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Richard Jordan: Nicholas Lloyd Webber is a chip off the old block

James D Reid and Nicholas Lloyd Webber during a rehearsal for The Little Prince at Theatre Calgary. Photo: Meghan McMaster
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Forty-eight years ago, a composing duo called Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice premiered a short musical called Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat at Colet Court school, London. The rest, as we know, is history.

Last week, as Andrew Lloyd Webber announced a Broadway revival of his 1981 musical Cats, across the border Canada’s Theatre Calgary hosted the world premiere of a new musical, The Little Prince, adapted from the book by Antoine de Saint-Exupery. The name of one of its two composers immediately catches your eye: Nicholas Lloyd Webber – son of Andrew.

It’s undoubtedly a surname that can open a lot of doors in the world of musical theatre, and certainly in terms of budget more has been spent on this new musical written by two relatively unknown musical writers than might be afforded to a lot of other new musicals by new composers. However, with such advantage also comes an expectation and pressure far greater than that placed on almost any other young composer.

I recently made the trip to Calgary to see the show, both interested to see a new Canadian-produced musical and to find out how this complex book could be staged, while also being naturally intrigued to hear it. I left the theatre pleasantly surprised.

Credit must go to its director, Dennis Garnhum, who helms this musical superbly with a terrific Canadian cast. With them, he creates a clever visual aesthetic, but with the necessary fantasy needed that the audience invests in this world within a world with its own reality of talking roses, comets in space, dancing foxes and a deadly snake.

Musically, Nicholas Lloyd Webber and his co-writer, James D Reid, have created a modern score with a commercial sound. But they cannot disguise the influence of other great and established modern musical writers such as Kander and Ebb, Stephen Schwartz, and, of course, Andrew Lloyd Webber, particularly through the excellent orchestrations by his regular orchestrator Simon Lee.

While there are still flaws in telling this complex story, there is enough here to mitigate them. In contrast to many new musicals, the production boasts a large cast and orchestra enabling its score to achieve both a thrilling resonance and sound, that, as with Andrew Lloyd Webber’s own early works, feels as though it should be released as a concept album. I very much hope it will be recorded.

This is also an important show for Calgary and Canada’s own musical theatre economy. Although a local production of Kinky Boots is playing successfully in Toronto, Canada’s own foray of home-premiered musicals has declined in more recent years. This contrasts to previous times, when works such as Napoleon, Jane Eyre, Ragtime and Lord of the Rings started life on the country’s stages before going on to play internationally.

Calgary and its cluster of first-class producing theatres may well be an ideal place for the onward future development of Canada’s own musical economy. Musicals are the hardest form of theatre to get right, and a city such as Calgary, or others like it, can be essential to the development of new work. They are proud cities with loyal, intelligent and interested theatregoing communities, yet set apart from international critical glare.

Staging a play in such a place also comes without the immediate pressures that other major cities with large theatre hubs can generate. Yes, the smaller city offers fewer opportunities for development but that is balanced against less competition from other artists seeking exposure.

Closer to home, whether Lloyd Webber and Reid will become the next Lloyd Webber and Rice remains to be seen. I, for one, look forward to seeing how this writing partnership develops.

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