Everyone has their price, or so they say. I never believed it, myself, but the other night I stumbled upon a somewhat uncomfortable personal truth. While watching the North American production of Love Never Dies, I realized I do have a price, after all—and not even a very high one at that. It’s a little embarrassing, but it’s undeniably accurate.
I would sell my soul for a bit of real magic.
It doesn’t matter if a story is subpar. Consistent characterization, believable dialogue, detailed world-building—all those things I’ve always believed that, as both a reader and a writer, I held in highest regard—are, in fact, inconsequential compared to this craving of mine. If you can make me believe I’ve fallen down the rabbit-hole into Wonderland, tripped and somersaulted head-over-heels into some strange and beautiful otherworld, I will forgive you for any sin you commit against the art of the narrative. At least temporarily.
You see, the minute you make me believe, I am lost. I am Christine trailing after the Phantom as he leads her to his lair, hypnotized by a haunting refrain, lured in by the promise of strange new world. Part of me knows something is wrong—magic, after all, always comes with a price—but doubt bows out to wonder every time.
Discovering “The Beauty Underneath”
Love Never Dies is a problematic sequel, to say the least. I tend to be kinder than the average critic, more inclined to find the good than the bad, but even I can see the more glaring errors in the Phantom’s so-called return. The plot twists don’t digest well; they tangle in your stomach like bad spaghetti and make you wonder whether they weren’t ghostwritten by an amateur “phan.” Beloved characters make odd, sometimes downright awful choices—and not in an artful Greek tragedy sort of way. The music, which should have been the one reliably steady note in the whole production, wavers unpredictably between magnificent and mediocre. That it could have lived up to the original was unlikely to begin with; that it falls so far short of even its own potential is downright depressing.
And yet, seeing Love Never Dies live left me reeling with stars in my eyes. I was so enchanted by what I’d just watched, I almost broke an ankle while waltzing from the theater to the lobby after the show (true story). I loved revisiting those old, familiar melodies (there are more than a few callbacks to the original Phantom score), and I adored hearing the new highlights in person for the first time.
The real magic, however, manifested itself during a very particular scene near the end of the first act. “The Beauty Underneath” has always been one of my favorite tracks from the original Broadway cast recording. It’s a strange song that sticks out like a sore thumb, even in the company of freak show performance numbers, but I can’t seem to help myself. It’s just so damn fun, in a dark, operatic rock music sort of way.
I was waiting for that number from the minute the curtain went up. I knew, instinctively, it was going to be spectacular. What I did not anticipate was a change in melody. The chorus I knew by heart simply vanished into thin air like a true Phantasma magic trick. Instead of the heavy, more aggressive original, the new “Beauty Underneath” leaped and bounded and contorted around the theater like an aerialist, eerily nimble and absolutely enthralling.
And the stage. Oh, the stage. I never knew the full meaning of the word “dazzled” until that performance. Everything was spiraling silhouettes and glittering glass. Ephemeral faces floated past, circling the stage in a creepy carousel, and the ivory bones of a creature without name danced in the center of all, glowing in the spotlight. The Phantom’s voice boomed and Gustave’s voice soared, and for a few minutes—or perhaps longer, since time flows differently in other dimensions—I didn’t feel the frame of my seat supporting me or the floor beneath my feet. I was completely transported, utterly lost in the fairy tale of the moment.
Eventually the dream ended, as all dreams must, and the show went on, as all shows must. Nothing that followed could quite compete with that number, not even our lovely Christine’s jaw-dropping performance of the eponymous “Love Never Dies.” But it didn’t matter; the spell had been cast and I was long gone. The rest of the night passed by in a blur; I could think of nothing but magic and music.
Magic Doesn’t Need a Masterpiece
Do I actually believe the foundations of good storytelling—characters, plot, setting, et al—are insignificant? Of course not. If all of those things had been in perfect alignment in Love Never Dies, after all, I might have had more than just a few stolen moments of wonderment. I might have had hours of it. It would have been glorious.
But I also believe this revelation of mine serves as an important reminder of a lesson I should have learned from the Phantom himself. It’s one all of us writers need to not only learn but remember, with utter confidence and clarity, every time we hesitate to start a new experiment: art doesn’t have to be perfect to be worthwhile. Don’t worry about not being able to finish it. Don’t concern yourself with how well it will or won’t work. Don’t be afraid to just dive in and create something. Even misshapen masterpieces can be beautiful; even unfinished tales or inventions may have something precious to offer the world.
Inspiration. Ideas. Possibilities.
Perhaps even a bit of real magic.