I didn’t have high expectations for Love Never Dies, but I still managed to be grossly disappointed. I will admit to being a passionate fan of The Phantom of the Opera when I was a child, and I still find the story of the mysterious masked man who lurks beneath the Paris Opera House to be intriguing. But in the more than ten years that have passed since I last saw The Phantom of the Opera, my response to the roles women play in Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical has changed from the rapt audience member to that of a skeptical – and disgusted – feminist.
Granted, the 1986 musical The Phantom of the Opera is not exactly a treatise of feminist thought. Both the Phantom and Raoul view and treat Christine Daaé like a possession and she obeys both of them like a “good girl” rather than a woman acting of her own will.
The object of the Phantom’s obsession, Christine is a classic ingénue – beautiful, innocent, and wholesome, and after her first encounter with the Phantom, she begins a transformation and awakening into a “darker” woman. Whether this awakening is sexual or not is left to the actors’ and audiences’ interpretation, as is whether Christine is kidnapped by the Phantom or if she willingly goes with him. I personally viewed the ending as Christine actually wishing to stay with the Phantom but leaving because he ordered her to, despite the fact that she knew he had murdered several people and threatened to kill Raoul, her fiancé. This was disturbing on numerous levels, but when she kissed him, I saw it as a kiss goodbye, not a kiss of pity.
As a teenager, I never interpreted the Phantom as an actual kidnapper, nor as Christine’s feelings for him as Stockholm Syndrome. I thought she recognized him as an outcast and felt sorry for his suffering. She saw the pain he experienced, and the anger he had built up due to his isolation and she wanted to show him kindness. But remembering the original musical while watching the sequel, I began to recognize some of the disturbing elements of the story – and watched them play out in an even more blatant and misognystic way in Love Never Dies.
Love Never Dies opens ten years after The Phantom of the Opera concludes, with the Phantom still obsessed with losing Christine. He now lives on Coney Island, running a sideshow of performers called Phantasma and plotting a way to lure Christine back to him. It’s very convenient that Christine will be arriving in New York soon, under the invitation of Oscar Hammerstein to perform at the opening of a new Opera house. The family is in need of money, due to Raoul’s gambling debts. (Note that it is Christine who is earning money, paying for her husband’s addiction – just like a good wife should.) But immediately after arriving in New York, the Phantom visits Christine, who thought he had died. The two rekindle the feeling they supposedly had for each other, and Christine is again forced to choose between Raoul and the Phantom, and to tell them the truth about her son – who is actually the Phantom’s son, not Raoul’s.
The question that hovers in the air while watching Love Never Dies is whether Christine ever actually loved the Phantom, or if she merely feels Stockholm syndrome for a man who held her captive. This then begs the question of whether the act of sex was consensual or if the Phantom raped Christine. The song “Beneath the Moonless Sky” reveals the passion they apparently experienced together, but for most of the song, Christine remains seated, away from the Phantom, looking afraid and ashamed of herself. It is unclear if she is afraid of the Phantom because he assaulted her (and, again, killed several people in an attempt to “earn” her love), or if she is afraid of the feelings she experienced during sex, buying into the Victorian idea that women should not actually enjoy sex, because they are more pure than men. She states on the song, which recounts a night they spent together, “And I loved you, yes, I loved you/I’d have followed you anywhere you lead/I woke to swear my love, and found you gone instead,” and the Phantom says he had to leave her alone, but now he has returned for her.
The possession of Christine by the Phantom is something she acknowledges and even articulates. In their first encounter, she asks, “How dare you come to claim me now?” to which he responds in a cajoling voice, “My Christine…” and she says, “I was yours once.” Christine in Love Never Dies is presented as a woman to be possessed; her curly hair and porcelain complexion resemble that of a doll and the character is written as a soft, feminine weak woman. Upon seeing the Phantom for the first time in ten years, she promptly faints, only to be revived by the man who inspired fear and shock in her. She is almost always clothed in white; the two times she wears color are when she first arrives in New York and when she is singing the song the Phantom wrote for her in an attempt to lure her back to him.
The Phantom’s attraction to Christine is questionable; does he love her merely because she sees him as a man, not a monster? Does he only think he loves her because she inspires any kind of feeling at all within him? During their “love” duet, she sings to him, “I looked into your heart and saw you pure and whole.” Is that the only reason he loves her? He views her not as a woman or even a person, but instead as a life force. When begging her to sing the song he composed, he pleads, “Give me breath, give me life.”
The Phantom hopes through his music, he can again possess Christine, like he did with “The Music of the Night” in The Phantom of the Opera. His music apparently has a hypnotic effect on her, as demonstrated when she sings the title song in the second act. Raoul watches her from one side of the stage, while the Phantom watches from the other, and Christine presumably is going to choose the Phantom, but Raoul makes the decision for her, abandoning her and leaving a goodbye note. The Phantom’s music apparently takes hold of Christine, either possessing her or bringing out her truest self – again, that is left to interpretation.
Despite my numerous issues with the character of Christine in Love Never Dies, I was even more disgusted by the sexism of the story. After arriving in New York with her husband and son, Christine, for an inexplicable reason, trusts Gustav with the Phantom, who quickly realized the boy must be his son. (After all, he is a brunette and loves music, so he must be, right?) Christine’s presence at Phantasma threatens the leading lady status of Meg, her former best friend at the Paris Opera, who suffers a rapid nervous breakdown and almost kills Gustav. Meg, threatened by the competition Christine presents, spirals into hysteria, an illness once considered to be strictly feminine, and results in the accidental death of another woman. Meg accidentally shoots Christine, who dies in the Phantom’s arms, singing of her love for him.
This ending was not only disappointing and anticlimactic; it was misognyistic. Christine spent the entire plot of Love Never Dies, and presumably the ten years before it, suffering in a loveless marriage, paying the price for having sex with the Phantom. One night with the man she supposedly loved resulted in her forced into a marriage to save face socially and explain her pregnancy. Christine spends the rest of her life suffering the repercussions for having sex and pays with her life for being loved, further objectifying her and stripping her of her humanity and only serving as the vessel for men’s feelings and desires. The purity myth, which feminists have worked for years to shift in society, states women should not seek or enjoy sex but merely endure it for the pleasure of men and the reproduction of their family. If Christine was the victim of the Phantom’s abduction, she paid with her life for his crime. And if she did love him, she paid with her life for enjoying the pleasures of sex and passion. Ether way, Webber’s musical presents a disappointingly dated and dangerous depiction of a woman.
While singing to her son about the mysteries of love, Christine urges her son to “look with your heart” and with his eyes shut, informing him, “Love is not always beautiful.” Neither, I regret to say, is this musical.