Immediately following the opening of Love Never Dies last Tuesday I reported some of the initial verdicts here, which ranged from two stars to five; and quoted director Jack O’Brien who had commented to me in an interview for this paper, “Honest to God, we are not going to know what anybody thinks for a long time. There is too much noise.”
The noise has only been getting louder in the last few days, and the sounds coming from the critics aren’t getting any better. Though the initial flurry of yaysayers seemed to outnumber the naysayers, the latter have been gaining critical strength in the days since: in addition to the two star overnight notices from Benedict Nightingale in The Times and Henry Hitchings in the Evening Standard (that was published after I’d already posted Wednesday’s blog), it has also now received further two star reviews from Ian Shuttleworth in the Financial Times and Claire Allfree in Metro in the dailies, and another pair of two star reviews in yesterday’s Sundays, from Christopher Hart in the Sunday Times and myself in the Sunday Express.
In the Sunday Telegraph, Tim Walker amplifies for a moment on his star rating, saying Andrew Lloyd Webber’s “productions invite extreme responses: the form is to award them either a single star or the maximum.” (Actually, no one has given it one star yet - though two have awarded it five, the Independent’s Paul Taylor and Whatsonstage.com’s Michael Coveney). He goes on, “One feels under pressure to say something dramatic, one way or the other, but this time around, unusually for me, I find I am stuck midway between triumph and disaster - I would give it two-and-a-half stars if I were allowed.” (I love that “unusually for me” qualification; three years ago, I pointed out his tendency towards the extremes in a blog here that was headlined “A bipolar critic”).
But Walker then damns it with faint praise, in every sense: “Love Never Dies is only quite good, nothing special, adequate, so-so” and goes on to review his own review: “These are the sort of middling, boring, insipid phrases that are unlikely to end up emblazoned across the hoardings outside the theatre, but they are, I fancy, closer to the truth than the ones that shall”. Walker proceeds to list what he sees as its positives - and then its shortcomings, amongst which he cites, “One found oneself yearning after a while for the big showstopper - the number that would still be reverberating around my head when I got home - but it never came.” And writing about Christine’s big number, he complains, “I find, as I write this, that while I can vividly recall how Miss Boggess looked as she sung it, I can’t recall a single one of its notes or refrains.”
It’s interesting how different critical takes can be. In Kate Bassett’s Independent on Sunday review, by contrast, she writes, “Undeniably, Lloyd Webber can write a haunting melody, and everyone’s going to come away from this show with earworms - tunes that just won’t go away.” And in a three-star notice in the Mail on Sunday, Georgina Brown writes, “I came out humming, but too many of the beltingly, meltingly well-sung melodies are lush but not distinctive. My tune as a mish-mash of the title song, the passionate duet ‘Beneath A Moonless Sky’, some of the more pressing echoes from The Phantom of the Opera and the fabulously haunting The Woman in White.”
So now all the major dailies and Sundays have reported in, there’s only the weeklies (Time Out, the Spectator etc) to go. Meanwhile, of course, the speculation is now growing transatlantically on what the future holds for the show, whose projected Broadway opening night was announced at the same time as its West End one last October. As Michael Riedel wrote in his New York Post column on Friday, “We’ll leave the trashing to the Internet chatters — whose early salvo, ‘Paint Never Dries,’ will haunt this show forever — and the critics, some of whom have taken up their assignment with gusto.” (That phrase, coined by the West End Whingers here is destined to become the most celebrated theatrical summary since Charlie Spencer dubbed Nicole Kidman’s performance in the Donmar’s The Blue Room as “pure theatrical Viagra” a few years ago; a phrase the Whingers then wittily appropriated for their review of the stage version of Three Days of Rain, which they called “pure theatrical Niagara”).
But Riedel goes on to quote more industry insiders whose anxieties may need to be listened to more closely. “A New York investor announced, ‘I can kiss my 25,000-pound investment goodbye.’” Even Andre Ptaszynski, who is credited as producing the show, tells Riedel about the director, “We love Jack and are very pleased with his work, though, as is often the case, there is a further mile to go.”
So once again, as so often with Lloyd Webber shows, what has actually opened in London is a work in progress. Sunset Boulevard famously had two incarnations - and a second press night - a few months into the run. But then, too, Lloyd Webber typically creates strong opinions on either side of the divide. As Charles Spencer wrote in an appreciation of his career the day after filing his own four star review, “Lloyd Webber has always been theatrical Marmite. He may have written some of the biggest musical hits in showbiz history in a career that now spans more than 40 years, but many of the smart set have always taken a malevolent delight in disparaging and even despising him. I have lost count of the times when people have curled their lip and regarded me with distaste when I’ve insisted that Lloyd Webber is a great popular composer and that his best melodies will endure for as long as those of his idol, Richard Rodgers. What’s more, the animus seems to be personal, almost visceral. One of the most oft-repeated showbiz stories concerns the conversation Lloyd Webber is said to have had with Alan Jay Lerner, the lyricist of My Fair Lady. ‘Alan, why do people always take an instant dislike to me?’ asked ALW. ‘Saves time,’ Lerner replied crisply.”
But a leader column in the Daily Mail last week vigorously defended him and his work. “Lloyd Webber has given great pleasure to countless millions with his tunes over the years. Indeed, a single one of his many musicals has given more happiness than the works of all his sneering high-brow critics put together. We wish him - and his latest show - a fair wind”.
And that is what a leading West End producer and occasional Broadway investor wrote to me over the weekend to report it may yet receive. “I went with my family to the matinee of Love Never Dies yesterday. It was not the show I saw opening night. The show was sold out and the audience loved it BIG TIME and so did my family. It is still a work in progress but it is going to be around a long, long time… I feel that in the end with musicals the public will make their own judgement. Wicked had bad notices and like Love terrible advance word of mouth from the theatrical community during previews. For what it is worth I would not hesitate to invest in the New York production of Love Never Dies…. When I saw a real audience that paid 66 pounds plus for their seats stand up in mass and do not even leave the theatre until the band stops playing says a lot about what is on that stage.”
And Lloyd Webber should take heart, too, from the fact that if critics can’t agree on his work, neither can they agree on Ibsen. The new production of Hedda Gabler that originated at Bath’s Theatre Royal, starring Rosamunde Pike in the title role under the direction of Adrian Noble (and is at Richmond Theatre in London from tonight for a week), has drawn wonderfully paradoxical reviews, ranging from two stars (Georgina Brown in the Mail on Sunday, that was headlined “Garbled Hedda leaves me cold) to five stars (John Peter in the Sunday Times).
I have not seen it yet myself, so can’t say on which side of the divide I’ll find myself. But I’ve found myself interestingly at odds with The Guardian’s Michael Billington lately: comparing notes at a lunchtime event last Thursday, he and I were shooting the breeze with the National’s Nick Hytner, and talking of what we’d recently liked and disliked. Michael sent up a flag for Really Old, Like 45, which I didn’t like; another for Sweet Nothings at the Young Vic, ditto; and then referred to the new West End Ghosts as one to miss, which I liked. On Friday night, I was at the opening of a new production of Tom Murphy’s Irish classic The Sanctuary Lamp, directed by the author, at the Arcola, and was having an excruciatingly dull time. At the end, I turned to my partner and said, “Billington is sure to give this four stars, you’ll see”; and on Saturday morning, sure enough, he duly obliged.