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