THEATRE

The multimillion-dollar music man

PAMELA YOUNG June 8 1987
THEATRE

The multimillion-dollar music man

PAMELA YOUNG June 8 1987

The multimillion-dollar music man

THEATRE

In Sydney, Australia, Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Cats, the British composer’s musical adaptation of T.S. Eliot’s light verse, is running. In London The Phantom of the Opera, his latest West End hit, is playing. And on Broadway his new version of Starlight Express, the most expensive production ever mounted there, is already one of the Great White Way’s top-grossing shows, despite poisonous reviews when it opened in March. At 39, Lloyd Webber does not please all of the critics all of the time, but he certainly delights the crowds.

His works appear to be everywhere. Last week six densely packed moving vans left Toronto’s Elgin Theatre, where during its two-year run the Canadian production of Cats grossed a recordbreaking $40 million at the box office. Stage hands unpacked the trucks 36 hours later at Calgary’s Jubilee Auditorium—the first stop on an eight-month tour that includes Vancouver and Montreal. Despite tickets priced as high as $45, 83 per cent of the available tickets for Cats have already sold.

Long before Cats, Lloyd Webber spearheaded the revival of the musical theatre. As a boy wonder of 22, he cowrote the provocative rock opera Jesus Chris Superstar with lyricist Tim Rice; currently, he is a powerful player in the international musical theatre establishment. As many as three Lloyd Webber musicals have played at one time on Broadway and in London’s West End. Said Michael Ratcliffe, theatre critic for the London Observer. “His popularity is quite extraordinary. There’s been nothing like it in England since Gilbert and Sullivan.”

The intense, exacting composer is also a virtuoso businessman: his company, the Really Useful Group, holds the copyright for all of his music written since 1978; through a subsidiary,

the firm coproduces works by Lloyd Webber and other playwrights and composers. In 1986 the Group began offering public shares on the London Stock Exchange, and its value is now estimated at more than $67 million.

Despite his reputation as a temperamental workaholic —the cast and crew of Phantom nicknamed him the Tantrum of the Opera—

Lloyd Webber seemed relaxed during an interview in his New York hotel suite earlier this year. Rehearsals for the American production of Starlight Express were behind schedule, and there were problems with the show’s elaborate, computer-controlled set. Still, Lloyd Webber-wearing a pair of heavy maroon shoes, one with a flapping sole—was in good spirits. Phantom’s sound track had just become the first cast album to go platinum (300,000 copies) in the United Kingdom within 10 days of its release, and the show was the first musical to have three hit singles on the British Top 10. Said Lloyd Webber

of Phantom’s appeal: “Musicals are actually the music of today. If you had said that when I started writing, you would have been laughed out of town.” Born in London in 1948, Lloyd Webber has always been surrounded by music. His mother, Jean Johnstone, taught piano and musical theory to children; his father, William, was director' of the London College of Music. As a child, Andrew played piano, violin and French horn and published his first composition, The Toy Suite, in 1959. In 1965, shortly before he entered Oxford to study history, he met Tim Rice, 21, an aspiring lyricist. Lloyd Webber dropped out of Oxford after only one term to collaborate with him full time.

For three years they tried to market their pop songs. Then, in 1968 their luck changed: a London boys’ school hired them to write a short work that became Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, an upbeat cantata based on the biblical story of Joseph and his coat of many colors. The next year Lloyd Webber and Rice set to work on a full-length rock opera that would win them international fame: Jesus Christ Superstar.

Their rock treatment of the life of Christ played better than it read. By the time it opened in New York in 1971 and in London the following year, Lloyd Webber and Rice had already released a Superstar sound-track album that earned wide airplay. The musical ran for more than six years in London.

But a follow-up effort, Jeeves, which Lloyd Webber co-wrote with playwright Alan Ayckbourn, was a commercial failure. A musical based on the works of British humorist P.G. Wodehouse, it closed after one month in London’s West End. Teamed with Rice again, Lloyd Webber recovered his stride on Evita (1976), a portrait of Eva Perón featuring the mighty anthem Don't Cry For Me, Argentina. Despite its success, creative differences forced Lloyd Webber and Rice to part company.

When the composer announced that his next musical would be based on T.S. Eliot’s whimsical children’s poems, Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats, many observers expected that without Rice the result would be another Jeeves. Cats, Lloyd Webber recalls, had other supposed liabilities: “no plot, human beings dressed as cats and demanding choreography.” And its director, the Royal Shakespeare Company’s Trevor Nunn, had never done a musical. Lloyd Webber even had to mortgage his house to complete the production’s financing. But the musical has now been running for six years in London and five on Broadway—where it won seven Tony Awards—and shows no sign of closing in either city.

Starlight Express, Lloyd Webber’s next production, surpassed even Cats in extravagance. In the current Broadway production, performers on roller skates portray railway cars and engines racing for the title of the fastest train in America. The critics damned it— The New York Times' Frank Rich called Starlight “a confusing jamboree of piercing noise, misogyny and Orwellian special effects.” But the public climbed aboard.

Some of the composer’s own colleagues have also attacked his work. In a recent CBC Radio profile, British lyricist Kit Harvey acknowledged Lloyd Webber’s role in reviving the British musical. But Harvey called his musicals as formulaic as a McDonald’s hamburger: “It’s got one slab of meat surrounded by a little bit of dressing, and then great wads of junk—brilliantly marketed.”

The composer brushes aside the invective as the complaints of shortsighted purists. Some American critics, he says, “believe that because of Broadway traditions, musicals should

go in one direction only. These people have no understanding of The Beatles or Elvis Presley.”

Lloyd Webber balances his own appreciation for Presley with a love of Puccini, and his classical side comes to the fore in the requiem mass he wrote in 1984 and dedicated to his father, who had died in 1982. Requiem, which incorporates pop elements in a predominantly classical score, received its New York première in 1985 with Placido Domingo and Lloyd Webber’s wife, Sarah Brightman, singing solo roles. Even the critics saw merit: The New Yorker described it as “a ‘felt’ work and an honest one.”

For his part, Lloyd Webber says that Requiem primed him for Phantom, his most classically influenced musical to date. The gothic story focuses on a deformed demonic genius and an opera singer who falls under his spell. The lush romanticism of Phantom's score falls somewhere between the high drama of 19th-century opera and 1950s Broadway love songs.

Lloyd Webber, who lists South Pacific melodist Richard Rodgers as his favorite popular composer, says Phantom grew out of his need to write “a huge I-\ove-you-Some-Enchanted-Evening aria.” But Charles Hart, the 26year-old London composer who wrote Phantom's lyrics, has said that “some of the stuff that crept in was too sentimental for my taste.”

Lloyd Webber’s sweetness can be cloying—but it is also his strength. When Cats finished its run in Toronto, Timothy French, the dance captain for

the touring Cats show, analysed its triumph in terms of its charm. He says his favorite performances are the matinees, when “the parents who bring their children become children themselves.”

Lloyd Webber has more projects under way, including a musical about complex love affairs and a reunion with Rice to stage a 20th-anniversary sequel to Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. And a revival of Jeeves is now playing in London, where it has won better reviews the second time around. Even that dwindling band of Britons who have never attended a Lloyd Webber musical have been hearing a lot of his most recent work lately: the theme song for Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s election campaign. From ballot box to box office, Lloyd Webber is calling the tune.

PAMELA YOUNG

in New York