Theater October 2018
The phantom of the obvious
On England’s most over-the-top composer and his new memoir, Unmasked.
Andrew Lloyd Webber was thirteen when it happened, on Christmas Day of 1961 in London: his mother turned on the car radio. Out of a single, underperforming car speaker came Puccini’s Tosca. It was five minutes into the performance. “I had never heard such theatrical, gloriously melodic music,” he recalls in his new memoir, Unmasked.1 When it was time to go inside and open presents, young Andrew begged to be allowed to stay in the car. There he was sitting, alone, in rivers of tears, when the policeman came. “The thirteen-year-old seemed extremely indignant, even aggressive at being asked to turn the music off and explain himself,” Lloyd Webber writes. A life acquired a telos. Lloyd Webber has spent it trying to achieve Puccini levels of emotional impact, preferably while being annoying, especially to those figures of authority in the critical brotherhood who seem to him to brandish their pens like nightsticks.
That Lloyd Webber succeeded beyond measure can hardly be disputed by the time one has closed the back cover of Unmasked, a lushly self-justifying five-hundred-plus-page brick that improbably floats like a bubble. Twenty years after his teen epiphany, Lloyd Webber was reading the Mosco Carner biography of Puccini and musing about what makes one piece an indelible work of art and what dooms another to being forgotten. He had in mind a musical about dueling versions of La Bohème. Puccini’s Bohème, adapted from Henri Murger’s 1851 novel Scenes de la vie de bohème, hit the stage in 1896. The following year it was widely deemed inferior to a successor by Ruggero Leoncavallo, fresh off the triumph of Pagliacci (1892), whose own version was also entitled La Bohème. Lloyd Webber has great fun, here and elsewhere, sharing the views of my forebears in artistic evaluation about the relative merits of the two works. In La Stampa, Carlo Bersezio wrote that Puccini’s version “leaves no great impression on the mind” and predicted it will “leave no great mark on the history of our opera.” Today Puccini’s Bohème is the single most popular opera in the world and Leoncavallo’s is hardly ever staged—known only to mavens within an already rarefied art form. Poor Henri Murger is forgotten as well.
What does this have to do with Lloyd Webber? After marinating in Puccini, he wrote a pastiche of one of the master’s melodies as the centerpiece of a scene in which the Italian plays a tune for his publisher and finds the offering rejected. Puccini is convinced the publisher’s taste is errant, but what can one do? A work of art must win over many gatekeepers before it becomes popular with the public. Lloyd Webber decided that the audience must agree with Puccini that the tune deserves a better fate, so he put all his love of Puccini into it, writing, he says, “with the arrogance of slightly fading youth.” It required courage to play it for his father, William, an acknowledged expert on Puccini and a formidable teacher at the Royal College of Music. The younger Lloyd Webber avers that “although my offering was obviously a Puccini tribute I needed a frank opinion on whether it was original or not.” Instead, Andrew received the following judgment: “It sounds like a million dollars, you crafty sod.” That estimate proved far too low. You know the tune, whether you wish to or not: it’s “Memory,” from Cats.
Imitating Puccini has been good to Lloyd Webber, and not only in the sense of musical composition. Puccini taught him to aspire to the emotional empyrean, to reach into people’s cores, to be extravagant. Attempting to do this will leave any artist open to charges of sentimentality or even kitsch, but consider how the perception of Puccini has changed over the years. As Lloyd Webber sees it, Puccini too was once a composer in search of hit tunes like any other. His melodies not only endured but thrived to such a degree that calling them indulgent seems beside the point. Puccini is comfortably ensconced in the pantheon of serious artists, tenancy in which will be denied Lloyd Webber for the foreseeable future. It may be, though, that one hundred years hence, any distinction between Puccini and Lloyd Webber—between opera and Phantom of the Opera—will come to seem trivial. Is Phantom undone by its hokey plot? Is La Bohème? One of these two entertainments contains some funny lines, and it isn’t the Italian one. Lloyd Webber calls Phantom “high romance”—is he wrong? In the 1980s the composer challenged a favorite conductor, Lorin Maazel, with whom he collaborated on an ambitious classical work called Requiem (1985), to explain to him what minimalism was. Maazel ventured into a disquisition on twenty-minute sustained chords and Philip Glass, then cut himself off. “Andrew, there’s no point in my explaining this. You are a maximilist.” And which name, do you suppose, will linger longer in the cultural memory—Lloyd Webber’s or Glass’s? Not that Lloyd Webber cares—he’s sold a hundred thousand theater tickets for every critical encomium Glass has ever received. But today’s merely “popular” artist sometimes becomes the next generation’s critical cynosure, while today’s visionary can turn into tomorrow’s chucklesome curiosity. Already Glass and his listener-unfriendly friends seem like faddists, dealers in instrumental radical chic. Being abusive to the ears does tend to be a fatal flaw for music.
What about being too bloody nice to the ears, though? That’s Lloyd Webber’s problem.
What about being too bloody nice to the ears, though? That’s Lloyd Webber’s problem. He’s been attracting enemies his entire life—and then some. Born in 1948, he has nevertheless been despised since 1947: his mother’s pet monkey Mimi (“given to my mother Jean by a Gibraltan tenor with a limp”) became querulous during her mistress’s pregnancy and “violently attacked my mother’s stomach with blood-curdling cries. In short, Mimi was the first person to take a dislike to Andrew Lloyd Webber.” Even good news is suspect to him: in 1976 he learns that the ballad he wrote specifically to dazzle theatergoers with his brilliance, Evita’s “Don’t Cry for Me Argentina,” has not only become a hit on the British pop charts—but a number-one hit on the disco charts. Disco? It turns out that the song had become the universal choice of club owners to play at the end of the night, when they wished for the patrons to clear out. It’s impossible not to think of the many convenience stores across America that have taken to blasting out Barry Manilow music in their parking lots to chase away youthful loiterers. And when Lloyd Webber wasn’t killing the dance floor he was busy killing Elvis. On a rare foray into pure pop songwriting, he and Tim Rice wrote specifically for the King the song “It’s Easy for You.” “Allegedly it’s the last song he recorded,” writes Lloyd Webber unsentimentally, “which if true means we wrote the song that killed him.”
Lloyd Webber’s archly understated style—he refuses to succumb to gloom even when discussing a youthful suicide attempt to get out of a weekend field trip to an army base—betrays his lifelong attachment to the oblique charms of P. G. Wodehouse. The composer feels no especial duty to go into detail when mentioning the “sadistic antics” of one of his early teachers, but does offer that when he learned of the wayward pedagogue’s death, “I wrote two tunes and had a bottle of wine for lunch.” Wodehouse’s stories have proven difficult to put across in any format other than the printed page, though, and Lloyd Webber himself failed with his 1975 offering By Jeeves, for which Alan Ayckbourn provided book and lyrics. On a visit to discuss the project at “Plum’s” Long Island home, Lloyd Webber was startled to learn that the “great man,” as he calls him, who was himself a seasoned Broadway craftsman, wished to have a crack at writing the lyrics to Lloyd Webber’s ballad “Half a Moment.” Wodehouse: “Mr. Webber [sic], I don’t think my characters can sustain an emotional song like this.” To the composer, “It was a nice way of saying what I’d written was a hopeless mismatch for his stories.” Wodehouse died two months before By Jeeves premiered in London, where it sank more quickly than Bertie Wooster’s spirits when Jeeves cast a gimlet eye at his employer’s purple socks.
Lloyd Webber would go on to experience many comparable failures—Aspects of Love, The Beautiful Game, The Woman in White. His 2011 adaptation of The Wizard of Oz, after achieving semi-success in London, never even made it to Broadway. But the impression remains that when he was young everything came far too easily to him, and that reinforces the general critical view that Lloyd Webber is simply too middlebrow, too unctuous, to be taken seriously. Posterity’s verdict may differ. It may be that when Lloyd Webber is gone the contempt and condescension linked to his immense success will fall away and he will be welcomed into the canon of popular composers, beside Jerome Kern, Frederick Loewe, and Richard Rodgers. For the moment, though, it’s a bit hard to forgive a man who notes (in a caption) that he was once responsible for the second-best-selling t-shirt on earth. (The ubiquitous Cats-logo jersey, which never quite caught up to that of the Hard Rock Cafe in the 1980s.) The La Bohème myth dies hard; a century and a half later, it remains the case that the perpetually struggling, the tormented, the tubercular, the prematurely deceased, and the marginalized inform the ideal of an immortal artist. Lloyd Webber’s life, by contrast, has been one stupendous blessing after another. At seventeen, he dropped out of Oxford because he was already succeeding on stage, where his and the lyricist Rice’s schoolboy idea Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat (1970) was beginning to attract attention. He doesn’t even grant critics the courtesy of being gay, misanthropic, or alcoholic—or, like Stephen Sondheim, all three. (Annoyingly, after sharing many amusing anecdotes involving extremely high-priced wines, Lloyd Webber became in his sixties a teetotaler.) Moreover, Lloyd Webber was a firm Thatcherite when such men still existed in London culture, and though he quit the House of Lords last year he retains the title of baron. La Vie Baron lacks resonance.
All of these biographical details work against him, but counterbalancing all of that—and then some—is his sheer ability. Jesus Christ Superstar (1971), for instance, which can be and usually is badly staged, including in its original Broadway production (“all my hopes, everything I had ever dreamed of, had collapsed in sickly tatters around me” was its then-twenty-three-year-old composer’s review the night of opening), was magnificent as broadcast on nbc on Easter last April, attracting both a large audience (9.6 million) and critical acclaim. Noel Murray of The New York Times ruled it “a conceptual and artistic triumph.” Evita (of which critics were initially skeptical) remains a musical-theater landmark and a witty, always-relevant critique of populism. It stands to be revived again and again down the decades. One envisions some future generation thrilling to a leaner, de-kitschified version of Phantom of the Opera that makes the most of its lush score and the least of its dry ice and Harlequin Romance costuming. Lloyd Webber hints that just such a reformation is underway for Starlight Express, the incandescently ridiculous 1984 kiddie choo-choo musical on roller skates. Cats? Well, that one is just irredeemable. One chuckles to think that at least its profits keep the estate of its lyricist, T. S. Eliot, well cushioned. Upon the poet’s death, Eliot’s estate was worth $295,000. With the gusher of profits from Cats, his widow, Valerie, endowed a charity, Old Possum’s Practical Trust; inaugurated the T. S. Eliot Poetry Prize; and built up one of the top private collections of fine art in Britain. It sold for more than $11 million after her death in 2012.
Cats, with its unlikely provenance, is a reminder that Lloyd Webber’s oeuvre produces a stark sense of contrast with the current direction of the musical theater. Lloyd Webber’s sometime collaborator Harold Prince, who directed Evita and Phantom, noted in his own memoir Sense of Occasion that there was a time (this was back in the 1960s) when shows with strong advance sales often flopped, whereas shows he worked on tended “not to be based on particularly familiar material and they have not been star vehicles. So—no advance, but plenty of opportunity to surprise.” Lloyd Webber spent the better part of his career pursuing that opportunity to surprise. What were the odds that he would make a success of a hippie-rock retelling of Christ’s final days from Judas’s point of view? Or the biography of a 1930s fascist’s wife? Or Eliot’s pussycat doggerel? Or a ghost-impresario? Lloyd Webber is a delightful contrarian. He wraps his music in the most outlandish ideas he can find and dares audiences not to see the power beneath the chintz. The first London preview of Phantom was particularly gratifying: even after all of his early successes, the expectation of a flop was palpable, even gleeful. Minutes before curtain, “queens” in the audience, as he calls them, were loudly mocking the show’s lead actor, Michael Crawford, for his career in sitcoms. The audience was “verging on the rowdy. There was a huge anticipatory laugh when the house lights dimmed.” Then, as the story began: total silence. A chord cluster played on a synthesizer “chilled the audience.” In those opening minutes, “the audience clocked that if it was a laugh-fest they were after they’d gone to the wrong party.” What a rare joy it must be literally to silence one’s critics.
Only once since Phantom, though, has Lloyd Webber written a show that turned a profit on Broadway—School of Rock, which is to wrap up a three-year run in January at the Winter Garden Theatre (home to Cats for eighteen years). On today’s Broadway, the “opportunity” to surprise is as welcome as the “opportunity” to run into a capsizing ocean liner full of lepers that happens to be on fire. Today School of Rock and almost every other recent “original” musical is an adaptation of a well-known movie or TV show, or simply a ransacking of the jukebox for radio favorites: last season’s lineup included Mean Girls, Pretty Woman, SpongeBob SquarePants: The Musical, Summer (the story of Donna Summer), Head Over Heels (featuring the songs of The Go-Go’s), and Escape to Margaritaville (Jimmy Buffett hits). The season’s biggest musical sensation was a concert: Springsteen on Broadway.
Yet several enduring successes—notably Come from Away, an original story about people who have nothing in common except being stranded at the same Newfoundland airport on and after September 11, 2001; The Band’s Visit, a tiny jewel of a musical based on a movie seen by nobody; and Hamilton, which will still be playing as long as there are musicals—have embraced the opportunity to surprise. Broadway costs have largely made such shows too risky to attempt. In 1964, the original Fiddler on the Roof cost $375,000 to produce ($3 million or so in today’s dollars). The recent lackluster revival of Carousel, which closed last month, cost an eye-popping $15 million to capitalize, to say nothing of its weekly operating costs. So when you cast your eye down the list of Broadway offerings and find yourself tut-tutting at the competition for its vacuity and meretriciousness, don’t blame the producers; they, after all, would like to make their money back once in a while. No, blame the unions that create a dizzying and absurdly expensive cost structure for even unexceptional productions like Carousel; employing a single musician for a single week of rehearsal costs as much as $10,000. On Broadway, the rehearsal period alone can cost as much as the entire capitalization of a similar show in the West End of London. Unions have merrily destroyed or greatly reduced many an American industry. They haven’t killed Broadway yet, but they have severely diminished the opportunity to surprise.
1 Unmasked: A Memoir, by Andrew Lloyd Webber; Harper, 528 pages, $28.99.
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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 37 Number 2, on page 37
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