An­drew Lloyd Web­ber is so happy with the Aus­tralian ver­sion of he may never write an­other mu­si­cal, he tells Jane Corn­well

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Feature -

THE cam­era closes in on the Phantom as he crouches, an­guished, on a lonely Coney Is­land pier. A straw­berry-coloured dis­fig­u­ra­tion runs from the side of his mouth and un­der­neath his white half­mask; his eyes shine with tears. ‘‘ Di­a­monds never sparkle bright/ If they aren’t set just right,’’ he sings in his mel­liflu­ous bari­tone. ‘‘ Beauty some­times goes un­seen/ We can’t all be like Chris­tine.’’

He’s a bit in­sen­si­tive, this Phantom. It’s been 10 years since his dis­ap­pear­ance from the Paris Opera House, and while he’s some­how man­aged to make enough money to re­lo­cate to New York and lead a spec­tac­u­lar board­walk freak show — think pranc­ing skele­tons, creepy Pier­rot doll chil­dren, med­i­cal aber­ra­tions in pickle jars — he still doesn’t quite get it. You can’t re­ally blame re­jected show­girl Meg Giry for kid­nap­ping the young Gus­tave (is he re­ally Raoul’s son? Could he ac­tu­ally be the Phantom’s?) and bran­dish­ing a great big gun. ‘‘ Chris­tine! Al­ways Chris­tine!’’ she sobs as the cam­era pulls back, a tiny mi­cro­phone just vis­i­ble at her hair­line.

The in­vi­ta­tion au­di­ence in the base­ment cinema of London’s Soho Ho­tel draws breath, mes­merised by the Aus­tralian pro­duc­tion of Love Never Dies, now com­mit­ted to film as the de­fin­i­tive ver­sion of the 2010 stage mu­si­cal. Among as­sorted guests are close friends of An­drew Lloyd Web­ber, the multi-mil­lion­aire re­spon­si­ble for rein­vent­ing the nearby West End with crowd-pleas­ing mu­si­cals in­clud­ing Cats, Evita and of course, Phantom of the Opera. Os­car-win­ning lyri­cist Don Black is there, are are Ir­ish novelist Edna O’brien and Olivier-win­ning chore­og­ra­pher Ar­lene Phillips, re­cently be­hind the moves in The Wizard of Oz — a mu­si­cal whose Dorothy (like the Maria, Joseph and Oliver of their re­cent re­spec­tive pro­duc­tions) was cho­sen by Lloyd Web­ber and the public via a tele­vi­sion tal­ent show.

Here, too, is the Lord and mae­stro him­self, 63-year-old Baron Lloyd Web­ber: com­poser, businessman and (thanks to the afore­men­tioned tal­ent shows) tele­vi­sion per­son­al­ity; a fa­ther of five who to­day is feel­ing vin­di­cated, if not ever-so-slightly smug.

‘‘ This film is an ex­tra­or­di­nary piece of work,’’ says Lloyd Web­ber, stand­ing down the front of the cinema wear­ing a pink shirt, dark trousers and sev­eral of his fa­mous fa­cial ex­pres­sions. ‘‘ Ev­ery­one should see it,’’ he ven­tures, ‘‘ if only to see how a mu­si­cal should be filmed. The pos­si­bil­i­ties this opens up are end­less.’’

Love Never Dies will be re­leased on DVD in Australia in time for Valen­tine’s Day and the rest of the world later in the year. Fea­tur­ing a com­plete stage per­for­mance with only a cou­ple of insertions, it’s a lav­ish doc­u­ment of a show that has risen, Phoenix-like, from some pretty messy ashes. A show that, af­ter a six-month run in Melbourne where it gath­ered ex­cel­lent re­views, moved to Syd­ney last month and may be seen in Ger­many in due course. There is in­ter­est not only from a Ger­man in­vestor with a small stake in the Aus­tralian pro­duc­tion but also from a large Euro­pean pro­duc­ing house that has a spe­cial in­ter­est in the Ger­man mar­ket, says Aus­tralian pro­ducer Tim Mcfar­lane.

As the se­quel to Phantom of the Opera — Lloyd Web­ber’s 1986 op­eretta about a dis­fig­ured mu­si­cal ge­nius ob­sessed by a beau­ti­ful so­prano named Chris­tine Daae — Love Never Dies was si­mul­ta­ne­ously the most ea­gerly an­tic­i­pated mu­si­cal of the mil­len­nium and one vir­tu­ally guar­an­teed a luke­warm re­ac­tion. Phantom is the high­est­gross­ing, most suc­cess­ful en­ter­tain­ment project any­where, seen by more than 130 mil­lion peo­ple in nearly 30 coun­tries. The show’s ob­ses­sive Phans were never go­ing to give its fol­low-up an easy ride.

Nei­ther were the crit­ics: when Love Never Dies opened in London in March 2010 re­views were gen­er­ally poor. It was nick­named Paint Never Dries; a Face­book protest group called Love Must Die cam­paigned to have it shut down. It closed for rewrites, then re­launched, re­ceiv­ing some good re­views in the process. But the dam­age was done. Af­ter just 18 months it shut at a loss of more than $Us10mil­lion, with its di­rec­tor (Jack London) and chore­og­ra­pher (Jerry Mitchell) al­legedly re­fus­ing to have any­thing more to do with it. A Broad­way pro­duc­tion was also scrapped.

‘‘ We were a lit­tle light on a few things in London,’’ Lloyd Web­ber ad­mits the next day, when we meet in the Covent Gar­den of­fices of his com­pany the Re­ally Use­ful Group, one of the largest theatre op­er­a­tors in London. ‘‘ Now we’ve got the ac­tual sense of men­ace in there. Now there are some very strong scenes in­deed.’’

With a new creative team helmed by for­mer Melbourne Theatre Com­pany artis­tic di­rec­tor Si­mon Phillips and buoyed by a world-class cast — Anna O’byrne is a rav­ish­ing Chris­tine, Ben Lewis an enig­matic Phantom — the cur­rent pro­duc­tion is as much a tes­ta­ment to Aus­tralian tal­ent and tenac­ity as it is to Lloyd Web­ber’s self-be­lief and Mi­das touch.

‘‘ Si­mon and I clicked in­stantly,’’ says Lloyd Web­ber, fix­ing us both an espresso from a cof­fee ma­chine and tak­ing a seat at a con­fer­ence ta­ble. ‘‘ He had seen the London pro­duc­tion and came straight out with it. He said, ‘ Look, I re­ally think I can do a bet­ter pro­duc­tion than this’. So he vis­ited me in Deia,’’ he adds, ‘‘ where we started talk­ing about all the pos­si­ble changes.’’

It was in Deia, a small coastal vil­lage and long-time bo­hemian haunt on the is­land of Ma­jorca where Lloyd Web­ber has two vil­las (as well as homes in Hamp­shire, London, Man­hat­tan and else­where), that he first no­ticed the symp­toms of what turned out to be prostate can­cer. But though he has spo­ken openly about his bat­tle with the dis­ease in the run-up to the London pre­miere of Love Never Dies, and even re­vealed that the treat­ment has ren­dered him im­po­tent (‘‘I am a ladies’ man who can never make love,’’ he told Piers Mor­gan on the lat­ter’s ITV1 Life Sto­ries show last year), I have been fore­warned against ask­ing any­thing per­sonal.

Should I even try to wan­der off-mes­sage, the DVD’S publi­cist had warned me as I sat in an an­te­room five min­utes ear­lier, scrolling through the glow­ing Syd­ney re­views down-

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