It is easy to knock Andrew Lloyd Webber. With his disconcerting, frog-like face. his unfashionably-cut hair. his pushy public manner and his phenomenal success. he constantly receives an extraordinarily bad press in Britain.
There have been few composers post- 1950 who have combined Lloyd Webber‘s business acumen and amazing ability to dash off wildly popular show tunes like ‘Don‘t Cry For Me Argentina‘ from Evita or ‘Memories‘ from (‘ats which opens at the Edinburgh Playhouse for a limited run from 16 November.
Anyone who doubts his genius need only look at recent West End casualties like Winnie. Budgie. Sugar Babies and last year‘s £3.2 million ﬂop Ziegfeld. Lloyd Webber‘s gift is his ability to pander to safe. ifbland. middle-class tastes. Who else could be equally at home with lyrics by TS. Eliot and Richard Stilgoe'.’
Television sealed the fate of old-time musicals like Oklahoma and South Pacific. A harsher social climate and changing mores fostered realism and dealt a fatal blow. Suddenly it seemed as though audiences just could not accept the notion ofcharacters bursting into song in mid-sentence. To modern eyes old musicals can look corny and clapped-out. Even the film version ofthe ground-breaking West Side Story has a surreal quality with the gang members leaping balletically down New York mean streets. While critics decry the old musicals as being too hearty. too unreal. their blend of kitsch fantasy and grinning normalcy is equally difficult to stomach. The overblown and unconvincing Showboat has an ugly racism just under the surface and in the all-singing. all-dancing Seven Brides for Seven Brothers the song ‘Sobbin‘ Woman‘ (sobbin‘ fit to be tied) is a deliberate take-offofthe rape ofthe Sabine women — an uncomfortable joke about women saying no when they mean yes.
When Lloyd Webber wrote Joseph and theAmazing Technicolor Dreamcoat in 1968. with Tim Rice. his hope was nothing less than to bring the stage musical back from the dead. He and Rice went on to create Jesus Christ Superstar in 1970 (cruelly nicknamed The Greatest Story Ever Told). The pop opera was born. Hitching his wagon to vague talk of religious revival (this was the time ofthe Festival of Light) and adding a soupcon of hippie psychedelia. Lloyd Webber dispensed with dialogue. He became a master ofthe cloying. tear-jerking ballad and of songs that could propel the plot and shade-in characterisation.
Superstar was a mammoth hit but Jeeves in 1975 with lyrics by Alan Ayckbourn is best forgotten. The 1976 album Evita sealed Lloyd Webber‘s ‘hit machine‘ reputation. Ofall his triumphs. which include Starlight Express. Phantom ofthe Opera (advance Broadway box office sale amounted to a hefty $16 million) and this year‘s Aspects of Love, Cats has been the biggest.
GThe List 10— 23 November 1989
Andrew Lloyd Webber continues to take the stick along with the cash. As Cats looks set to be a sell-out. Kennedy Wilson argues that his success lies with the creation of a new genre as much as with the music it has spawned. Plus, some comments from the gods.
grossing more than £500 million worldwide with an annual profit of £1.7 million in London alone.
Cats has been running in the West End for more than eight years. It is said to be the most profitable ofall the composer‘s ventures. being referred to as ‘the pension fund‘ by his entourage.
No one can doubt Lloyd Webber‘s popular appeal. but he has been criticised for everything from lacking variety and naked plagiarism (notably his Requiem Mass of 1985) to gross gimmicks (Phantom relies on elaborate computerised special effects). ‘Who wants a show where you come out whistling the scenery'?‘ asked one critic. ‘Time is unlikely to
be generous to Lloyd Webber‘s oeuvre.‘ wrote another.
Despite the brickbats. Andrew Lloyd Webber has reinvented the musical. Cats is a world away from Kiss Me Kate. And while ‘the provinces‘ must wait interminably for the most successful London shows. the West End has been inundated with revivals. re-writes and new musical shows from Anything Goes to Metropolis.
The simple truth is that showstoppers and chorus lines still bring out the chocolate box-clutching theatre crowd. Just as 3D and Cinemascope tempted audiences into movie houses in the Fifties. so today‘s stage musicals
need some breathtaking novelty— the ‘rain‘ sequence in Tommy Steele‘s Singin ' in the Rain. the roller skates in Starlight Express or the automatic pilot chandelier in Phantom.
The mega-musicals have tried to offer something that neither TV nor film can — live entertainment with a spectacular twist. nostalgia with a touch of operatic class. But Lloyd Webber‘s mutations have set the parameters ofthe musical for too long. After Lloyd Webber‘s low-key Aspects ofLove. critics are asking if the maestro‘s luck can hold. The current big London hit is set during the Vietnam war and perhaps points the way forward for the musical. Miss Saigon boasts a new unadorned realism that dispenses with whizzing rollerskates. fluffy cat costumes and computerised chandeliers.
(fats is on at the Playhouse. Edinburgh. 16 Nov—2 Feb. which means app roximately 300, 000 Scots will see the show.