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.