The branded slogan for "Cats" was "now and forever," but it's the Phantom who may have nine lives.
For now, he has two. Andrew Lloyd Webber's 1986 "Phantom of the Opera," Broadway's longest-running show and the most commercially successful musical in theater history, has spawned a sequel, "Love Never Dies," which opened in London Tuesday to some of the wildest mixed reviews in history.
The story picks up 10 years after the Phantom disappeared, heartbroken, from the bowels of the Paris Opera. Like everyone else you know, he has moved to Brooklyn, only he runs a sideshow in Coney Island called Phantasma. Under a fake name, he hires his beloved songbird, Christine, who arrives with husband Raoul, now a drunk, and son who, uh-oh, happens to be 10 years old.
London reviews, most of which use a five-star system, have ranged from Benedict Nightingale's dismissive two stars in The Times to a blazing five from Paul Taylor in The Independent. Nightingale deeply misses "the menace, the horror, the psychological darkness," regretting that the Phantom "has clearly taken an anger-management course."
Taylor, on the far other hand, praises Lloyd Webber's "dark-hewed, yearning melodies" and American director Jack O'Brien's "seamlessly fluent (and sometimes subtle) production." Bob Crowley's sets, a combination of projections and solid scenery, create "a dizzy Coney Island of the mind."
Michael Billington, in The Guardian, gave the show three stars, praising the "seductive" score but lamenting the book, by Lloyd Webber and Ben Elton, that "lacks the weight to support the imaginative superstructure."
The whiplash continues. In his four-star review in The Daily Telegraph, Charles Spencer declares this Lloyd Webber's finest show since the original "Phantom." But Quentin Letts in the Daily Mail says the "slow starting" show is "too much an also-ran to the prequel." He also describes "a death scene so long that it may only reignite the euthanasia debate." And Bill Hagerty in The Sun, who calls the score "serviceable," says "the story unfolds ponderously - then slows."
And The New York Times' Ben Brantley, apparently the only major American critic at the premiere, said "this poor sap of a show feels as eager to be walloped as a clown in a carnival dunking booth." And then he obliged.
"Love Never Dies" has been scheduled to open on Broadway in November and in Australia the following year. Still, it is impossible to know what New York producers will make of the show's bipolar responses. Lloyd Webber was the prime money machine in the '80s, when audiences couldn't get enough of extravaganzas with mega-massive sets, familiar potboiler stories and comforting melodic music that sounded like music they'd heard before.
But the magic touch has eluded him in recent decades. "Aspects of Love," "Sunset Boulevard," "Whistle Down the Wind," The Beautiful Game" and "The Woman in White" were far from blockbusters. More than money is clearly riding on this new one.
Lloyd Webber, 61, had prostate surgery in October. He was hospitalized again in January with a postoperative infection, but is said to be cancer-free.
A frequent judge on British reality TV these days, Lloyd Webber is clearly selective about the amount of 21st century reality he enjoys. Given the popularity of "Phantom" and its huge so-called "phan base," the sequel's previews have been dissected and shredded, poked and hammered on message boards, blogs and chat rooms for weeks. Someone renamed it "Paint Never Dries."
Lloyd Webber is reportedly furious about having his work reviewed while still "in progress." As Lyn Gardner notes in The Guardian, "No doubt if the comment was positive, Lloyd Webber would not be moaning." The critic also asks a favorite question of mine, one that carries more weight as the Internet proves itself untamed by official opening nights and review-embargo dates: "If you are seeing a work in progress, why should you pay full price?"