Andrew Lloyd Webber
Andrew Lloyd Webber was good once. I’m serious. Of course he was good only very early in his career and only for a short time and only with a certain lyricist by his side, but he was, in fact, good. It brings me no pleasure to remind you of this; I would be perfectly content to judge him on the last 30 years alone, in which everything he’s done has been very bad. Most recently, he did Bad Cinderella, perhaps the cringiest production ever staged on Broadway (at one point the titular protagonist, shunned by her town for wearing ugly clothes, is told by her stepsisters that her Shein-punk style makes her look like a “pick-me girl” and is “giving peasant”). Prior to that was School of Rock, a painful desecration of a perfect movie; Sunset Boulevard, a painful desecration of a perfect movie; and Love Never Dies, an awful sequel to his own slightly less awful show. Andrew Lloyd Webber makes me understand why people hate musical theater—he makes me hate musical theater, and I love musical theater.
But saying you “love musical theater” is pretty meaningless—form is just a vehicle for content. Not all musicals are created equal. Webber knows this better than most. He’s often judged in the shadow of Stephen Sondheim, his superior contemporary (who, by the way, wrote music and lyrics). I have trouble talking about Webber without talking about Sondheim. Webber is 18 years Sondheim’s junior to the day, March 22 (also, incidentally, my birthday), so they are somewhat celestially bound, embodying a kind of dualism: yin and yang, darkness and light, what musical theater is and what it could be.
As wunderkinder (they made their respective Broadway debuts at 23 and 27) Webber and Sondheim worshiped opposite halves of musical theater’s most formative duo: from his hero Rodgers, Webber imbibed feeling, and under his mentor/surrogate-father Hammerstein, Sondheim mastered form. But once each had a few shows under his belt, it became clear their differences ran deeper than style. Webber, unlike Sondheim, simply had nothing to say. Which would preclude him, in some circles, from qualifying as what we might call “an artist.”
Webber would probably agree. He’s never even feigned having something to say. Some anecdotal evidence. When Webber finished composing the score for Cats, he asked Hal Prince to come have a listen. Prince, who by then had directed four Sondheim shows, obliged. When it was through, Prince turned to Webber and said, “Andrew, is this something I don’t get?” Was it really a clever retelling of Victorian politics, perhaps, with various cats standing in for Queen Victoria, Disraeli, Gladstone? Had it gone over his head? Webber took an excruciating pause. “Hal,” he replied. “It’s about cats.”
Prince was not wrong to assume that the show should have some substance to it; he was fresh off directing Webber’s masterpiece, Evita, which premiered in 1978. Evita tells the story of Argentine first lady Eva Perón whose husband, president and big Mussolini fan Juan Perón, ruled with an iron fist from 1946 to 1955. The musical’s two leads—Eva, the sexy parvenu, and Che, the sexy proletarian—do indeed have things to say. Not particularly profound or original things, but things nonetheless. Granted, what they say has much more to do with lyricist Tim Rice, who wrote the lyrics for all of Webber’s good shows. But the score itself is a work of true depth, sophistication, originality—yes, even artistry.
Webber, when he was good, had impressive multi-genre mastery, as conversant in the musical language of operetta as that of prog rock. He was astonishingly versatile, with an undeniable ear for melody. He pulled equally from rock, pop, and classical influences; the score for Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat (which he composed, by the way, at 19) borrows at various points from Elvis, calypso, Oklahoma, and French chansons.
Evita and Joseph, which premiered in 1968, are both the products of good Webber. Between them—right on the heels of Joseph in fact—was the other good Webber show, 1971’s Jesus Christ Superstar. Superstar, like Evita, began as a rock opera concept album. All three are what’s called “sung-through,” meaning they contain no spoken dialogue. This, to my younger and more vulnerable ears, was mind-blowing.
I grew up on Webber. Sondheim is my true love—a true genius, a true artist— but Webber was my first love; he was my introduction to musical theater as a form. I knew every word of The Phantom of the Opera by the time I was in first grade, every word of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat by sixth grade, and every word of Evita by sophomore year. (Exhibit A: I once held a high school boyfriend hostage to perform it for him as a one-woman show.) Knowing what he is—was—capable of has made watching his creative decay and commercial success all the more painful.
“Commercial success” doesn’t even capture it. Webber is unconscionably rich, with a current net worth over $1.2 billion. (Sondheim’s, for comparison, was around $70 million.) He owns one of the world’s largest private collections of Pre-Raphaelite paintings, worth more than $100 million. (Sondheim, for reference, decorated his Upper East Side apartment with his treasured collection of antique games and puzzles.) He’s always had a nose for business; early in his career he figured out something called “Grand Rights,” meaning the ongoing financial control of theater productions. You can read all about this and other examples of his business acumen in his 2018 tell-all Unmasked, in which he absolutely spills about various petty dramas as well as his affair with Phantom star Sarah Brightman, with whom, he writes “I loved the sex.”
Early in Unmasked is an anecdote about the ballad “Some Enchanted Evening,” from Rodgers and Hammerstein’s South Pacific, which Webber once (incorrectly) called “the greatest song ever written for a musical.” One day, his father put the song on for young Webber and told him “If you ever write a tune half as good as this, I shall be very, very proud of you.” And he did, with such plodding ballads as “Memory” from Cats and “All I Ask of You” from Phantom, made all the more plodding with lyrics written by people other than Tim Rice.
The song had an outsize significance for Sondheim, too. In Sondheim’s short-lived Merrily We Roll Along, two young theater composers meet with an agent and play him a draft of their newest song. The agent is unimpressed: “There’s not a tune you can hum/There’s not a tune you go bum-bum-bum-di-dum,” he says. “I’ll let you know when Stravinsky has a hit/Give me some melody!” He implores the duo to “throw ‘em a crumb.” Then he hums a few bars of “a tune you can hum,” one that indeed throws the audience “a crumb”: it’s “One Enchanted Evening.” The artist and the businessman.
Even when he was good, Webber was never interested in challenging his audiences. That’s perfectly fine. But in those early good years, though he sometimes doled out some crumbs, mostly he wrote just music that was compelling enough to sustain our attention, because he didn’t expect that attention, he earned it. Now our attention is a given; now he shoves his melodies—triple-tier cakes, stale and smothered in globs of icing—down our throats. And he’s perfectly happy to let us eat cake.
Art by Calli Ryan