"Love Never Dies," the sequel to Andrew Lloyd Webber's "Phantom of the Opera," heads to Baltimore on the way to official start of its national tour. (Courtesy video)
If you ever wondered where that masked man goes after disappearing into thin air when the curtain falls on Andrew Lloyd Webber's mega-musical "The Phantom of the Opera," you're not alone. Turns out the celebrated composer was curious, too.
That curiosity resulted in a sequel, "Love Never Dies," which arrives at the Hippodrome Theatre this week, a preview run prior to the official opening of the show's year-long national tour launching Oct. 17 in Detroit.
The process of creating a follow-up to Lloyd Webber's celebrated "Phantom" — it's the longest-running show on Broadway, soon to mark 30 continuous years there — began in the late 1990s.
"I was given a story line by Frederick Forsyth that I was intrigued by," says Lloyd Webber.
The scenario by the author of "Day of the Jackal," "The Odessa Files" and many another thriller placed the facially disfigured Phantom in New York after the unpleasantness at the Paris Opera — you know, the unrequited love for a young soprano, a crashing chandelier and all that.
"Then, 10 or 12 years ago, I just felt that it would be nice for me personally to continue the story and close it," says Lloyd Webber, 69, the London-born composer of "Jesus Christ Superstar," "Cats" and "Sunset Boulevard," among others. "I wanted to do it for myself almost. It was a very personal piece for me, a way to close a chapter."
To reach that closure, he collaborated with English comedian and writer Ben Elton, who wrote the book and lyrics for Lloyd Webber's "The Beautiful Game" and provided the book for the Queen-based musical "We Will Rock You"; and American lyricist Glenn Slater, whose credits include "Sister Act" and "The Little Mermaid."
The result was a story line that keeps the New York locale that Forsyth had imagined, but zeroes in on a particular spot filled with extra theatrical potential — Coney Island.
"What interested me was, where could the Phantom possibly have gone? The answer, of course, is that he could have been in many places," Lloyd Webber says. "But Coney Island was such an extraordinary place at the turn of the last century. Sigmund Freud called it the eighth wonder of the world. The Phantom could have easily been absorbed into that background, with all the 'freaks' on exhibition, and nobody would have batted an eyelid."
In "Love Never Dies," the action is set in 1910, a decade after the Phantom's disappearance in his underground Parisian lair. He's now a big success as head of a Coney Island attraction called Phantasma, but still pining for his one true love, Christine.
The soprano, now married to Raoul and mother a 10-year-old named Gustave, arrives in New York to sing for Oscar Hammerstein's new Manhattan Opera House. She is bound to come face-to-partially-concealed-face with her greatest admirer.
"Christine doesn't want to come under the inexorable power of the Phantom's music," Webber says. "She doesn't want to go there. But at the same time, maybe she does."
As the plot weaves its way to the sort of high drama any sequel to "The Phantom of the Opera" would require, much is learned about the characters, including the youngest. And all of this is told by way of a lushly orchestrated score.
The musical's setting did not lead to an attempt to fashion an early 20th-century, Americana-flecked score.
"It was that color I was interested in, rather than any particular style of music," Lloyd Webber says. "The warmth of the beginning, I hope, sets the mood for this strange and slightly sinister world."
Despite the mass of talent on the creative side, "Love Never Dies" did not have the healthiest start. The premiere in London's West End in 2010 found most of the critics unimpressed. Talk of a move to Broadway fizzled fast.
"The London production didn't work for a variety of reasons, not the least of which was that I was diagnosed with cancer [a few months before rehearsals began], so I was not as involved as I normally would have been," says Lloyd Webber.
The show lasted a modest 18 months. But no sooner did it fade in London than it reappeared in Australia, having been considerably altered. The music and book were revised. A new creative team, including director Simon Phillips and set/costume designer Gabriela Tylesova, retooled the staging.
"I was very pleased with the production," Lloyd Webber says. "I got to do quite a lot of work with the director. And the design got it very right."
This time, the press was more impressed, and "Love Never Dies" enjoyed a new lease on life. Productions based on the Australian version were seen in Japan and Germany. The North American tour also has its roots in that Down Under transformation. (Lloyd Webber plans to catch the show in Detroit.)
"Love Never Dies" will play 30 U.S. cities in all by next September. New York isn't on the list. Might it eventually reach Broadway, as once envisioned?
"I don't know," Lloyd Webber says. "Maybe it can. We'll see."
If Gardar Thor Cortes, who plays the role of the Phantom on the tour, had his way, the show would definitely hit the Great White Way.
"I really believe it belongs on Broadway," he says. "It's a masterpiece. Every time I go out there onstage, whether rehearsing or performing, has been so enjoyable. We just did preview performances in Utica [N.Y.] and had full houses. I think people are really taking to it."
Cortes, an Icelandic-born tenor with extensive operatic training (his teachers included stellar Welsh tenor Stuart Burrows), also has experience performing the lead in "The Phantom of the Opera."
"Both roles are equally rewarding," Cortes says. "That's the joy of it. It is so much fun to portray him in 'Love Never Dies' because he has so many layers. He's exactly the same Phantom he was, but he has been marinating over his regrets about how things turned out 10 years before. He's very troubled, bless him."
Given the enormous popularity of the original "Phantom," which contains such now standard songs as "All I Ask of You" and "The Music of the Night," audiences may approach the new work with some skepticism. Cortes offers reassurance.
"It has the same effect as the original," he says. "And because it is a sequel, Andrew puts in a few notes and phrases from the original; it's brilliantly done to connect the two 'Phantoms.'"
As for the new score, Cortes sounds just as upbeat.
"When you hear anything by Mozart or Verdi, you go, 'Ah, yes it's him.' When you hear this music, you go, 'Ah, that's Andrew.' That's why we love him," Cortes says. "The music of 'Love Never Dies' is very much him, but fuller, richer. It was written later in his career, and people who've matured want to best themselves."
That's not necessarily how the composer sees it. He didn't consider revisiting "Phantom" as an opportunity to outdo his earlier achievement.
"I've been lucky in my career," Lloyd Webber says. "I've had some big hits. But one has to remember that when you write something, you do it because you want to write. If I thought, oh my goodness, I have to write something as big as 'Phantom,' 'Jesus Christ Superstar' or 'Cats,' I'd never write. I can't think that way. And I can't think about the issue of how you are going to be received."
Still, the composer does not play down the effort involved in writing the sequel.
" 'Phantom' has been so huge a part of my creative life," Lloyd Webber says. "This was, in a way, my squaring the circle."
After he completed that daunting challenge, the composer hardly rested on his plentiful laurels (his honors include a life peerage bestowed by Queen Elizabeth in 1997, making him a member of the House of Lords).
Four years ago, Lloyd Webber's "Stephen Ward" opened in London. This musical, with book and lyrics by Don Black and Christopher Hampton, is based on the sensational 1963 political-sexual scandal in Britain known as the Profumo Affair.
And 2015 saw the premiere of "School of Rock," which Webber wrote with lyrics by Slater and a book by Julian ("Downton Abbey") Fellowes, inspired by the 2003 film. It's still playing in New York; a national tour opening Sept. 30 in Rochester, N.Y. will make its way to the Hippodrome in March.
"You could not have two more different sides of me than 'Love Never Dies' and 'School of Rock,' which is about the empowering of music for children and all of us, really," Lloyd Webber says. "It was wonderful how 'School of Rock' took me back to my rock roots, right back to 'Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat,' which is 50 years old."
What he might write next for the stage isn't yet known.
"It's an open secret that I'm looking around for a subject," Lloyd Webber says. "I haven't found the story yet. It could take years, or it could just happen."
If you go
"Love Never Dies" opens Tuesday and runs through Oct. 8 at the Hippodrome Theatre, 12 N. Eutaw St.. Tickets are $38.25 to $213.25. Call 410-547-7328, or go to ticketmaster.com.