As Andrew Lloyd Webber celebrates his 70th birthday, Michael Coveney looks back at the work and legacy of a composer whose work changed musical theatre
What happened with musical theatre in the 1970s was a step change of monumental significance thanks to Andrew Lloyd Webber. When Jesus Christ Superstar opened at the Palace Theatre in 1972, the casual and all-pervasive phenomena of pop and rock had at last been well and truly hijacked.
Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat may have already made its mark – and was beginning to grow into the most popular children’s musical since Benjamin Britten’s Noye’s Fludde – but Superstar was something else.
This was a musical theatre shake-up akin to throwing a range of styles into the Large Hadron Collider – the particle accelerator – at Cern. Musical comedy, old-style revue, the Broadway musical, Deep Purple and Russian avant-garde all went into the mix, tumbling out as a new, techno-savvy agglomeration of classical and contemporary.
There had already been Hair, a hippie protest musical rescued from banality by the melodic genius of Galt MacDermot’s score, and The Who’s Tommy had as yet unrevealed theatrical possibilities. But Superstar was the moment of confluence for rock music in the theatre and the popular consciousness. Since then, alas, musicals and popular music have diverged, indeed almost accelerated apart, for more than 40 years.
It is interesting, and a bit spooky, to note that Lloyd Webber shares his birthday with the much older Stephen Sondheim, the two of them frequently polarising critical opinion. And yet they are both undeniably spawned by old Broadway.
Sondheim takes his artistic experimentation into areas of creativity that are far less obviously appealing to popular demand than his work on West Side Story, Gypsy, Company, Sweeney Todd and Into the Woods.
Lloyd Webber, on the other hand, burrows back into operatic tropes and triads with special application to children – Joseph, Whistle Down the Wind, Love Never Dies and School of Rock – that smacks more of now, and reflects his concern about what Hector in Alan Bennett’s The History Boys calls “passing it on”. There’s a great scene in Love Never Dies that hinges on the Phantom’s anxiety about his musical succession in the shape of the young boy who has arrived unexpectedly on Coney Island.
This is why Lloyd Webber responds so fulsomely and openly to the success of Hamilton. He recognises in Lin-Manuel Miranda a fellow spirit, one who has harnessed the contemporary language of rap and hip-hop to the greater cause of musical theatre; in fact, the extraordinary thing about Hamilton, and especially in the London version at the Victoria Palace, is that it starts as an onstage rap concert and ends up as a traditional romantic Broadway show, with possibly a little too much Miss Saigon for its own good.
Miranda is Lloyd Webber’s genuinely talented, innovative successor and nothing like the pallid Sondheim imitators who have ghettoised and clogged up musical theatre these last 20 years, with minimal public recognition, let alone acclamation.
Miranda – who is as steeped in the history of musical theatre, and as familiar with it, as Lloyd Webber – must have noted his predecessor’s incursions into hip hop, rap, street music, body-popping and transgender definition in Starlight Express.
That electrified eclectic score – with studiously literate Rice-like pop lyrics by Richard Stilgoe – turned a whole generation of pre-pubescent, pre-clubbing youngsters on to musical theatre. That interest quickly evaporated with family-friendly The Lion King and the not at all wicked Wicked, with a renewed stirring, perhaps, in Matilda the Musical.
Outside of Les Miserables, Lloyd Webber and Hamilton, the musical is now fudged into an outpost of the Disney empire with slight diversions into Kinky Boots, the fragile best of Stiles and Drewe and Everybody’s Talking About Jamie (are they, really?) where nothing earth-shatteringly new takes place.
And then when really different and innovative musicals come along – such as Groundhog Day, or Girl from the North Country – they fail to land with the critics or the public, at least to the extent they should.
It’s as though the trust between audiences and musical theatre has been broken. It will be interesting to see how Caroline, Or Change, by Tony Kushner and Jeanine Tesori, fares as it returns to London; that was one of several new musicals championed by Nicholas Hytner and now Rufus Norris at the National Theatre, and, along with London Road, the most accomplished. Other musicals such as The Light Princess and Wonder.land have been admirable, enjoyable, but inherently flawed by attempting too much and achieving too little.
When Rice and Lloyd Webber set out, they embraced the new rock music ethos of the day, the singers, the technical innovations and practices of the big record company studios, and their own enthusiasms for Elvis, the Everly Brothers and the Beatles.
Rice came from their world, though he found common ground with the composer in an enthusiasm for PG Wodehouse (though the By Jeeves musical only really found its shape with the Alan Ayckbourn rewrites). Lloyd Webber, whose idols were Rodgers and Hammerstein, was the catalyst for theatrical upheaval, but not, tragically, for long enough.
Maintaining the theatrical energy unleashed with Rice has been the problem, not because of his music, but because of his libretti, or books. Aspects of Love, Whistle Down the Wind, or even the more problematic The Beautiful Game, are all ripe for reassessment, but shows such as The Woman in White (which didn’t really take off in the recent small-scale revival at the Charing Cross Theatre) and Love Never Dies – the Phantom sequel that contains some of his best music – remain crippled by book and structure.
A performance of Joseph and his Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat at St Paul’s Cathedral: “Unfortunately when Sir Christopher [Wren] designed his iconic dome he did not have a rock drummer in mind. The St Paul’s Cathedral echo is a good 20 seconds long. And there’s more than one of them… There were a lot of heads buried in the words in the programme.”
The London opening of Jesus Christ Superstar: “All went swimmingly until the crucifixion scene. Jesus plus the cross were supposed to rise through the floor, centre downstage. The problem on opening night was they didn’t. The electric lift had broken. Anthony Bowles made frantic signals to the Moog synthesizer player, who covered the gap with such agonising atonal improvisation that Tim [Rice] and I wondered whether we should run down the aisle and bring the nightmare to a halt.”
The bomb scare during Act II of Cats’ London opening:
“[At the stage door] we beheld the bizarre sight of our dazed cast in their body stockings and full cat make-up rudely jolted out of the maximum adrenaline of their first-night performance… The bomb warning was a hoax and it wasn’t long before the cast was allowed back inside. But a wet blanket had smothered our opening big time.”
Starlight Express’ critical response: “Amazingly, Starlight’s reviews were better than Cats’… Some theatre critics found it way too much. I’m not surprised. AC/DC sung by Jeff Daniels was transgender electro-pop more than 30 years ago. The opening of Act II really was a full-blown storytelling rap.”
Phantom’s mask unveiling: “[At] a mask workshop in the Thames-side village of Pangbourne [the designers] unveiled the famous Phantom half-mask. It was a major breakthrough. It made sense of our premise that only half the phantom’s face was deformed while the other was beautiful. Now our Phantom was no monster; with that mask in place he was a handsome hunk.”
Taken from Unmasked: A Memoir, published by Harper Collins
This also causes a fluctuation in the quality of some of Lloyd Webber’s greatest assets: his special ability not only for orchestral writing (with his trusty colleague David Cullen) but also for the links, and under-scoring, that sustain his musical and dramatic architecture.
At the interval on the first night of Stephen Ward, I was convinced that the first act was, musically, as strong as anything the composer had done for years. And the underscoring was superb.
The show just fell apart in the second act, losing the sort of drive and momentum Lloyd Webber had achieved with Tim Rice and, to a lesser extent, with Don Black and Christopher Hampton on Sunset Boulevard.
The concept albums of Superstar and Evita, brilliantly staged, respectively, by Jim Sharman and Hal Prince, were possessed of an innate drive and theatricality that Lloyd Webber has never fully recovered, except of course in the work that is his most personal and heartfelt: The Phantom of the Opera.
This highlights the key factor in Lloyd Webber’s legacy. Superstar and Evita, Cats and Starlight Express, are two pairs of related oratorios and vaudevilles, while Phantom stands absolutely alone (although you could make a case for pairing it with Sunset). This body of early and middle period work will not be matched or surpassed by anyone any time soon – except, possibly, Lin-Manuel Miranda. Here’s hoping.