At 54, Lord Andrew Lloyd Webber is the most commercially successful musical theatre composer of his generation. His songs “Memory,” “I Don’t Know How to Love Him,” “Don’t Cry for Me, Argentina” and “Music of the Night” have topped world pop charts. Cats is the longest-running musical ever to play on Broadway, a record closely followed by his Phantom of the Opera. Lloyd Webber and his collaborators are responsible for the creation of the modern Broadway blockbuster. He has won multiple Tonys and Grammys and has been knighted by Queen Elizabeth II. His name alone continues to ensure hefty box-office advances.
Yet critics have taken him to task. His shows have been fashionably ridiculed. He has been accused of plagiarism (in a suit filed by the Giacomo Puccini estate, Lloyd Webber agreed to a settlement), and his recent work failed commercially in London. Two of his newest musicals have yet to be seen on Broadway, where, in the 1980s, he once reigned.
The current five-CD anthology of songs produced by the composer and released by Decca Records—and titled (appropriately, given the sheer length of the collection) Andrew Lloyd Webber: Now and Forever—will not bridge this gap between public adoration and critical damnation. While critics find fault with the clumsiness of his lyric-setting, the sameness of his melodies and the lack of musical subtext, audiences continue to delight in the tunes. Critics scratch their heads as the audience hums along, charmed. The fact that Lloyd Webber himself compiled this collection—we are hearing what he has chosen for us to hear—raises the question: What does the composer want us to understand about his work?
Lloyd Webber was the son of a musician; his father was an organist and choirmaster in Great Britain. Religious subjects and themes enter into many of his shows, ranging from a biblical Joseph, to a martyr-like Evita Peron, to God herself, via Norma Desmond. Christian liturgical music is a strong influence—huge antiphons, chorales and solemn processionals fill his scores. Lloyd Webber approaches his musical subjects with a piety that some critics are uncomfortable (or possibly unfamiliar) with.
I remember the first time I read over the chocolate-brown cover of the LP of Jesus Christ Superstar, its op-art twin angels swirling along the borders, my body reacting to the bass line from Judas’s opening song. It got to me then; it gets to me now. The score rocks and rolls in a parody of rock-and-roll. By insisting that Judas is African American, the music makes the betrayer of Christ the most interesting and sympathetic character in the drama, while Jesus sounds square and pop-idol white. The entire score works as hard-driving, innovative theatre music. It heaves, twirls and crackles with movement. Meters switch with elasticity, harmonies clash and resolve with confidence. Created in the ’70s, Superstar tries hard to be cynical. But when Mary Magdalene purrs to Jesus that “Everything’s All Right” (a song set in a jazz meter, 5/4), the subtle sexiness and charm of the melody and rhythm won’t be denied. We sing along. The tune teeters an inch from falling into camp, but its piety and earnestness hold it back.
Jesus Christ Superstar introduced the musical vocabulary Lloyd Webber adhered to in Evita, Cats and Song and Dance, but from which he has strayed in later work. His is a unique voice: As part of the generation that created the American-Euro rock concert, he brings elements of that high-energy form to the stage. Among his basic tools are unlimited, sometimes improvised ornamentation, high tessitura, simple harmony and frequent ostinato. Electronic amplification becomes an integral, essential component of the music-making process.
Superstar also introduced the uneasiness with which words sit in Lloyd Webber’s music. Although his libretti have been written in English by several rotating collaborators (Tim Rice, most successfully), the words frequently sound alien, as if they’d been translated into some foreign language, then re-translated back. What seems a flaw in craft might actually account for the international success of Lloyd Webber musicals, which are played in virtually all countries, in virtually all languages—this is music in which the subtextual interpretation of lyrics matters less than the aural and physical dynamics of a singing performance. (European bel canto opera is an example of this type of musical theatre, as is the contemporary rock concert or, for that matter, the ecclesiastical folk mass.) Ultimately, the words don’t matter. The idea and the dynamics of stating that idea do.
Superstar is the musical theatre’s best example of the smooth metamorphosis of rock concert to musical theatre. Evita is a more complex rock concert, based on the life of a dubious saint—it is a sung-through political drama whose quick-cutting and expressionistic libretto made for dynamic theatre under Harold Prince’s brilliant direction. But there are problems with the lyrics: The songs sung by the character Che are inchoate; many passages sound furtive and frantic. The garbled politics of the lyrics seem to baffle the music. Evita’s own melodies are the easiest to embrace—they’re the sexiest—and we embrace the piously treated character: an historical antihero becomes a hero. It’s a funhouse mirroring of Stephen Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd, which is starkly irreligious in its portrayal of an antihero. Sondheim’s musical advantage owes a great deal to the collaboration with a sensitive lyricist: himself.
Nevertheless, Evita introduced a new genre of musicals that is still being imitated today: Les Miserables, Miss Saigon and even Rent are examples of this sincerest form of flattery.
Cats is a landmark, too, albeit more for its record-breaking performance on Broadway than for its musical innovation. Cats elaborates on the rock-concert-as-musical-theatre formula by giving dance music a prominent role. The score has an eerie charm, belying its source material (poems by T.S. Eliot) to evoke the Brothers Grimm. The music is without the bubble-gum sweetness of Joseph and the Technicolor Dreamcoat or the bacchanalian mischief of Superstar. The visual aspects of show (in Trevor Nunn’s dazzling Broadway production) carry the subtextual burden. It’s as though the music were the canvas, with words and choreography spat and slashed on it.
Cats has no use for critics, only an audience. Its signature song, “Memory,” is an overpowering popular classic. Its deluge of emotion (magnified by the near-Kabuki performances of Betty Buckley and a host of imitators) lands on the ear like the wake of a perfectly ported luxury liner. An audience might not be transported to the dry, sly fantasy expressed by Eliot, but they’re transported, nonetheless.
The accusations that Lloyd Webber had plagiarized Puccini (specifically, La Fanciulla) appeared with the commercial success of Phantom of the Opera. The story of Phantom takes place in an opera house, of course; much of the score is operatic parody. (Whether or not the parody proves successful enough to encourage a cheery wink at La Fanciulla rather than a smirk of recognition was at the heart of the issue for the Puccini estate.) Phantom also invited claims that Lloyd Webber had “written the same three notes, repeated over and over again,” as one critic opined when the show premiered on Broadway. But those “three notes” have charmed a vast audience: Classical superstars such as Placido Domingo and Kiri te Kanawa are heard on the fourth and fifth CDs of the new anthology, alongside pop icons Barbra Streisand, Madonna and even Elvis Presley. The marketing of Phantom is in and of itself a theatrical phenomenon; Disney’s Broadway ventures have taken lessons from its success.
The critical and legal backlash he received after Phantom would seem to have fatigued Lloyd Webber, as if the word “superstar,” mischievously used in his earliest success, had become a noose for the composer himself. The musicals that followed—Starlight Express, Aspects of Love, Sunset Boulevard and Whistle Down the Wind— could never be expected to rival the commercial appeal of his previous efforts. These shows are represented in the compilation, as is his Requiem and his current Broadway show, an early, recently revised work, By Jeeves (a tip of a bowler hat to the British musicale, in which the songs are ancillary to the play).
Lloyd Webber’s hagiographic studies continued, though in a more cynical vein, with Sunset Boulevard and Whistle Down the Wind. His Norma Desmond is a bejeweled and pancaked goddess. In Whistle Down the Wind, three children believe a criminal is Jesus Christ. Requiem was almost inevitable from a composer steeped in liturgical music. It’s fairly ridiculous to criticize music written for religious purposes, yet it should be said that Requiem comes across as an exercise in commercialized piety rather than a sincere gesture. Its marketing, even its inclusion in this anthology—sacred text treated as a Broadway show—stands in the way of its being appreciated.
It’s only with his most recent work, The Beautiful Game, that a sense of rejuvenation can be heard in Lloyd Webber’s music. Here the subject matter is political/religious: soccer players caught in the midst of modern-day Ireland’s unrest. At its center, a love story is honestly rendered. The libretto and lyrics coalesce with the music. It’s a modest and unpretentious show. No surprise, then, that it has failed to find a Broadway home; in fact, it closed earlier than expected in London (though this was explained as due to the financial blow the theatre world has suffered in the aftershock of Sept. 11). Wouldn’t it be ironic if the current Broadway musical market that Lloyd Webber helped to create and nurture—baby boomers in their youth discover Jesus Christ Superstar, in their young adulthood flock to Evita, introduce their children to Cats and, in their second or third marriages, relax to Phantom of the Opera—now had no ear for his new work?
In light of this possibility, The Beautiful Game could be a graceful gesture of maturity. Selections from the work conclude his new CD anthology. Writing the musical, Lloyd Webber attempts nothing new, but he isn’t mired in anything old, either. His personal compilation of songs makes it clear he has no concern about convincing critics of his talent. There is a vaster audience, though, for whom he believes—and he is right—that this collection will be a must-have.
Michael John LaChiusa’s compositions for the musical stage include Hello, Again, The Wild Party, Marie Christine and a new musical based on The Nutcracker, now playing in Tokyo.
Support American Theatre: a just and thriving theatre ecology begins with information for all. Please join us in this mission by making a donation to our publisher, Theatre Communications Group. When you support American Theatre magazine and TCG, you support a long legacy of quality nonprofit arts journalism. Click here to make your fully tax-deductible donation today!