I have to admit, Love Never Dies is growing on me.
When news that Andrew Lloyd Webber was writing a sequel to Phantom of the Opera was released, I was not amused. In my mind, how can you improve on perfection and the glorious blend of sorrow and beauty in the original’s magnificent ending? My fear was that a sequel would diminish the original or taint it… particularly a sequel loosely based on the atrocious Phantom of Manhattan novel. (Um… no. Andrew… what were you thinking?!) Phantom has always been my favorite musical and quite possibly, my favorite story for all time. It resonates so deeply with me that nothing else can compare to it. The tragic story of the deformed villain in the opera house, the beautiful woman he loves so passionately, the Gothic overtones, and his redemption through a kiss.
You either get it or you don’t. Some merely enjoy it, and others absolutely adore it. My collection of photos, memorabilia, books, and soundtracks prove I am of the latter variety… but I am also unusual in the sense that I am not totally adverse to different interpretations of the story. I enjoy the original book, I love Susan Kay’s novel, I adore the musical (this one… not so much the lesser-known version), and have seen most of the movies (the only one I won’t stand for is the one where Erik is a serial killer who visits prostitutes… about twenty minutes in, I’d had enough and shut it off it off in disgust). I even read and enjoyed a particularly charming novel in which Sherlock Holmes meets the Phantom without pitching a fit or ranting against the insolence of placing my two favorite literary characters in the same body of work.
Inevitably, Phantom fans fall into two categories… those who root for Erik and Christine, and those who root for Raoul and Christine. Now, deep down we all know Raoul is the better man (if somewhat less intelligent… and yes, I did just say that) and that Erik’s treatment of Christine is at the very least manipulative and at the worst, potentially abusive — he frequently takes advantage of and intimidates her, at one point taking her by force into his lair. Delusional or not, that is a serious offense, even in a mad act of desperation.
Raoul needs no one cheering him on, because in the end he receives everything he ever wanted: he gets Christine and to live a happy, long life in the sunlight, where no one condemns him for his eccentricities or his horrific face. Raoul has liberation and love and a happy ending, whereas Erik loses everything — his desire to write music, the woman he loves, even his home beneath the Opera House. His face has not changed; he will still be persecuted, misunderstood, and hated wherever he goes. The heartbreaking tragedy of that appeals to us, because we see an endless array of ways how it could have worked with Christine if it were not for Erik’s mistakes and his need to “possess” the woman he loves. Had Erik not been so frightening, had he not terrified the Opera Girls quite so often, had he not deliberately messed with the lesser minds of the managers, and resorted to murder when crossed — Christine would not have feared him. She would have come to know him first as a great teacher and composure and then as a human being. He could have won her over with kindness and gentleness, but instead he tries to hold on too tightly and destroys the very thing he covets most: Christine’s love.
One of my favorite moments in the Susan Kay novel is quite a small but important detail — when Erik discovers a tattered white kitten in the sewers of Paris and carries it back to the Opera House, where he tenderly wipes off the soot and gives her a diamond collar. That is very much his true soul — if you were to treat him with kindness, trust, sincerity, and genuine acceptance, he would be a much kinder, gentler man; he could even become a good man, worthy of love enough that no hideous disfigurement would make him terrifying. Yet even Erik is redeemed in the end, when his plan to kill Raoul is thwarted by Christine’s willingness to remain with him, even though she loves another. She kisses the deformed curves of his face, and in that moment Erik finds redemption and releases them both.
I am willing to accept some of the nuances of Love Never Dies, although it is an inferior musical in terms of composition. There are some truly superb songs in the offering (I literally cannot stop listening to “Beneath the Moonless Sky,” and “The Beauty Underneath” is simply gorgeous — sensual, powerful, and the essence of the dark, seductive power that Erik possesses, while “Devil takes the Hindmost” is pure genius) but the character assassination of various “lesser” figures is a tad shocking. Where Christine and Erik are concerned, I think the characterization is spot on — however much she may have resented Erik’s actions in the original, she did love him and I have no doubt that his releasing them both at the end might have restored him somewhat in her estimation. I am even willing to accept that she would find him weeks later and give in to him, physically… and I think Erik leaving her the next morning out of shame is very much like him. As is going on to create his own world, a powerful attraction to which he can lure her once again, in a second attempt to win her love. Even the melodramatic ending suits me tremendously (SPOILER ALERT) — Christine dies in his arms, giving him one final, passionate kiss, and he leaves with their son. (END OF SPOILER.)
However, what the story has done to Meg and Raoul is beyond comprehension. The sweet, innocent, timid Meg has transformed into a desperately jealous woman of doubtful morals who is so passionately besotted with Erik that she becomes a villain in her own right. Part of me thinks that certain assertions by a third group of fans who believe Christine was the wrong woman for Erik and Meg would have suited him much more instead, led the writers to go in this direction — but either way, the thought of darling little Meg growing up to be a stripper is somewhat less than believable. And then there is Raoul. I may not care much for him, but transforming him into a bitter drunk who has lost his fortune at the gaming tables, has no time nor interest in “his” son (cough, cough), and is living off what money his wife can make off her singing career is a tad… underhanded.
To be honest, I have never had a very high opinion of him (much to my mother’s distress, I might add), because I question his intelligence and his treatment of Christine. Erik may not be Prince Charming, but as far as I am concerned, neither is Raoul. He is just as demanding, impatient, and impulsive. He does not listen to her. He dismisses her concerns out of hand, until Erik proves his own existence. If a man refused to listen to me, brushing aside my fears and reservations as childish absurdities, I do not think I would have a very high opinion of him. (Not to mention his plot to trap Erik was — in a word — stupid.) However, at the end of the day, Raoul means well, he does love Christine, and he can provide her with a happy life safely away from her experiences at the Opera House.Transforming him from a bit of a moron into a first class loser makes him too easy to despise, whereas a far more compelling story would be her torn between her love for two different but equally alluring men. Come on, most of the women in the audience are going to root for Erik anyway — why make it easy for them? We love a good challenge and a test of our reasoning skills to explain away his bad behavior.
If I had written this sequel, instead of diminishing Raoul I would have simply improved Erik — through their last kiss, granted him redemption, restored a certain amount of his faith in humanity, and changed his life. Christine would have encountered a much different version of him than she knew before, and in doing so, made the audience struggle between their emotions, in wanting Christine and Erik to be together, but also not wanting her to leave Raoul heartbroken. But then, I find making one man less attractive to enhance another diminishes the power of the story for the audience. Nevertheless, and in spite of its faults, I must admit I was wrong… Love Never Dies does not ruin Phantom of the Opera. In some ways it feels like a distant, detached continuation, but in others it reaches into my soul. Not as much as the original… but enough.