By Andrea Simakis
CLEVELAND, Ohio — It was one of those make-or-break moments for Dale Rieling. The stuff of anxiety dreams you can never wake from fast enough.
It was this past October in Detroit, the day of the official opening of the U.S. tour of “Love Never Dies,” the sequel to “The Phantom of the Opera.”
Rieling was set to conduct, and he was nervous — and not because it was opening night. He’d done countless openings throughout his career, many as a music supervisor and a conductor of “Les Miserables” from 1997 to 2003 during its Broadway run. He’s also an old hand on the road, having taken the podium for numerous national tours, including “Les Miz” and Diane Paulus’ “Porgy and Bess” that visited Playhouse Square in 2014.
He’d be in Playhouse Square again with “Love Never Dies” for three weeks beginning Tuesday, a lovely bit of timing that would allow him to spend his birthday with wife Victoria Bussert, head of the music theater program at Baldwin Wallace University.
But first, he had to make it through opening night in Detroit. He’d learned the day before that a VIP would be in attendance: Andrew Lloyd Webber, arguably the world’s most successful living composer of musical theater.
The Brit’s hits have spanned four decades, from “Jesus Christ Superstar,” the rock opera Rieling bought on vinyl at age 9 or 10, to “School of Rock,” recently celebrating its second year on Broadway at the Winter Garden Theatre, where Lloyd Webber’s “Cats” opened in 1982, closing after nearly 18 years.
But it’s “Phantom,” the longest-running production on the Great White Way and one of the top-grossing Broadway musicals of all time ($1 billion and counting), that made him a legend. Queen Elizabeth II named him a lord in 1996.
May it please the lord
Lloyd Webber is known to be exacting, hands-on and mercurial, keeping even longtime associates, such as “Love Never Dies” music supervisor Kristen Blodgette, on their toes.
The Cleveland native raised in Fairview Park, who learned to love musicals going to shows with her parents in downtown Cleveland, has worked on Lloyd Webber’s productions for most of her career, starting with “Cats” as a pianist in 1984. (In a poetic dovetailing, she was music supervisor for the 2016 revival, which closed in December.) Still, she never takes their more than 30-year collaboration for granted.
“Andrew’s expectations, tastes, requirements change,” she says. “I know his musical style — he varies it and changes it — but I understand how he writes. I understand, I think, how his work should sound and how it should be conducted. But it’s ever evolving.”
Is it any surprise that he’s as enigmatic as the Phantom, retaining an air of mystery, and a touch of menace, even for those who have known him for decades?
“I believe he trusts me,” she says. But, she adds, her role is still very much a pressure cooker.
As music supervisor, Blodgette champions the wishes of the composer in all aspects of the production, working with musicians, weighing in on casting decisions and conducting the show herself or relinquishing the baton to a musical director of her choosing.
“It’s a huge decision,” she says. As weighty as a birth mother giving up her baby to an adoptive parent.
And she’d decided on Dale Rieling.
(As he takes “Love Never Dies” from city to city, she’ll be breaking in a new Phantom on Broadway and working the show when it turns 30, Jan. 26.)
“Every piece is important to Andrew, but ‘Love Never Dies’ has always seemed to hold special significance to him,” she says. Rieling’s performance would be a direct reflection on her.
“My life depends on how he conducts,” Blodgette says. “Let’s put it that way.”
An opening night to remember
Lloyd Webber had been at the Fisher Theatre earlier that week to make last-minute tweaks at a sound check and catch two preview performances Blodgette had conducted. If her boss was displeased with what he heard, she wanted his criticism to be directed at her, not Rieling.
He was, by all accounts, delighted by what he heard — then departed. Or so they thought. The Lord works in mysterious ways, and word came down he’d be coming back for opening night. But Blodgette wouldn’t be able to conduct — she had jury duty in New York that same day. The baton would fall to Rieling.
Though Lloyd Webber had blessed Rieling’s hire from afar and had been “really pleased,” says Rieling, after seeing him conduct a revamped version of “Phantom” at the Kennedy Center in 2016, it was anyone’s guess whether he’d give thumbs-up to Rieling’s interpretation of “Love Never Dies.”
Production team members had been trying to get Blodgette out of jury duty for months. After all, who wants to miss the American premiere of a new Andrew Lloyd Webber musical?
(There is talk of a Broadway production, but for now, the only way you can see it in the United States is on tour.)
“As we were rehearsing in August, the company managers were writing letters to the jury board,” Rieling says.
The city of New York remained unmoved. “They said, ‘If you get out of jury duty, we’ll lock you up,’ or something subtle like that,” says Blodgette.
Still, she had every confidence in Rieling. “I knew that he would be fabulous,” she says.
“Just go out there and do it — you do this better than I do!” she told him. “Not true,” adds Rieling, “but that’s what she said.”
He conducted the opening number. “That was good,” he thought. “Keep going.”
In New York, Blodgette assumed all was well. Had Lord Lloyd Webber felt otherwise, “I would have known before the show ended,” she says.
The composer was so pleased, he came onstage for the curtain call, sending the audience into the stratosphere.
Afterward, Rieling ran upstairs to his dressing room and sent a text to Kristen: “We both get to keep our jobs!”
For composer, it’s personal
When “Love Never Dies” opened in London in 2010, the reception hardly brought down the house, or the chandelier, for that matter, an effect in “Phantom 1” that still thrills Broadway crowds after nearly three decades.
Ten years after disappearing from the bowels of the Paris Opera House, the Phantom resurfaces in New York’s Coney Island as the mysterious impresario of “Mr. Y’s Phantasma,” an elaborate, seaside production populated by gifted freaks not unlike himself.
The Phantom lures Christine, now a renowned diva and mother to a musical prodigy, to America with promises of a big payday. She needs the money, as she is married to the profligate Raoul, who is drinking and gambling away their savings.
“Right away, either you’re gonna like the fact that it takes place in Coney Island or you’re gonna go ‘Bwah-ha-ha! It takes place in Coney Island!’ ” says Blodgette.
Most critics brought forks and knives and dined on its bright, feathered carcass, one labeling it “Paint Never Dries.”
It was a painful rebuke for Lloyd Webber, whose most famous creation has always been known as his most intimate work.
“The relationship between the Phantom and Christine — I think that it has personal resonance for him,” says Blodgette.
Sarah Brightman, the composer’s second wife, who originated the role of Christine, is widely recognized as Lloyd Webber’s muse.
The late Maria Bjornson, who designed “Phantom’s” opulent costumes and baroque interiors that helped fuel its smash worldwide success, once hinted that the couple’s relationship had similar contours to the tortured affair between the disfigured genius and his songbird, saying, “If they had been truly happy, we would never have had ‘Phantom.’ ”
Surely little interesting art would exist without some of that “Bad Romance” Lady Gaga sang about. (For the record, the exes are friendly today, Lloyd Webber calling Brightman his “Angel of Music,” the name Christine gives the Phantom, at a 25th anniversary gala in London.)
Like its dark antihero, “Love Never Dies” sought reinvention, not in the States but Australia, where it was reworked and greeted more warmly, though it has never received the passionate embrace enjoyed by its predecessor. (Variety summed it up nicely, calling “Phantom 1” “hokum cordon bleu.”)
How does Blodgette think “Phantom 2” compares? It’s akin to asking her to announce which family member she loves best.
While both shows are “equally joyous to conduct” and vocally demanding — “you have to be able to sing to do Andrew’s work. It’s really rangy,” she says — there’s no charge quite like working on a new piece of art.
“Maybe because ‘Phantom of the Opera’ is so, like, in my DNA, the newness of ‘Love Never Dies’ is thrilling.”
The thrill never dies
Finding actors who could sing opera tinged with rock and fill out a freak show was an especially fun nightmare. “We need someone who is 6-foot-4, who has an interesting look, who can move, who can dance, who can lift and who is also a bass,” she recites drily.
The score is “just stunning,” she says, reminiscent of the Lloyd Webber’s “The Woman in White,” “one of my favorite shows to conduct — ever.”
So, she adds, is ” ‘Till I Hear You Sing,” one of the Phantom’s numbers in the new show Lloyd Webber has called “probably as strong a song as I’ve ever done.” Stronger, he says than “The Music of the Night,” a “Phantom of the Opera” classic.
” ‘Til I Hear You Sing’ is probably one of the most exciting things I’ve ever conducted in my life,” says Blodgette. “The storytelling in it, the passion in it, how it starts, how it’s built, the architecture of that piece and the vocal challenge of that piece, are profound.
“I’m incredibly inspired by the way our Phantom sings it.” That’s Icelandic opera singer Gardar Thor Cortes, who starred as the Phantom in the Hamburg, Germany, production of “Love Never Dies.”
” ‘Till I Hear You Sing’ is just a killer — it’s gorgeous,” says Blodgette. “Once it gets in there, it never leaves you.”
Rieling also relates to the thrill of the new — “Love Never Dies” has the lushness of the original but is still evolving.
“To quote another show — ‘Everybody wants to be in the room where it happens,’ ” Rieling says. ” ‘Phantom’ has happened — once you have done that, it’s something that can never be taken away from you. But we didn’t all get into this business to just get a hit show and stay with it. That can often be the golden handcuffs. I’ve done that.
“It is very nice, at this point in my career, to be with a newer show that’s still unproven, that’s still in process.”
And, it’s especially nice that the show is written by Andrew Lloyd Webber.
Rieling still has that old copy “Jesus Christ Superstar.”
“I’ve worn it out,” he says.