I much admired the original London production by Jack O'Brien and felt that all the post-opening tinkering did little to improve the show and more to assuage several critics taking the opportunity to revise their hasty first opinions.
But all of that history was blown out of the water yesterday afternoon when the composer played his trump card in the basement cinema of the Soho Hotel with a screening of a brilliantly made film of the current Sydney production by Priscilla Queen of the Desert director Simon Phillips.
Admittedly the invitation audience included many close friends and colleagues - Don Black, Michael Ball, Arlene Phillips, the ever radiant Edna O'Brien, Howard Goodall - as well as a handful of sympathetic critics and other interested parties.
I for one was fully prepared to have my expectations undermined. Instead, they were gloriously enhanced. There is talk of a limited cinema release for this superb film - which is of one complete stage performance, with only several separate insertions - but my own feeling is that it could, in the first place, be very successfully piped into the art house international circuit currently exploited by the New York Metropolitan Opera and our own National Theatre.
It is certainly the best film of a stage musical I've seen - including Alan Parker's Evita and Joel Schumacher's Phantom, both of which were seriously enjoyable but seriously flawed - and the story has now been straightened out to the extent that the romantic core of the Phantom and Christine's reunion on Coney Island runs powerfully parallel to the story of a father finding his lost son.
"Pass it on, boys, pass it on," cries Richard Griffiths at the end of Alan Bennett's The History Boys, and just as Phantom was about love awakened in the spirit of music, so the more regretful, jaundiced and deeply tragic Love Never Dies is about recognising love forged in art. Once again, I feel that Lloyd Webber is writing about the influence of, and his difficult affection for, his own composer father.
Ben Elton's book and Glenn Slater's lyrics do their jobs admirably, as in some spooky fairground re-working of the Rigoletto story. But the impact of the music is overwhelming: impassioned and melodic, with the continuous underscoring of the orchestrations by Lloyd Webber and David Cullen reiterating themes, slyly quoting from the original Phantom, and somehow miraculously meshing the diverse traditions of musical theatre writing in Viennese opera, Verdi, Puccini, heavy metal rock and Ivor Novello.
The Lloyd Webber boo boys and proprietorial Phantom ("We never asked for a sequel!") fanatics can cry till the cows come home, but there is simply no-one else in musical theatre writing at this level of ambition and accomplishment. (Sondheim is something else and something completely and incomparably different.)
The Sydney performances are outstanding. Anna O'Byrne has not only perfect looks and a perfect voice, but perfect dentistry, too. Ben Lewis brings a brooding hulk of a good-looking presence to bear on the mysterious master of ceremonies. Simon Gleeson makes of Raoul less of a fall-over dissolute drunk than a genuinely perplexed also-ran in the emotional stakes, while Sharon Miller Chip and Maria Mercedes as Meg Giry and her discreetly vengeful old mother have subtly modified the theatricality of their perfomances for the screen.
Bob Crowley's design and Paul Constable's lighting were extraordinary in the London opening, both elements severely damaged in the subsequent fiddling about. But this Sydney version appears to have re-thought the stage machinery on Coney Island completely, and there's a much tighter, tauter representation of the spooks, weirdos and bathing beauties in the Phantom's command.
And Christine sings her big come-back number encased in a giant fan of peacock feathers that fills the stage with breathtaking theatrical flair, one of several big Baz Luhrmann-style moments but without the cinematic tricksiness.
Talking of which, this great theatrical movie really does throw down the gauntlet: follow that, Baz old boy, when you finally get going on Les Miserables. Meanwhile, seek out the DVD if it becomes available and wallow in this romantic, modern operatic wonderland.
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