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Phantom of the Opera is one of the best known musicals of all time. It has been running continuously around the world since it premiered in 1986, it won six Tony Awards for its original Broadway production, and it was made into a popular movie in 2004. It is the longest running Broadway show ever, having reached 10,000 performances in 2012. So, as happens with many successful franchises, a sequel was developed. Andrew Lloyd Webber, no longer guided by Gaston Leroux’s original work, went completely off the rails in the new story. The story is poorly written, the characters – who had at least some depth in the original show – were flattened to a single dimension each (if that), and the music – usually Webber’s saving grace – was simply bad. Let’s take a look at the sequel that defined horror through its existence and not its story, Love Never Dies.
Love Never Dies takes place 10 years after the end of Phantom of the Opera. Sort of. Webber seems to have forgotten that he set Phantom in 1881, since Love Never Dies takes place “10 years later” in 1907. In fact, the prologue of Phantom shows Raoul as elderly and confined to a wheelchair in 1905. Hurray for continuity. Temporal distortions aside, the story is set in the United States rather than in France, specifically at Coney Island. It turns out that the Phantom was behind the creation of Coney Island because he wanted a method to lure Christine – now a singer famous across Europe – back to him. The grand opening of Coney Island is, somehow, the excuse he needs to invite her to perform.
Christine accepts the invitation and arrives to America with her son Gustave and her husband Raoul in tow. In the 10 years or so between the plays, Raoul has gone from being a passionate and doting lover to a mean drunk who has accrued a large gambling debt that forces Christine to take singing jobs she does not want to take, such as the opening performance at Coney Island. The Phantom has been aided and supported by Meg and Madame Giry, who immigrated to America after the events of Phantom and saved up money to bring the Phantom into the country. In spite of 10 years, give or take, of providing for the Phantom, Meg still cannot get the musical genius to notice her singing and dancing skills. She was working to be the star of the opening night show, but the arrival of Christine bumps her from the spotlight.
It is worth noting at this point that Christine and Raoul do not know that the invitation to perform came from the Phantom; they do not know who the owner of the theme park is, just that he offered to pay enough to wipe away Raoul’s gambling debts. Raoul learns of the Phantom’s involvement when he encounters Madame Giry in a bar at the same time as the Phantom reveals himself to Christine in her room. The Phantom recounts with Christine the affair they had 10-ish years ago on the night before her wedding to Raoul, and she reveals that, had the Phantom stayed after that one night, she would have left Raoul at the altar for him.
At this point, Gustave interrupts the reminiscing, and the Phantom promises to show him all around Coney Island. The boy eventually ends up in the Phantom’s secret lair, where he avails himself of the assembled musical equipment and shows how skilled he is with music. Far too skilled to only have one musically gifted parent. Shock and surprise, spoiler alert, Gustave is not Raoul’s son, but the Phantom’s. After that highly anticlimactic reveal that was telegraphed from the start of the show, the Phantom launches into a song better suited for Rock of Ages than a show about early 20th century opera singers. After rocking out with daddy dearest, Gustave freaks out upon seeing the Phantom’s real face, just like Christine did in the original. Christine confirms that the Phantom is Gustave’s father, and promises never to tell that to her son.
Raoul, meanwhile, is still off drinking and gambling and generally making terrible life choices. Including his choice to make a bet with the Phantom that Christine will not sing at the opening. If she chooses not to and to leave with Raoul, then the Phantom will pay off all of Raoul’s gambling debts. If she does sing, then Raoul must leave, alone, and may never see his wife and her son again. Betting on one’s wife in a play goes about as well as it has since Taming of the Shrew, and Raoul slinks off, defeated, as Christine begins to sing the titular song.
Then, because there wasn’t enough (read: any) action to speak of in the play, the final scene crams a play’s worth of plot into 10 minutes. It turns out that Meg got the money to support the Phantom through prostitution, an unnecessary twist that had zero warning. The fact that the Phantom still chooses Christine over her causes her to descend rapidly into madness, and she kidnaps and threatens to kill Gustave. The Phantom tries to give her an inspiring speech about how she can be so much more than what she is, and he decides that telling her she just isn’t as good as Christine is the right negotiation tactic. This works about as well as one might expect, and Meg releases Gustave so that she can shoot Christine instead. Christine dies after breaking her promise and telling Gustave that the mean, drunk man who raised him for his whole life was not his father, but the creepy, mangled man who kidnapped mommy once and killed a few dozen people actually is his father. The end.
This being a musical, there happen to be a number of songs to tell this insipid story. Or rather, that is normally the point of the songs in a musical, to tell and advance the story. In this show, however, the songs have the effect of breaking up the story more than carrying it. Part of this is due to the fact that the songs do not have a unifying structure to them. In Phantom, the song styles were more uniform. They were grand, nearly operatic songs that felt like they belonged in the scenes and the time period. The songs in Love Never Dies are disjointed, scattered haphazardly, and do not fit the tone, tenor or time of the show. This can pull the audience out of the reality that the show is trying to build, not that the audience would really want to stay in that reality anyway.
There are only two good songs, and they’re not actually good for the intended reason of “beautiful music and memorable lyrics.” The first is the song “Dear Old Friend,” sung when Raoul encounters Madame Giry and Christine encounters Meg Giry. This song is good because it’s funny to hear the passive-aggressive undertones to the words being said. They are all realizing that their lives are ruined by the presence of these other people who used to be their friends, and they greet each other kindly outwardly, while still letting each other know that their being in that place only means the worst for everyone. The second good song is “The Beauty Underneath,” the rock song that caps the first act. This song is good by how terribly placed it is. This song absolutely does not belong in this musical, and the whole show would be better for it being absent. All the same, it is the only memorable song, and it certainly livens up an otherwise dreary show.
The only thing that could possibly save this show is a good set of characters. Sadly, they’re just as big of a letdown as the rest. Raoul becomes an unlikable drunk, Christine turns out to have only been in love with the Phantom the whole time, Meg and Madame Giry get treated by the Phantom the same way that Webber treats them, as throwaway characters only serving to give the Phantom convenient access to the outside world.
The whole show seems to be written like a fanfiction intended to show how cool the Phantom is, and to give him the happy ending he deserved over that jerk Raoul. And that’s actually what this show is, fanfiction. Webber takes the characters from the original novel and makes up his own story about them, completely separate from the source material. He rewrites the story the way he wants with the hero he wants. Never mind that the Phantom was the murderous and terrifying villain in the book, and Raoul was the noble hero. The Phantom still deserved to get the girl. And win. Because that is what Webber wants.
Love Never Dies was written by Andrew Lloyd Webber and Ben Elton as a sequel to Phantom of the Opera. A filmed version of the stage play can be found on DVD, if you really feel the need to suffer.
Netflix’s latest original series, The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, began streaming this weekend, a new comedy produced by Tina Fey. Given Tina Fey’s normal comedy genius, this show is a huge disappointment. In the entire 13-episode first season, there were no laugh out loud moments that stick in the mind. The premise of the show is original, the main character – played by Ellie Kemper – is well-written, bright and strong, and some (but distinctly not all) of the supporting roles are entertaining. But, despite that, this remains a comedy that fails to bring the funny. Let’s take a closer look.
The premise of the show is a novel one that lends itself to a great story: four women are rescued from an underground bunker where they spent the last 15 years believing that they were the only survivors of the Apocalypse, saved by a doomsday preacher/cult leader. Kimmy Schmidt, the main and titular character, is one of those four women, dubbed the “Mole Women of Indiana.” She was the youngest of the group, kidnapped by the cult leader when she was only in the eighth grade. While the other three women choose to go back to their lives and homes in Indiana, Kimmy decides that she does not want to go back to Indiana, where she’ll only be seen as one of the Mole Women, but wants to make a new start for herself somewhere that she won’t be known. She moves to New York City, unaware of any of the major technological, linguistic, historical and cultural events of the last 15 years, and so must learn how to make her way in a world she doesn’t comprehend, with a childlike naïveté regarding everything about 2015 and without even a middle school education.
Kimmy is a great character, optimistic hard-working, with a great amount of inner (and outer) strength. She was able to resist the brainwashing of the cult leader, she refuses to leave New York even after a slew of bad luck ends with her losing her job and $13,000 dollars in the same day, and she even manages to rally those around her into bettering themselves, to varying degrees of success. Kimmy inspires her GED study group to band together to pass the class, holds together the Mole Women both in and out of the bomb shelter they had lived in, and helps her wealthy boss Jacqueline Voorhees (Jane Krakowski) cope with a divorce that leaves her with only a paltry twelve million dollars. Kimmy is a well-developed character, and the plots surrounding her are what make the show watchable. The storylines around the other characters, however, are of a far lower quality.
When Kimmy first arrives in New York, she answers an ad in a newspaper regarding a place to live. The landlord – played by Carol Kane – placed the ad so that she could find a roommate for her favorite tenant; she doesn’t want to evict him, but he won’t pay rent, so she insists that he get a paying roommate. The landlord is a kook who gets some personal development, but doesn’t receive much time in the overall plot. Her character mostly seems to be wrapped up in the single word “kook.” Her tenant is an unfortunate walking stereotype named Titus Andromedon. Many of the jokes in the show are either originated by him or revolve around him in some way, which explains why the funny is missing. He is a poorly written and poorly developed character whose absence could only improve the show. His only redeeming quality is his singing voice which, while beautiful, is implemented into episodes with terrible timing.
The parts of Kimmy’s life that aren’t flashbacks or spent at home or with members of her study group revolve around her job, nanny for Mrs. Voorhees’ two spoiled rich kids. Or rather, that’s supposed to be her job, but she becomes more of a caretaker for Jacqueline herself. Kimmy helps Jacqueline gather up the courage to begin divorcing her husband after Jacqueline discovers he’s been cheating on her. Jane Krakowski may be in danger of getting typecast for the “rich, narcissistic woman” role, since she plays almost the same character that she played on 30 Rock, though her backstory in this show is quite different. It is shown, via flashbacks, that blonde-haired, blue-eyed Jacqueline is actually Native American, but decided that she wanted to be a part of white culture, where she could marry rich and live the high life. The ridiculousness was probably meant to be funny, but the show again missed its mark.
The show had a number of big names as guest stars, including John Hamm, Nick Kroll and even Tina Fey herself. However, their characters were lackluster and uninspired. The show quickly gets to a point where any scene without Kimmy is to be dreaded, and even the scenes that she’s in she sometimes can’t save for the poor execution and writing of the other characters.
There is little that can redeem a comedy that has no laugh factor. The story premise is original, and the main character is a powerful positive force in the show’s favor, enough so that she makes the show nearly worth watching. But a dismal cast of supporting characters who tell boring and easily-forgotten jokes brings the show crashing down. The show had two seasons ordered by Netflix from the start, so there will be more episodes in the future. Hopefully they can make improvements in the next season.
The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt is a Netflix original series. It is produced by Tina Fey and stars Ellie Kemper, Tituss Burgess, Carol Kane and Jane Krakowski.
While many people are talking about the recently aired Simpsons episode penned by Judd Apatow, let’s take a moment to look back at the midseason premier episode. In 26 seasons of any show, there are bound to be a few episodes that drop the ball, but “The Man Who Came To Be Dinner” was one of the worst in a long time. For a show that has always been an industry leader in terms of storytelling (there’s a whole South Park episode dedicated to things that The Simpsons did first), airing an episode like this one that substitutes disjointed jokes that are past their prime in place of a character driven plot is disappointing at best. Spoilers, such as they are, for the episode follow.
The Simpsons has followed a fairly regular pattern in recent years. The first few minutes are joke heavy, leading into a setup for the “meat” of the episode. The plot heavy middle has fewer jokes that are laugh-out-loud funny, but they are wittier and more likely to make viewers think for a second. The end generally goes for either heartwarming or a solid ending joke. “The Man Who Came To Be Dinner” tried hard to follow this pattern, but it forgot the funny start, it forgot to stick the ending, and there is less“meat” in the middle than there is in a Krusty Burger.
The reason that most of the jokes didn’t measure up is that they seemed both dated and recycled. It almost seemed like the episode wanted to be a clip show, given how many references there were to older episodes. The beginning segment featured a family vacation to “Diznee Land,” a parody park that first appeared in season two. The kids were doing an “Are we there yet?” routine that was funnier in the first few seasons than in the 26th. When they finally get to the park, what follows is a series of jokes that have been made about Disneyland since 1955. The lines are too long. The prices are too high. Bag checks are tedious. It’s too hot. Everything is merchandized and given a kitschy name. The most unique joke came in the mockery of the “It’s A Small World” ride, where the song threatens Bart’s life if he tried to leave the ride. That was the only joke that elicited a laugh in the entire episode.
The middle of the episode begins when the Simpson family finds a new ride that no one else is on titled “Rocket to Your Doom.” The ride is a trap set by Kang and Kodos, who are making a rare appearance outside the Treehouse of Horror episodes (which Homer notes, saying, “But this isn’t Halloween!”) As the family hurtles towards Rigel Seven, two more famous jokes from past episodes get rehashed. Homer opens a bag of chips in zero-gravity, which leads him to try floating around to catch them, like he did during his time as an astronaut. However, Bart and Maggie continually beat him to the chips, a callback to the episode where Santa’s Little Helper has puppies that like to eat Homer’s chips before he can enjoy them. It actually gets obnoxious how many times Homer’s famous catchphrase of “d’oh” is used in this 30 second joke.
Once they arrive on Rigel Seven, and after a series of ill-conceived and ill-executed bodily function jokes (Rigelians give birth, then seconds later, those birthed give birth, and so on, but there seems to be an ending point after four continuous births? Their river is made from the drool of the dead, but the dead are dumped in halfway down the river?), the Simpsons are put on display in a zoo. A Rigelian with a doctorate in humanology comes to make sure they are comfortable, mistaking many aspects of human culture and biology. When Lilo and Stitch scoops you on a joke, don’t use that joke.
The humanologist tells them that one of them is going to be ceremonially eaten, and Homer is, unsurprisingly, chosen. Homer is on stage to be eaten when a teleport tube materializes around him (and gets stuck, in a gag that has been used on the show more times than can be counted). He is rescued by rebel Rigelians, peace-loving hippies who just want to learn about earth’s achievements and party. They offer him a way back home, but Homer won’t leave his family on the (literal) chopping block. He returns to the ceremony just in time to join his family in being eaten, but a section of his ass poisons the Rigelian queen when she eats it. The family is released (after Kang tells them that everyone should forget this happened), and spends the end segment mimicking the original Star Trek.
Having Kang remove this episode from canon may have been intended to excuse the disjointed nature, an attempt to say that this was just meant to be whimsical, not a serious episode. But most of the episodes aren’t serious, and almost never does anything carry from one episode to the next (except character deaths outside of the Treehouse of Horror episodes). Expanding the background of the Rigelians, particularly Kang and Kodos, could be a great story. In each of the 25 Treehouse of Horror episodes, the viewers have gotten to learn a little more about our favorite aliens. Spreading the stories out, focusing on them once each season, has worked. That’s more time and focus than most of the hundreds of Simpsons characters get in a season. This episode was not necessary, not engaging, and not funny; yet, it still pulled in the highest ratings of the night. The ability to win ratings should not leave writers complacent and willing to put a half-assed episode into circulation.
I am not holding this episode up as an example of declining quality in the show as a whole. One bad episode does not denote a pattern. However, this episode was just that: bad. Lazy writing and old and boring jokes combined to make an episode that should not have aired. “The Man Who Came To Be Dinner” leaves a bad taste in the mouths of viewers, who hope the rest of the season will wash away this bitter pill.
The Simpsons was created by Matt Groening, stars Dan Castellaneta, Julie Kavner, Nancy Cartwright, Yeardley Smith, Hank Azaria and Harry Shearer and airs Sunday nights at 8/7c on Fox.