Chasing a Phantom of success

by Natsume Date

Special To The Japan Times

Based on “Le Fantôme de l’Opéra,” a 1911 novel by the French author of detective fiction, Gaston Leroux, and transformed into a musical composed, co-written and produced by Englishman Andrew Lloyd Webber (now Baron Lloyd-Webber), “The Phantom of the Opera” was first produced in London in 1986 and went on to be a huge hit worldwide.

It has been playing on Broadway since it opened in 1988 and holds the record for the longest-running show ever at that mecca of musicals. It’s truly a monster-class stage hit.

The sequel to what is unequivocally the strongest musical in history appeared in 2010. Lloyd-Webber himself had spent long years planning the piece and naturally it arrived with plenty of buzz. However, when long-anticipated “Love Never Dies” opened in London, the reviews were not so sweet.

I still remember very well my own shock at seeing that London production. The setting had changed from the Palais Garnier opera house in Paris to a circus tent 10 years later at Coney Island in Brooklyn, New York.

There, we met Raoul — who stole Christine from The Phantom and married her, but is burdened with debt and has an air of desperation about him. Their only child, Gustaf, whose father is actually …

All in all it’s a really surprising turn of events. However, as the screenplay is by the popular comedian and theatrical-comedy writer Ben Elton, I wondered if this might be some kind of parody he’d devised that I was failing to grasp.

“I think there are two reasons the debut didn’t go well,” said Simon Phillips, a New Zealand-born, Australian-resident director who wielded a creative ax to improve the content and resurrect the play for a 2011 run in Melbourne. Clearly no shirker, he is currently staging a production of the show in Tokyo with a Japanese cast.

“The first reason,” he said, referring to that debut debacle, “was the problem with the expectations held by the audience. The changed appearance of the characters exceeded their tolerance levels, and it was a big shock for them.

“Even Chekhov wrote many stories in which life doesn’t go as you expect — but he wasn’t dealing with a musical that cost tens of billions to produce (Laughs).

“The other reason, and I think this was just a simple mistake, came about as Andrew Lloyd Webber and Ben Elton discussed it together and the character of The Phantom changed more and more. I’m sure they felt the appeal of the outsider quality of the original Phantom, but somewhere along the line they began to lean toward having him in a romantic type of lead role.

“But the actual Phantom is supposed to be the kind of person who would kill someone without thinking twice. Because of this, in the Australian version, I worked at bringing The Phantom back to this point where he’s a dangerous character again.”

Additionally, to reduce the impression that characters were suddenly behaving in ways for no reason at all, Phillips made several changes to the script and lyrics in order to make their motivations clearer.

“I think they needed time to accept the criticism they got at the London show. After several months, when I had my first meeting with him, Andrew was already showing a proactive attitude about making changes, and my work was much easier than I expected.

“In my opinion, no one can deny his ability to transform emotion into music and to create beautiful melodies, but he is the kind of artist who needs someone else to take these iconic moments he’s created and connect the blocks together, creating a story that has a logical progression.”

By approaching his own work again with an open mind, and touching it up together with Phillips and the rest of the Australian creative team, its creator was able to breathe new life into “Love Never Dies.”

Hence it could perhaps be said that Lloyd Webber has managed to avoid besmirching his “Phantom of the Opera” — the brightest star in the history of musicals.

“It already had many great songs in it, and I think he felt it made no sense to banish it to oblivion. But I don’t mean that he’s said of this version, ‘Now it’s perfect.’ ”

What’s certain, though, is that The Phantom, blessed with rare musical talent, is a pure creation of Lloyd-Webber’s — and only he can know whether we’ve now seen the final incarnation of that passionate character.

“Love Never Dies” (in Japanese with a Japanese cast) runs till April 27 at the Nissay Theatre in Yurakucho, Tokyo. For details and to book, call 03-3490-4949. This article was written in Japanese for The Japan Times and translated by Claire Tanaka.