Dispatches | June 10, 2011

When I was in junior high, I loved musicals. Those were the glory days of Andrew Lloyd Webber and Claude-Michel Schönberg; inspired by their hits, my sister and I checked out every musical soundtrack held by our public library. Our favorites included not only Jesus Christ Superstar and Les Miserables, but also Fiddler on the Roof, Sweeney Todd, and Song of Norway (which we found hilariously incomprehensible). Muddling the lyrics that scratched out of our console stereo, we’d dance around the living room in our assumed roles.

In the ‘90’s, a teenager, I folded away my Cats t-shirt and developed other musical tastes. (Granted, I also owned three different cast recordings of The Rocky Horror Picture Show). This relative hiatus from musical theatre lasted into my late twenties, when, through two years living in New York, I saw only one Broadway musical. It was The Light in the Piazza, and it was one of the highlights of those years. Something was still stirring. More recently, in Missouri, I was thrilled to see Ted Neeley, who played Jesus in the 1973 film, again taking up the role in a touring company of Jesus Christ Superstar. An older, frailer Jesus, he could nonetheless still hit all of the character’s screaming high notes.

So . . . even if not quite the musical theatre geek I once was, I was still fairly excited to see two new musicals during my trip to Melbourne. Like many of my favorite shows, the two works I saw were based—sort of—upon novels. The source for Lucy Simon’s Doctor Zhivago is obvious; meanwhile, Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Love Never Dies picks up the story (originally Gaston Leroux’s) of The Phantom of the Opera. LND opens in 1907, which Webber claims is ten years after the conclusion of Phantom. This new musical is set on Coney Island.

I have neither read Pasternak’s novel nor seen David Lean’s 1965 film, so Simon’s Zhivago was my introduction to this story. One of my Australian friends—an unabashed enthusiast of musicals who even shelled out $20 for a souvenir program—said that Lean’s Doctor Zhivago is his favorite movie. Even so, the musical made certain things clearer to him. He described a moody film full of wordless landscape sequences. In place of these, the musical offered crystal-clear pronouncements. For example, when the heroine, Lara, tells her new husband, Pasha, about her past, a larger-than-life image of her is projected onto a screen behind them. The projected Lara kneels on a bed, her back to the audience, a white shawl wrapped around her. When she confesses her sexual history, the shawl falls away and she is naked. When she’s done speaking, the shawl covers her again. Pretty—but also a pretty obvious translation of the emotional content of the scene, in which Lara exposes herself and then realizes that it wasn’t wise to have done so. Later, Pasha accounts for his transformation into the heartless Red Army general, Strelnikov, by declaring that he had to avenge Lara’s sexual exploitation at the hands of the bourgeoisie. There’s not much room for misinterpretation, here: missed connections and motives are conveyed to the audience explicitly.

The reasons for this are understandable, if regrettable. When condensing a 600-page novel into a two-and-a-half hour musical, a lot of fine detail will have to be sacrificed. Then, too, the two works are aimed toward different audiences—a Russian-speaking readership in 1956; an English-speaking viewership in 2011—with different attention spans and different perspectives on the Russian Revolution. But, overt as it is, Simon’s Doctor Zhivago seems like a Jane Austen novel for subtlety in comparison to Love Never Dies. The premise of LND is probably that of most fan fiction: two characters who didn’t have sex in the original story do so in the retelling. As Love Never Dies would have it, Christine (the heroine) and the Phantom slept together sometime during the action of Phantom of the Opera. The continuity problems here are too many to enumerate, but suffice to say that ten years later, Christine has a ten-year-old son. He’s creepy and musically-gifted. What, do you suppose, are the chances that he’s her husband Raoul’s kid? LND spends half of its length proclaiming what’s pretty obvious (the lyrics of the duet “Beneath a Moonless Sky” include a lot of touching, feeling, and kissing between the Phantom and Christine). The other half of the show is devoted to catchy Coney Island dance hall numbers and to slightly more nuanced subplots involving jealousy and betrayal. The Phantom’s mask comes off several times—sometimes while he’s facing away and sometimes toward the audience—leaving the audience member to squint at his face and wonder what the big deal is, anyway. Throughout, the show seems tainted by cynicism toward the value of artifice—as though we’ve all already acknowledged that the Phantom’s mask and the lurid attractions of a Coney Island theater and even the music of the night are only distractions from the fact that the Phantom and Christine had sex. All the tension of the original story is collapsed and made mundane once that plot point is established.

Both of these musicals were amazing productions. The sets of Love Never Dies were incredible, capturing the front- and back-stages of a grand Coney Island theater and its milieu. Those of Doctor Zhivago were simpler, reconfigurations of a few simple props artfully conveying passage of time or changes in locale. The scores were great in both cases, too (even if the lyrics of LND are frequently awful). But the lack of subtlety in these plots corresponded, for me, to a lack of connection with the characters: I felt nothing toward any of them. Whereas Cats long ago started me on T.S. Eliot, and Jesus Christ Superstar piqued my interest in the New Testament, neither of these shows made me want to learn more about their source material. It’s not just that I’m old and cynical now—and I don’t think it’s just that I’m a writer. But surely there are lessons here for us writers. First, don’t write fan fiction. More seriously, both works suggest to me how easy it can be to not have faith in your audience, to supply too much, too overtly. In both of these musicals, plot not only took precedent over character development, it also seemed to suffice for character development. Despite his having announced that he was deep in gambling debt and a bad husband, I could not fathom why the affable Raoul of Phantom had been transformed into a brusque and nervous villain in Love Never Dies. This transformation was expedient rather than authentic. The two musicals were both equally lacking in narrative tension as they pressed toward their inevitable conclusions: DZ’s inevitable because of the constraints of Pasternak’s novel; LND’s inevitable because the hitherto constrained eroticism of the Phantom/Christine relationship had been realized and ruined. Simon, the creator of DZ, pulled the show after a brief 2006 run in order to revise it. I’m sympathetic to her, at the start of my own summer revision project. The weight of what I’ve done has settled firmly over everything I have left to do. But taking the model of these two musicals, I’ll start with this premise: give the audience fewer shiny things and more work to do for themselves.