LOVE NEVER DIES Special Interview: Glenn Slater
Today we are talking to one of the busiest lyricists in show business, Glenn Slater, all about today's movie theater showing of his collaboration with Andrew Lloyd Webber, LOVE NEVER DIES - a continuation of the world's most successful show, THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA - and the spectacular Simon Phillips-directed Australian production of it filmed for the ages and presented in hundreds of movie theaters across the country, with an encore cinema showing on March 7 prior to its DVD/Blu-ray release in the Spring. Besides discussing all aspects of the writing of the show and its West End debut, Slater also elaborates on the rewriting of the show and how this new production and unprecedented in-theater presentation is the ultimate realization of Lloyd Webber's dream vision for the musical drama - something the Lord shared with me himself when he recently did this column. In the complete InDepth InterView coming soon, in addition to all about LOVE NEVER DIES, Slater and I also trace his career trajectory to date, with a focus on his recent collaborations with composer Alan Menken on the smash hit Disney animated film, TANGLED, along with the currently-running Broadway hit, SISTER ACT, and, the upcoming Spring opening of their new musical, LEAP OF FAITH, starring Broadway royalty Raul Esparza, as well as their previous theatre venture with THE LITTLE MERMAID, which will be revived in a totally reconceived new version in Holland later this Spring. Plus, Slater shines some light on his upcoming projects, which include a Dreamworks animated musical with Menken, a new novel-based stage musical, as well as a stage collaboration with his wife, Wendy Leigh Wilf, titled BEATSVILLE - all of that and much, much more!
You can purchase tickets to the cinema screenings of LOVE NEVER DIES in Fathom-equipped theaters across the US on February 28 and March 7 here.
Also, be sure to stay tuned to BroadwayWorld for my chats with LOVE NEVER DIES stars Ben Lewis and Anna O'Byrne coming next week just in time for the encore film showing!
Once Upon Another Time
PC: You are responsible for two of my absolute favorite scores of the century so far. Not only do I adore SISTER ACT, but I find LOVE NEVER DIES to be one of the best scores of the new millennium - it may be Andrew Lloyd Webber's best ever. Were you thrilled from the first song he played for you on?
GS: When he first called me and said, "Would you consider doing this?" my first response was skepticism.
PC: Expectedly so.
GS: I think that was everyone's first response. A sequel to THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA set in Coney Island?
PC: Seemingly absurd.
GS: I mean, first of all, how do you write a sequel to the biggest show of all time?
PC: You can't.
GS: I mean, you are begging to fail - nothing is ever going to measure up to that.
PC: It can't.
GS: And, then, second, the idea of taking this iconic, gothic character and putting him into the sunshine and pastel and parasols of Coney Island just seemed such a stretch.
PC: To say the least. It's a big leap - and big leap of faith, pardon the pun. How did your writing process with Lord Andrew work?
GS: Well, he sent me an outline of where he wanted to go with the story and we met in London to talk about it. He was very open - I had a lot of criticism of the outline and he was very open to what I had to say. He was also very open to take the story in new and different directions. Then, Andrew said, "I'd love for you to hear some of the demos I've made."
PC: What did you think of them?
GS: Let me tell you: most composers when they do a demo - like if Alan Menken does a demo, he basically sits at his keyboard and, you know, plunks it out and maybe adds drum and bass to give it a little bit more sound. Andrew's demo, on the other hand, was a 90-piece orchestra recorded at Abbey Road!
PC: No way!
GS: It was an hour and a half of the most incredibly lush orchestral music I have ever heard. [Laughs.]
PC: So, the music is somewhat orchestrated before it even has lyrics, then. Were you blown away by the demos?
GS: Oh, yeah. Mid-way through the very first number - which is what became "The Coney Island Waltz" - I said, "I have to do this. I can't not work with this music, it's just too incredible." Every song on that demo - every piece of music on that demo - were those same brilliant melodies, unbelievable harmonies, rich orchestrations and rich world that he created. I said, "I don't care how skeptical the world may be about this project, I have to be a part of it." And, I have to say, it was one of the great experiences in my career.
PC: Andrew Lloyd Webber is the most successful composer alive, after all - he can write like few others.
GS: He is unlike anybody else. There is a huge musical intelligence and a huge dramatic intelligence behind everything he does. He can be very demanding and he can be very single-minded in his pursuit of what he thinks the right answer is, but always behind it is a tremendous sense of what is going to work on the stage.
PC: A true musical dramatist, inside and out.
GS: I have to say, one of the great privileges for me of watching this film that they have made of the Australian production is getting to see the vision he expressed to me in that very first meeting finally come to fruition.
PC: The demo through the West End production to now.
GS: The amount of work that Jack O'Brien and Jerry Mitchell added to the project by shaping it as a whole is immeasurable. They did fantastic work working with the actors and shaping the story and the characters in London. What I think happened, though, is that, unlike most shows that get an out of town tryout before they are exposed to the eyes of the world, we knew from the beginning that we would never have that grace period without the entire universe watching.
PC: Not with an Andrew Lloyd Webber show in the internet age - never.
GS: I think that just the natural process that a show needs to go through - where you need to get some audience feedback to see where you have made missteps and where you need to tighten things up and cut things out and rethink plot devices - we didn't have the time to do that amount of work. Jack O'Brien is particularly fantastic in previews and he does a lot of his work when a show is up on its legs and we only got two weeks of previews in London, so he didn't get the time to do the type of surgery that he wanted to do.
PC: Were you involved with the first set of rewrites in the West End version of the show?
GS: Yes. What happened was that we opened, and, then, there were a lot of changes that went right into the show after we opened.
PC: Such as the newly added elements from the original score?
GS: Well, "Twisted Every Way" was in the whole time, but there were some pieces from the original score that came in significantly later.
PC: What changed first?
GS: Mainly, what we changed at first was just tightening and cutting. By the first week of performances, what was onstage was already quite different than what was on the cast album, which was recorded months before we even went into rehearsal.
PC: As concept albums often are.
GS: Right. About four months after we opened, we made another big pass and made a number of fairly more significant changes. At that point, Andrew knew that we were going to be taking the show to Australia, and, I believe, already had begun talking to Simon Phillips about taking over for the Australian production. This was right before we opened LEAP OF FAITH in Los Angeles.
PC: Bad timing for you, to say the least.
GS: For sure. Andrew came to me and said, "There is a big plot change I would like to make, which is, basically: I would like to have Christine come to New York to sing at the opera and be kidnapped by the Phantom," with the idea being that this would keep the Phantom in that sort of psychopathic, unpredictable mode that he was in in the first show. I agreed that it was absolutely a change we needed to make. So, he said he wanted to do that in Scene 3, so I said, "There's a lot of changes that will need to come after that and I am about to go into production on another show that is going to need my full attention."
PC: What a dilemma for you to be in.
GS: So, I said, "You can have me in two months, but I have to do LEAP OF FAITH right now." So, Andrew said, "I can't wait for two months - I need to move ahead. Are you OK with me going forward with another lyricist?" And, then, he mentioned Charles Hart, who, of course, did almost all of the brilliant work on the first PHANTOM.
PC: Of course.
GS: So, I said, "You have my blessing - go ahead and make any changes you need to make." So, the changes to the lyrics in Australia are basically the changes that needed to be made to accommodate that big plot change. I'd say that it's probably 10% to 15% of the lyrics overall, but because the plot and characters changed fairly dramatically, it seems like a sharp shift.
PC: The concept album versus the finished film are quite different, indeed - yet, you were involved with 35% of the half new show as represented in the final film version.
GS: You know, often you just need some new blood to come in and look at the piece from a distance and see where it needs to go.
PC: Too bad my favorite line of yours had to go - "Tomorrow night / I'll sing with all my might."
GS: It had to go.
PC: What was the first song you wrote for the score?
GS: The first song we wrote was "Till I Hear You Sing".
PC: What was the development of "The Beauty Underneath"? Was it always planned to have a progressive rock/heavy metal sound and style?
GS: Yeah - Andrew always had a vision for that song. The idea behind it is that we are going down to the depths of Coney Island into the Phantom's lair where he keeps all the things that he imagined he could never show the world. Andrew always had a sort of nightmare vision of what it would be. From the very beginning, he was thinking in terms of a fairly heavy rock sound. It ended up, I think, even wilder than his initial sketches for it were going to turn out to be, but, ultimately, the wilder it gets the better it works.
PC: It's the most hard rock we've heard from him maybe ever. What did you think of the novel upon which the show was first based, THE PHANTOM OF MANHATTAN by Frederick Forsyth?
GS: I actually didn't even read it. The way that the process worked, as I said, he had already written a substantial amount of music - about an hour and half - and a 40-page synopsis. The score and the synopsis were tied together and he had written the music based on what he thought each scene should be. So, my job was two-fold: the first part of my job was to basically take the synopsis and graft it onto the music, which was fairly difficult.
PC: As I would imagine.
GS: I mean, you end up with things like, "Tomorrow night / I'll sing with all my might," because you have two lines of music in which to do, you know, two paragraphs' worth of work. [Laughs.]
PC: That makes sense.
GS: You don't worry so much about "Is this a great rhyme or not?" so much as, "Am I getting the story point across that needs to happen here because I don't have another opportunity to do it?"
PC: Function dictates all.
GS: Yeah. Then, the other part of my job was to help shape the story and give it some more dramatic impact. The synopsis that Ben Elton had done was very detailed, but it felt very static. He did a lot of work in describing and delineating the characters and situations, but it didn't feel like it had a lot of dramatic force going forward. For example, there was no scene in which Raoul and the Phantom crossed paths.
PC: Really? "Why Does She Love Me?" and their confrontation at the bar is one of the best moments in the show now.
GS: A lot of my job was looking for places where, you know, "Where can we have more dramatic conflict? Where can we add to the tension of the piece?" Things like "Dear Old Friends", where the four of them come together for the first time and sort of dance around each other with this thinly-veiled hostility - that was something I specifically added to the script.
PC: Was it also a sly homage to "Notes" in the original PHANTOM?
GS: That was certainly in the back of my mind as I was working on it - a successor to that. I think that Charles Hart and Richard Stilgoe did a fantastic job of capturing the sort of literary quality of the original PHANTOM OF THE OPERA novel in the first show. I don't think I even came close in approaching that - but, in terms of having a quartet and having that sense of the drama circulating around the core characters; definitely.
PC: "Beneath A Moonless Sky" and "Once Upon Another Time" act as the musical climax of the show - almost ten minutes of uninterrupted song, as Lord Andrew and I were discussing - yet that moment comes halfway through the first act. Tell me about the positioning of that moment and its creation.
GS: Well, in order for the audience to get on board for the whole story you have to believe the event that is described in that song. You have to believe that that actually happened. Coming out of the first show, it is hard to imagine that happening. The way that those two characters interact with each other and the way they part at the end; it is very hard to get from there to where this story picks up. So, I knew all along that that particular moment was going to have an enormous amount of work to do for both the characters and for the audience. We squeeze a ton of backstory into that.
PC: You can say that again.
GS: The trick was to get all that backstory in, but, also, to get the audience buy it and feel it - to feel it the way the characters felt. Going forward from that piece, we wanted you to have any doubt in your mind what happened, what they felt and why the stakes are so high. [Pause.] To put it in the frankest terms, I guess: you have to come out of that song having felt the sex.
PC: It's ecstatic in the ecstasy sense of the term, for sure. When Sierra Boggess did this column we discussed that moment and how it is the perfect compliment to "Music Of The Night" - she has done both PHANTOM and LOVE NEVER DIES, of course. Plus, her Broadway debut was your show, THE LITTLE MERMAID.
GS: She is really an extraordinary performer. I don't think people even have a sense of how much she can do and how fantastic she is.
PC: She even sings the word "Never" flawlessly in the title song - not an easy word to sing the way she does it. Though, the film's Christine, Anna, sings it flawlessly, as well.
GS: Oh, I know! Just that entire last chorus when Sierra goes into the stratosphere - I never had any sense that she could do that, so hearing that come out of her mouth is astonishing.
PC: Watching the film version of LOVE NEVER DIES, it is striking to see how different Ben Lewis and Anna O'Byrne are in their portrayals, yet they are ideal for the new version of the show in much the same way Ramin and Sierra were for the first iteration. Separate, but equal - and equally effective.
GS: Yeah, you know, there is a warmth to Sierra that I just love - particularly in the scenes with Gustave, the boy. You can see the depths of maternal emotion on her face. Anna captures a sense of period and of elegance and the opera diva quality so well. She has that sort of high-strung quality that divas have, where you have to be attuned to the pitch of perfection when you perform - she captures that quality in a fantastic way. So, with Anna, you get that tension between the private person and the public person, which is a color that we hadn't seen so much in the first version in London and which I think is a wonderful quality she brings to the role.
PC: Ben and Anna's Phantom and Christine seem to have accepted their doomed fate in some way - maybe subconsciously. There is a pervasive foreboding sadness rippling below the surface - they can never be together.
GS: Exactly. Ramin [Karimloo] brought a larger-than-life passion to it, whereas Ben brings a broken quality - a more psychopathic edge - to the Phantom in a way that opens up the piece to so many more dimensions that are even new to me. It's really a gift to have had two leading couples who are so alike in so many ways, and, yet, find so many new colors over the course of a show's process to explore.
PC: To have both PHANTOM 25, and, now, LOVE NEVER DIES in movie theaters and on DVD/Blu-ray within just a few months of one another is a thrill of a theatre lover's lifetime - it's unprecedented! The original and the sequel both recorded for all-time? The ultimate PHANTOM experience.
GS: Yeah, it really is so thrilling.
PC: Do you think this type of an HD filming and cinema broadcast that Fathom is the forerunner in presenting is the best way for many stage ventures to go in the future?
GS: Well, you know, I think that sort of like how concept albums were sort of the wave of the future 30 years ago, it's the new version of that thing for our technological age. It's easy now to go in and do this. It doesn't take the place of a live performance, but it introduces audiences to a piece in a way that, I think, fuels the desire to see it live onstage, too. I mean, when you look at that LOVE NEVER DIES film now, part of you is definitely saying, "Oh, my God! Can you imagine seeing what this is like in person?" It's so amazing on film that you can't even imagine they are doing it live!
PC: And film allows a level of precision and detail impossible to achieve onstage, as well.
GS: Absolutely. Knock wood, but this film is a sort of leader into a New York production.
PC: The scene changes and certain underscore moments were removed as way to give the film a flow - if you want the whole experience of the show proper, you can see the show.
GS: Well, yeah - I mean, the concept albums from 30 years ago didn't include cross-over music, did they?
GS: You want to give the story in its purist form in a film, not in its theatrically utilitarian form. When you are sitting in a theater, you don't notice all of those utilitarian things that make a show work onstage for you because they are a part of the experience. In a film, you would notice them and they would take you out of the experience and stick out - stage-hands moving scenes and such. So, I think it is the best way to capture the experience as you are meant to experience it and actually experience it as opposed to the experience as it actually unfolds.
PC: The film moves so quickly - it feels like one continuous experience, even though the show onstage is in two acts.
GS: Yeah. I agree. And, another thing: I think that this will change people's expectations of the piece. One of the things that hurt us in London was that people wanted a second PHANTOM OF THE OPERA.
PC: Which, as we discussed earlier, would be impossible to do.
GS: First of all, who would want to do that artistically - just copy an earlier success? That's lazy and pretty boring. It was never our intention to do another big, gothic thriller - our intention to do something else. I think audiences weren't prepared for what this is, which is more an opera than it is a musical in many ways - the pace of it is a little bit slower than a typical musical, but the music is much more important than even in a typical musical. It's a brooding piece. It's an autumnal piece. It's about roads not taken and mistakes made and things not being able to be recaptured. The first one is, you know, about the romance of the minute. So, I think audiences getting a chance to have a clearer sense of what it is beforehand and getting it with the stage pictures is really important - you miss all that when you are just listening to the cast album.
PC: The staging of "Love Never Dies" in this version is the foremost example of that - or, at least one of many in this gorgeously-rendered production. The peacock motif, especially.
GS: Mmmhmm. Yes. Exactly.
PC: John Barrowman was involved with LOVE NEVER DIES at one point in the original recording of the concept album and I was curious what his participation was in the process?
GS: He came in for a very brief period of time and worked with us a little bit playing the role of Raoul.
PC: Raoul is the trickiest role in the show, for sure - was finding the balance difficult to strike for his character?
GS: Getting the balance right where he might have made a wrong turn in life, yet not making him a complete villain was definitely a hard balance to find. Part of what we were trying to do with the role was to do a turnaround - you get to see beneath the Phantom's mask and yet you also get to see beneath Raoul's mask that he puts on for other people. Raoul is not as beautiful and as perfect as you would have thought he would end up being from the first one. Everybody wears a mask of some kind in this piece and what is underneath is not necessarily what they are ever showing.
PC: Madame Giry and Meg are dramatically rich characters for the talented actresses in this film to explore, as well - what knockouts the Act One Finale and "Bathing Beauty" both are, plus their duet on "Only For Him".
GS: Yes. Yes. They are. It's really just a wonderful document and I hope as many people get to see it as possible. I think that this is something some people may have been wormed away from but if they go and see it with an open mind they are going to be shocked at how entertained they are.
PC: PHANTOM 25 was such a big hit - as was Sondheim's COMPANY - that the audience is certainly there for in-theater broadcasts such as Fathom is offering with this.
GS: Definitely. Definitely.
PC: GLEE and SMASH are doing a lot in bringing a musical theatre sensibility to the masses in a whole new way, as well. We're in a very exciting age, to say the least.
GS: Yeah, I mean, by the time I got to New York and started writing theatre music, what was on Broadway, it was pretty much the same composers who were writing shows in the 60s - then, in 1996, with RENT, it became sort of acceptable to bring rock sounds back into the theatre again. Since then, there has been a huge influx of young blood and it is really revolutionizing what musical theatre sounds like. That stigma that seems attached to show tunes isn't so much what the sound of musical theatre is anymore. The sound of musical theatre now is the sound of NEXT TO NORMAL and AVENUE Q and WICKED and what you hear on GLEE - that's what people think of it as being now. So, it's not even a matter of "This isn't cool music," - that doesn't even actually apply anymore! I think the more people who are exposed to it, the more people get it.
PC: LOVE NEVER DIES is everything an Andrew Lloyd Webber fan could ask for - and, as far as tone and complexity goes, I think it's his most adult and mature score. It's his FOLLIES. It's everything we love about his music and so much more.
GS: It's really not like anything that has been on Broadway in quite a while. Just the sheer size of it and lushness of it all is so counter to what the trends have been the past couple of years that I think audiences are hungry for it. I really do hope that it gets its chance here because I feel it fulfills a hunger that people don't even know they have.
PC: "The Hunger I Never Knew I Had" sounds like a possible LOVE NEVER DIES cut song - or new song?
GS: [Big Laugh.]
PC: The Blu-ray is also just superb - between the movie theater showings and the Blu-ray, LOVE NEVER DIES has arrived.
GS: I loved the screening I saw of it and I am so thrilled it is out there for everyone to see now. It's very exciting.
PC: I can't thank you enough for this today, Glenn. I can't wait for what you do next.
GS: This was fantastic, Pat. Good talking to you. Bye bye.