But if it's loudly sung and in a foreign tongue ...
So went the lyrics to Prima Donna, a song in the original musical The Phantom of the Opera, now almost in its 25th year in London's West End. Andrew Lloyd Webber seems to have taken this bit of advice literally for his sequel, Love Never Dies, which has just undergone some major revisions, less than nine months after its opening.
The story of Love Never Dies, much to the chagrin of several die-hard "Phans," is far-fetched and out-of-sync with both the Gaston Leroux novel and Lloyd Webber's first show. It turns out (spoilers ahead) the Phantom shared a night of passion with Christine before fleeing to New York, and the result was a child. Now married to Raoul, who, over the course of a decade, has become an embittered drunk, Christine runs back into the Phantom's arms, and 10-year-old Gustave's true paternity is revealed.
With a few show-stopping numbers and some big set pieces thrown in, Lloyd Webber thought he could get away with this improbable story. And he probably still thinks he can, because the revision of the show hasn't changed any of the major details (you can read about Love Never Dies changes here).
The new version has apparently changed some of the lyrics, however. How grateful I am for that, for Glenn Slater's original libretto ranged from adequate to terribly banal. Even the best-sounding lyrics were flawed. "All America was there/Beggar next to billionaire," sang Madame Giry in the prologue (which has now been removed) -- except no billionaire existed in the United States until after WWI.
Giry then sang, "Every fantasy set free/Sodom rising by the sea" -- sounded catchy, but what a clumsy and inappropriate metaphor. Nothing fantastic or mesmerizing about Sodom, no matter which way you interpret the Bible. There was rape and social injustice, perhaps, but nothing particularly fun or enchanting. Even in popular culture, Sodom tends to be used as a metaphor for squalor and degradation, as in the brutally disturbing Pasolini film Salo, or the 120 Days of Sodom. The metaphor is made all the sillier by the next number, which likens Coney Island not to Sodom but to a "little slice of heaven by the sea." Which is it? Ugh.
Other times, it is far too obvious that lyrics are being mangled to fit the tunes; unsurprisingly, since Lloyd Webber composed the melodies first and asked Slater to fit the lyrics around them. "Ten long years living a mere facade of life" -- "of life" simply fills space here. What else do you live but life? Here's another sample:
And the genius that designed it wears a mask!A mask?A mask!But what's behind it?What's behind it?What's behind it?What's behind it?What's behind it?
Yes, the lines are so good they really deserve being repeated that many times. Oh dear. Later on in the same song we get this:
And a concert hall that's bigger than the Met!What's inside it?What's inside it?What's inside it?What's inside it?
Other songs, such as Look with Your Heart and the title song, Love Never Dies, are disappointing just in their banal sentimentality. It's not the simplicity that's the problem -- simplicity can work -- but that's it's so unbearably twee. Would it come as a surprise to know that before collaborating with Webber, the Slater was best-known for Disney films? Perhaps he excels at writing lyrics for children (I mean that sincerely), but I think it makes him a poor choice for this production.
I hope the new version has fixed some of the most noticeable problems with the lyrics. I admit, I'll still like the show, because, for all its faults, Lloyd Webber's score is stunning. He still has what it takes to write a hit musical. While Love Never Dies could never be a rival for The Phantom of the Opera, I predict it will survive, flaws aside.