’t worry, Andrew. I deleted all of them.”

I’ve not had quite that number yet - though some have been using my blog postings here and in The Guardian to let me know what they think. And another colleague told me last week, “I am now getting daily emails from this unknown anti-Love Never Dies — some nastier than others - who just won’t quit. This has never happened to me before in 26 years as a professional critic. A guerrilla campaign to influence the press? As if ….”

I always resist reading the bulletin boards ahead of time - and with the Whatsonstage.com Love Never Dies thread running to some 55 pages so far, who has the time? — but friends aren’t quite so circumspect. One texted me after seeing last Saturday’s matinee: “SHOCKING! Love Never Dies will get its own chapter in ‘Not Since Carrie’. It’s the original cut ‘n’ paste show: Sideshow to Miss Saigon via Evita! At least Whistle Down the Wind had a book!” (Not Since Carrie, of course, is the definitive book on flop musicals).

Another e-mailed today to say: “This is a disaster. Two good melodies with suitable orchestrations but then? Nothing. And it all starts with the book which is an insult to anyone who ever loved Phantom. The Coney Island idea is simply stupid - would the phantom really go from the Paris Opera to the honky tonk world of Coney Island? Can we talk about Madame Giriy’s wardrobe - she hasn’t changed clothes in 30 years (though it’s only 10 years later? - huh?) and poor Joseph Millson - such a fine actor… he should fire his agent. The set design is god awful and especially when you consider that the first Phantom, even if you didn’t like it, you had to admire its sheer theatricality. This was all pretty pedestrian and spare. The lighting was unfocused and dark (where is Katie Mitchell when you need her?) The lyrics? Really, really bad - I was so grateful that we couldn’t understand a lot of them. But it all comes down to the ‘book’, because there is no real story here, no underlying theme… I believe this is a disaster - sort of a Whistle Down the Wind in DC. He should close it and let the record create a mystery around it and then John Doyle can figure it out and do it at the Menier in 10 years time….the horror, the horror.” (Whistle Down the Wind, the last Lloyd Webber to be directed by Hal Prince, was shut down in Washington DC ahead of its planned Broadway transfer - the front-of-house had already been put up at the Martin Beck Theatre - and then redone in London instead with a new director, Gale Edwards, at the helm.)

Of course, that’s one of the problems with opening a musical in the full glare of a public spotlight: everyone has an opinion. And the rumour mill is also working overtime on this one, too. My biggest surprise, until this morning, was that the West End Whingers hadn’t clocked in to tell us what they thought yet - but now they have, too. And it seems that the producers missed a key trick here: the Whingers apparently tried to get press tickets, but they write, “the nice people at Peter Thompson Associates who are handling PR for the show wrote a very nice email back to the Whingers to say that ‘due to the extremely high demand and a strictly limited ticket allocation we will not be able to provide you with press tickets for this show’. How cruelly dashed on the rocks of pecking orders were our dreams of endless first nights, unlimited free drink and casual hobnobbing with celebrities at after-show parties. Bet Biggins got an invite.”

But if they’d been given the tickets, they wouldn’t have been able to write until next week. Instead, we now have their word to add to the mountain that has already been written against the show, and although they offer a fair line-up of “fors” and “against” the show, they stack up firmly against. (Amongst the latter they cite: “What a shameful waste of talent. Director Jack O’Brien did such a brilliant job on Hairspray, choreographer Jerry Mitchell similarly on the same show and with his direction and choreography of Legally Blonde. There’s hardly any choreography in LND, but you can’t blame them for accepting an offer to leap aboard an ALW cash cow, even if the udders appear to be somewhat dried up and the milk very much on the turn.”

Next it’s finally the critics’ turn to weigh in. But there’s still, with less than a week to go before the official opening next Tuesday, uncertainty as to when we might be allowed in. When we were sent the CD, Lloyd Webber’s producer Andre Ptaszynski enclosed a personal letter suggesting that they might try to follow the Legally Blonde lead and invite them to previews ahead of the first night. But, he added, “we will not know until we have seen the first two or three previews if we will have time to do all the work that we need to do and invite you to see the show before the official first night.” He also added, “Had this been the plan from the beginning we would have put in an extra two weeks of previews!” But they didn’t, and now, with the director Jack O’Brien’s “complete agreement, we are absolutely going to try and achieve this so you can attend the show at least from March 4th rather than just on March 9th.”

Yesterday, however, we were finally informed — after a full week of previews, not the first two or three — that “We will know by the end of tomorrow, Wednesday 3 March, as to whether you can attend one or other of the previews (2.30pm and 7.30pm) this Saturday 6 March or the evening performance this Monday 8 March (7.30pm)… of course this is on the complete understanding that reviews are not to appear in print until Wednesday 10 March.”

That presupposes, of course, that we’ve not already got diary engagements for the weekend and Monday (when there’s a Royal Court opening at the Elephant and Castle shopping centre). I, in common with most of my colleagues, usually plan my diary weeks in advance; and it seems cavalier and mismanaged to seek to disrupt it at this late notice.


UPDATED: March 3, 12noon

Critics have now been informed that we will be able to attend either one of the Saturday performances (2.30pm and 7.30pm) on March 6, the evening performance on March 8, or the opening night. So clearly the show will be “frozen” by Friday and no further changes can be implemented after that date. But one assumes, too, that no special allowances will be expected in the reviews for the fact that some critics will be attending previews, either.

7 Comments

As a theatregoer who pays for her tickets, I find Jack O Brien's comments intellectually offensive. The theatre is ephemeral - it is in the "now". His responsibility is to deliver a good show to the people that are paying money TONIGHT to see it - not to some future scholars looking back on what he already seems to be imolying is a misunderstood project.

Between that and ALW referencing Richard Rodgers getting mixed reviews for The King & I , or even that producer sending you a note not knowing whether or not you can see the show earlier than opening night - all of these are simply excuses for these people not doing their jobs - delivering a show worth a high ticket price to the paying audience and doing it in the here and now. That's what the theatre is.

I think it's pretty pathetic that the producers are being so indecisive and disorganised about this show when supposedly the entire point of delaying the opening from last year was because Lord Lloyd-Webber said that, with a 2010 opening instead, the show would have enough time to be ready. Clearly that hasn't worked. What a come down from the überconfidence/arrogance of having the show opening simultaneously on three continents and recording the cast album PRIOR to any previews, as if nothing would have needed to be changed. It is clear that Lord Lloyd-Webber, whatever his talents, has surrounded himself with yes-men would cannot or will not tell him when something isn't working, and doesn't realise this for himself until he discovers the audience reaction, which, according to all the reports, has been very muted at the Adelphi. I'm not surprised when they're charging nearly £70 for a ticket for a preview of all things.

I have long been a fan of Lord Lloyd-Webber's works -- with some notable exceptions; I never liked Cats or Starlight and haven't thought his stuff post-Sunset has been up to scratch -- but having now heard the score in its entirety (for all his efforts, the cast album has now been heard by many thanks to several online music stores releasing it early) I cannot see how anyone who is even open to the idea of a sequel to a show that didn't need one can walk away with this impressed. At least, not if they're familiar with his previous works. No less than 3 songs use sizeable portions of the score for The Woman in White, and there are noticeable phrases that have been lifted -- either consciously or unconsciously -- from Sunset Blvd, Aspects of Love, Whistle Down the Wind and the film of Phantom. Not to mention the recycled title song from The Beautiful Game and the many 'references' to the original Phantom, so numerous that I would argue that they are more than mere 'references'. Edward Seckerson is someone who is familiar with Lloyd Webber's work, so how he has not noticed this is beyond me. Unless he chose not to comment about it.

Finally, the negative fan reaction is hardly surprising and in many ways echoes what happened during the 1990s with the ongoing controversy about the casting of the Phantom film, which -- surprise -- turned out to be a disappointment for most long-time aficionados of Phantom. It's especially not surprising when the producers are using the image of these so-called 'Phans' to promote their product. Why is it that Lloyd Webber just doesn't 'get it'? Hal Prince has always been clear on why the show works, yet that Lloyd Webber can't fathom its success is evident.

This show has 'bad news' written all over it. However much I loved it, I knew Sunset Blvd was destined to bomb financially with the amount of hype it generated and the resultant scandals about cast hirings and firings, cooking the books and preview cancellations. I get exactly the same feeling about Love Never Dies. This show has 'bad news' written all over it.


Leaving aside all quality judgments, the way this show's launch has been designed I'm unsure as to what exactly these previews have been. Adding "an extra two weeks of previews!”, as O'Brien puts it, would effectively mean simply delaying press night for another two weeks (which they could still do if they weren't so blindly cruising for a disaster).

As tickets prices have been identical for all performances (no reduction for previews) general punters have every right to expect the full show from the very first preview. If Lloyd-Webber really thought the show would be firing on all cylinders from the off then the ticket prices are fully justified but since his director is now suggesting otherwise (and so has Lloyd-Webber in several interviews, I think he even came out with "half-way there" at one point mid-previews) I can't say I'm much impressed, or liable to be generous in my views on the show. "Legally Blonde" came over pretty much ready to launch from Broadway, they slotted a new cast in and slightly altered the set but otherwise they were good to go. That didn't stop them previewing for about two months with significantly reduced ticket prices. Why does Lloyd-Webber think he's so different?

TTC

And yet we all know that 'terrible' shows run and run in West End theatres. We will rock you has a loyal fan base, Thriller will probably follow suit. All to the detriment of the good work that can't get into the theatres as these shows seem to have taken up permanent residence! Out of 37 theatres 25 have open ended runs leaving just 12 available slots. The fringe might be the only place to go soon to see new work!

I saw the second preview of LND last Tuesday. There are problems, yes- the opening five minutes are a little limp and confusing; there's a song that could be entitled "Exposition:or what happened just after the closing scene of Phantom" which while lovely could be axed in favour of two lines of dialogue; there's a core idea which is simply icky; and the ending is flat and sees one character act totally...well, OUT of character. Other than that though, I LOVED the show. The music is beautiful and moving, and Ramin delivers real spine tingling moments when he sings. The staging is modern and clever, and all performers give their all. I really hope that work has been done to tweak the faults- and indeed that it will continue to be done, whether critics have been in to see it or not. I simply think it needed a bit more time before launch. To all nay-sayers- I suggest you give it a chance.

I saw one of the last previews paying full price for a ticket to a show now described as half way there. I'm afraid I found it a rather underwhelming mix of snippets and half quotes from other shows. Only the song 'Hear her sing again' has any real power to move, delivered brilliantly, with the harmonic content needed to trigger emotional response. Otherwise it is an evening of almost tuneless sung dialogue with little to recomend it. I indeed welcomed the allusions to Phantom as they at least placed the story somewhere. DEvil take the hindmost was at best a flimsy immature peice of writing and ny the time the title song arrived I no longer really cared if it was sung or not.
The story line is extremely contrived, some charachters are still firmly placed in Paris, some have moved on in a manner totally out of charachter and the Phantom on Coney Island running a weak freak show just didn't hold water....The final scene did take on a much better level of gravitas pulling musically on previous material, but in my opinion missed it's mark because the preparatory work was so weak.
I did enjoy the special effects but they seemed to be icing disguising a tastless cake somehow.
I appreciate that as the charachters become more familiar with their roles some dramatic intensity may develop ( a luxury I wish I in the opera business could afford ! Our runs are reviewed and over before a theatre show is even considered open !! ).....but I fear that the actual show is seriously flawed musically and dramatically and that no amount of production tweaking will fix it.
I don't write this with any malice, I really wanted to enjoy and was rather sad to be disappointed.

I saw the Saturday 6 March matinee preview and I rather agree with the sad disappointment of Jill. I loved the Phantom, for its songs, its staging, its drama and its emotional power. It is a truly spectacular show, and people go as much for its epic scale and magic as for its melodies and romance. It is really the absence of some of this 'scale' which disappointed me most in LND. I was desperate to love it - in the end, I only just about liked it.

For instance, the opportunities to make the Phantom's first appearance in front of Christine a pulse-racing moment were missed. He simply appeared at her window and she screamed. There was no palpable tension, no drama, no magic around that moment - it's as though they'd forgotten to write it in, or that the writers thought the staging would be dramatic enough. The Phantom is a murdering, aggressive kidnapper and although Christine screamed, it's the audience who must also scream. They need to feel the tension too, to make it believable. It's not enough simply to see the tension acted out for them. A few more theatrical tricks to jangle our nerves would really help make this memorable.

The close of act one, where Mdm Giry drops the coat down the stairs, is limp. To be fair, they may have deliberatly made it low key to avoid competing with the most famous act one close of any musical - Phantom's chandelier drop. But for the money a West End ticket costs, people want to see their cash on the stage. No big stars are featuring, and it's the effects and the tension that people are at least partly expecting to see. We need either a twist or a trick - something to send people into the interval dazed but delighted!

But it is the ending which I think is missing most. It just doesn't feel theatrically climactic. It packs an emotional punch (many around me were in tears), but it feels a little obvious. There is an absence of genius. The ending to Phantom was an extraordinary and magical coup de theatre. The Phantom accepting his fate and disappearing in his chair was both unexpected and brilliantly magical. His mask simply sitting on the seat when it is uncovered was a fabulous conclusion. Here, we have Christine's death - a shock, but not sufficiently well staged to really *SHOCK* the audience - followed by a few tunes, remorse from the assassin and a rather out-of-character hug between the Phantom and Gustave. It's simply not magical enough. We need effects, misdirection, shocks or something to send us out thinking "yes - that was the West End at its best". In the original Phantom, he was capable, it seemed, of illusion and trickery - but in Coney Island, he just seems to be a human with a sad disfigurement. Give him back his magic powers!

On the good side, I loved some of the tunes and the vocal talent is indisputable. The stage sets pass muster, although don't seem to have had the money and invention of Phantom spent on them. The projections, however, were superb. The scene where Raoul is in a bar, drunk, and is suddenly confronted by the Phantom is very well rendered, although their bet seems to be a device rather than a credible plot point. Coney Island is evoked beautifully as a seedy, glamorous, brassy Vegas / Blackpool of the early 20th century.

If I could offer some advice to the great ALW, I'd say this:

1) Tighten the ending. The Phantom would be inconsolably angry that his beloved is dead - he would not be so well-adjusted as to forgive and forget. And give us some magic to say goodnight with!
2) Get your audience feeling the tension which Christine would surely feel in meeting the Phantom. How much more would we, the audience, get from the show if we could feel the Phantom's malice, his rage, develop into his love for Gustave and his desire to have Christine.
3) The key to the Phantom's character in the original was his shadowiness. He doesn't have to lose this because he is an impressario. He needs more of an enemy. If Mdm Giry is to be the baddie, she needs to be more menacing.


Recent Comments

Chris P on Drowning in the noise.... UPDATED!
I saw the Saturday 6 March matinee previ...
jill on Drowning in the noise.... UPDATED!
I saw one of the last previews paying fu...
Mark Manley on Drowning in the noise.... UPDATED!
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Barnard on Drowning in the noise.... UPDATED!
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TTC on Drowning in the noise.... UPDATED!
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R.S. on Drowning in the noise.... UPDATED!
I think it's pretty pathetic that the pr...
Kathryn Morris on Drowning in the noise.... UPDATED!
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