My Love-Hate Relationship with ALW
There was a time, mostly in the early stages of my love affair with musical theatre, that Andrew Lloyd Webber was the perceived god of Broadway and the West End. It is true that, especially in the 1980s, that his musicals ran for a very long time. Being the good little musical theatre student I was, I used my allowance to buy Phantom of the Opera, Cats, Evita, Joseph, and Jesus Christ Superstar on cassette (yes...it was that long ago). What I found (adding Aspects of Love, Starlight Express, and Sunset Boulevard to my schema) was that most of these musicals only featured one or two songs that stuck with me (in a major way) and the rest was just background noise. I don't write this to bash Sir Andrew, but rather to explore my own experiences with his music. How could I be so transfixed by one or two songs and so unmoved by the rest? I will go, show-by-show, through the recordings I listened to regularly, and discuss my favorites and least-favorites.
Jesus Christ Superstar
Admittedly, I am not the biggest fan of the rock opera and Jesus Christ Superstar features the most rock & roll sounding of all of Andrew Lloyd Webber's musicals. It has taken time for this piece to grow on me, but I now find I am most oddly attracted to "Simon Zealotes", a very rock-sounding song that captures the frenzied hysteria surrounding Christ. In general, though, I find too many of the lyrics incoherent or poorly placed against the scan of the music. For a musical about a mover and shaker of faith, the endgame has me emotionally at a distance with Christ and his message. This may have been the intention since Judas Iscariot is our guide through the story, but, for me, this saps the power and the glory from more of the impactful moments. I think that I am often disappointed by musicals that explore biblical stories. It always seems as though the authors don't know how to get inside the story, and instead take a removed approach in telling the tale.
Least favorite song: "The Last Supper" - for such a pivotal moment in the Christ story, it's a little too laid back.
Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat
Joseph can be fun. I will openly admit that. I also appreciate that Webber explores a variety of musical styles and genres in his score, but I have never felt a connection to any character on the stage in any production of Joseph. Some of the songs are indeed infectious. "Go, Go Joseph" rattles around in my brain for days anytime I hear it, and "One More Angel in Heaven" always brings a smile to my face, but much of the score weaves in and out of the repetitive and does little to move the story along in anything but a storytelling mode. I find this distancing
Least favorite song: "Close Every Door" - I just don't know enough about Joseph as a person to care about his plight, so the song falls flat for me.
Evita is the one exception to the case for me where Andrew Lloyd Webber is concerned. I think it is his most complete and engaging score, and I find myself constantly marveling at Tim Rice's intricate, knowing lyrics. True, I was first introduced to the show through myriad performances of "Don't Cry for Me Argentina", but so many of the songs explode with rich character exploration and deft commentary. Among my favorites are "High Flying, Adored", "Buenos Aries", "Another Suitcase in Another Hall", "The Rainbow Tour" and, for me, the most electrically charged of all, "The Money Kept Rolling In."
Least favorite song: "The Art of the Possible" - I realize it was a clever concept staging wise, but the song almost always puts me to sleep.
Oy - if ever I felt deceived about the possibilities of a musical, Cats may win the award (Honorable mention goes to Jekyll and Hyde). The commercials on TV were intoxicating with the clever costumes and unique sets, and I certainly heard "Memory" enough times to think that this was going to be a life-changing experience. Maybe my expectations were too high? I admit that the instrumental piece "The Jellicle Ball" has a strong hold on me, and I will often play it when I need to feel inspired or energized. T.S. Eliot's poetry (the basis for most of the lyrics) is charming when read unto itself. I just never felt the music and the words melded into one.
Least Favorite Song: "The Rum Tum Tugger" - when compared to other songs, this one gives me the least to care about. I don't think "Mr. Mistoffelees" is great musical theatre, but the song is infectious in its melody. I just cannot say that about "The Rum Tum Tugger."
Who wouldn't love a musical that features the entire cast on roller-skates, dressed as choo-choo trains, and navigating a multi-tiered stage full of bridges, tracks, ramps and other contraptions? I am told Starlight Express was far superior in its London inception, and I cannot say that I hated the Broadway production. But when I recall this show, the music almost never comes to mind. I hum the skates, the costumes, and scenery, but the only melody that stays with me is the title song. That may be because you hear it about 37 times throughout the show. It's a good melody. It has a sweet little message. It doesn't, however, a musical make.
Least Favorite Song: "Only You" - It is like a redundant fortune cookie, imposing its message laboriously. It feels like a musical theatre version of an "After School Special" on self-esteem.
The Phantom of the Opera
It certainly has proven itself over time, still going strong for over two-and-a-half decades. Admittedly, there are lush melodies that give this musical a grandiose sweep fitting of the material. Webber begs, steals, and borrows from himself, utilizing blatantly familiar chord progressions throughout. I suppose it doesn't matter because so much of the music is quite memorable, even if most of lyrics read insipidly like Hallmark cards. I have always been taken with the intricate word play of "Masquerade" and "Prima Donna," so not everything stinks with generalized emotion, but "Think of Me", "Angel of Music" and "Wishing You Were Somehow Here Again" all read like first-year creative writing students completing a love poem exercise.
Least Favorite Song: "The Point of No Return", despite all of its instrumental embellishments and melodramatic antics, it feels anticlimactic to me in comparison the music of the far stronger first act of the show.
Aspects of Love
My introduction to Aspects of Love came with a clip on the Tony Awards, featuring the cast performing a uniquely staged (and not to be found in the show) approximation of the hapless story, set to the exquisite strains of Michael Ball singing "Love Changes Everything." Loved the song. Loved it!! The rest of the score is not bad, and truly features some of Webber's most haunting melodies, especially the melancholy "Anything But Lonely." In this case, I think it is the source material that hurts the show. The novel on which it is based is a meandering soap opera that takes far too many twists and turns to build to any coherency. The music is not at fault here.
Least Favorite Song: "The First Man You Remember" - I don't particularly have a great reason why this one doesn't appeal to me. I think it reminds me too much of "On this Night of a Thousand Stars" from Evita, and I cannot help imagining the melody being played by a mariachi band in some hole-in-the-wall Mexican restaurant.
I know this musical is a favorite for many of you. The movie on which it is based has always been a favorite of mine, and I really felt that its over-the-top characters and darker themes would be well-interpreted by Andrew Lloyd Webber's musical style. Only two songs ended up capturing this for me, the magnetic "With One Look" and the at first fragile and then maniacally triumphant "As If We Never Said Goodbye." These two numbers encapsulate the mind and motives of Norma Desmond, the faded silent film star whose delusional belief that she will make a comeback is the thrust of the storyline. I find the rest of the score, especially some uncomfortable moments of tedious recitative, to be egregiously subpar next to these two anthems.
Least Favorite Song: "Sunset Boulevard" - for me a high-strung "much ado about nothing" sung by Norma's hostage/houseguest Joe Gillis, who apparently is brave enough to write a futile comeback piece for this lunatic, but cant seem to get it together to find a paying job in the world of reality.
Okay-unleash your venom on me. I realize I am in the minority on most of these opinions, but I look forward to the debate nonetheless. I know I left a few titles off of the list, so feel free to weigh-in where they are concerned. I wanted to share my most intimate experiences and reactions of listening to Andrew Lloyd Webber, and these are the shows that inspire the most potent reactions for me.