Return of the phantom

Top man: Kiwi Simon Phillips is running the show, <i>Love Never Dies</i>, starring Ben Lewis and Anna O'Byrne, below.
Top man: Kiwi Simon Phillips is running the show, <i>Love Never Dies</i>, starring Ben Lewis and Anna O'Byrne, below.

The sequel to the 'Phantom of the Opera' has the spook running a New York amusement park. Kim Knight talks to the Kiwi director of the Melbourne show.

SIMON PHILLIPS would like a carrot and ginger juice.

I know this, because there is no fancy hold music at the Australian end of this interview and I can hear his whispered instructions as he dashes from the rehearsal room to the telephone.

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Just how budget is this production? It's a facetious question. Because Phillips is the man in charge of the Down Under premiere of Love Never Dies – the blockbuster sequel to Andrew Lloyd Webber's phenomenally successful Phantom of the Opera.

It opened in London last year to mixed reviews. The Guardian said the sequel lacked narrative tension. The Telegraph called it the composer's finest show since the original. Facebookers started a "love should die" campaign (which they're threatening to bring to Australia) and a bored theatre blogger reworked the title: "paint never dries".

"It's a given that just the idea of doing a sequel will not appeal to some people," says Phillips. But the Auckland-born director is also hopeful his majorly revised version, opening in Melbourne in just under a fortnight, will win new fans.

"It is so fantastic, this unprecedented scenario of Australia being allowed to do its own version of the show... to start from scratch."

In the UK, the set relied heavily on projected video imagery. In Melbourne, where the design is based on a faded, paint-chipped version of the famous Coney Island theme park in New York, they've built a roller coaster and put it centre stage.

"From the beginning, I knew I wanted the idea of a roller coaster to dominate the design. Our production is physically very different and feels more boisterous maybe."

Coney Island, says Phillips, "is a gift of an environment" – and may also feel vaguely familiar to Melbourne audiences, because it was the inspiration for the city's own Luna Park.

"It's very lush, but it's got that lovely thing of being both decaying and uneasy. The paint is cracking. In certain lights, it feels full of glamour and in another light, it feels a more sinister place."

He says designer Gabriela Tylesova is "an absolute genius, with a fantastic sense of the grotesque... She never draws a straight line, everything feels kind of vertiginous".

Melbourne reporters at The Saturday Age got a sneak preview of the set last week. Tylesova pointed out the headgear. "We've got these hats made out of birds' skulls and feathers that look beautiful from a distance. Then you look closer and you see the decay." The freak show, she said, included "a fat lady, a tattooed cyclops, little people, disfigured people and a floating foetus". The verdict: darker, edgier and sexier than the London version.

Phillips and Tylesova reportedly packed a year's worth of planning into two months, to get the look and feel of the show right, working in New York, where Phillips was based, directing the stage version of Priscilla Queen of the Desert.

He had just resigned from the artistic director's job at Melbourne Theatre Company when he got the call to work on Love Never Dies. "I said, `that sounds fascinating'... "

He had already seen the show in its London previews.

"I thought `there are some problems, but I probably won't be able to articulate that to Andrew because he's the maestro'."

He met Lloyd-Webber, who it turned out was open to suggestions. Entire scenes have been cut for the Australian production. "It was a very inspiring meeting, because it was clear he really wanted a new production, he wanted to look at the piece again."

Phantom of the Opera has, reportedly, been seen by more than 100 million people since it opened in 1986, earning around $US5 billion at the box office. The central conceit of the sequel is that the Phantom is alive and well and running an American amusement park – oh, and he may also be the father of Christine's child.

"The central plot idea is that the Phantom and Christine have slept together," says Phillips. "If people don't buy that, then they're never going to come onboard with the show, they're never going to respond to it."

Phillips, a 1980 graduate of Toi Whakaari NZ Drama School, says he's never had a clear career path.

"I've never known what my career was going to do. I didn't leave Melbourne Theatre Company to do this, it was a lucky chance in a way."

His contract with the MTC allowed him six weeks off a year to work on projects of his choice – Priscilla (wildly successful and currently playing both Broadway and the West End) was one of those projects.

"That was something I wanted, because you can just disappear into those companies never to be seen again and then when you do leave everyone's forgotten about you, because you've just been submerged in paperwork... I like working in other fields, I like doing opera and things like that.

"I can do very small, intense drama as well, but I can work on a show this big. It's in my repertoire."

And, he says, he's very happy to swap Priscilla's "shake your groove thing" for a Lloyd-Webber score.

"Hell yeah, it's good to get those songs out of your head and get something new in! This is closer to opera than a toe-tapping musical. Although there is one of those inbuilt caveats – because the story ends tragically, you don't leave the theatre bouyed."

Has Phillips given away the ending? "I think the tone was established in Phantom of the Opera... "

Love Never Dies, Regent Theatre Melbourne, May 21-August 7, Tickets from $A65-$A135. www.loveneverdies.com.au

Sunday Star Times