High Flying, Adored: Ranking the Musicals of Andrew Lloyd Webber
My piece ranking the musicals of Stephen Sondheim was very popular and it incited some great dialogue on how opinions differ depending on our experiences, emotions, and the criteria that draws us to musicals in the first place. Several of you wrote to me asking that I unleash my same ranking process on the musicals of Andrew Lloyd Webber. I will gratefully oblige, though I must warn you that my opinions on Sir Andrew are more extreme than those I have for Sondheim. Webber tends to only be as good as his lyricist at the moment, an ever-changing array of collaborators who have come and gone. Stephen Ward aside (which I don't know enough about yet to weigh-in), here are my opinions of his work, from worst to the best.
15. The Woman in White
For whatever reason, someone decided that Wilkie Collins’s novel The Woman in White, a gloomy ghost story, was the perfect subject matter for a musical. They were wrong. What is more, it seems that Webber was not the right composer for the material. Lyricist David Zippel, whose work I admire a great deal, seemed like an odd match for the material as well, but his lyrics, as always, have something to recommend. Webber’s music for this musical feels slapdash, undistinguished and, dare I say, pedestrian. No real melodies or motifs reveal themselves to be memorable, which is not something I usually say about Andrew Lloyd Webber. In fact, he is quite capable of two or three earworms per show, but that just never really happens in The Woman in White. I think the problem is the source material, a novel that hasn’t aged well and a story that has a layer of dust and cobwebs on it just didn’t inspire Sir Andrew the way other subjects have.
14. Whistle Down the Wind
For me, Whistle Down the Wind is the greatest heartbreak in the Andrew Lloyd Webber canon. This should have been a great musical, but despite myriad attempts to make it work, it never did. Based on a 1961 film of the same name, the musical is about an escaped convict and killer who holds up in a barn in a rural community, only to be mistaken for Jesus Christ by the local children. Jim Steinman was Webber’s collaborator on the piece, writing lyrics that were both folksy, but also free of substantial character development. The musical never actually opened on Broadway, closing out-of-town after its Washington DC premiere received mostly negative reviews. It did eventually find success in the West End, but it never found success in the United States.
I will never understand the phenomenon that was the original run of Cats. A few terrific songs aside, I cannot comprehend how a junkyard full of felines making their bid for reincarnation hypnotized audiences for as long as it did. T.S. Eliot’s collection of poems known as Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats, although very clever and full of monologue-like verse where kitties tell you their life stories, should never have been the basis for a mega-musical. I could never help but feeling like it was a dumbed-down version of A Chorus Line where, instead of singing and dancing to get a part in a show, a chorus line of hairball hawkers swished their tails to get cast in a bus and truck tour to the Heavyside Layer. Okay, the song “Memory” was a breakout hit, and the “Jellicle Ball” is a jolt of pure adrenaline, but the rest of the score is mediocre pop/rock that is easily forgettable. I know…”Bah, Humbug!”
12. The Phantom of the Opera
Oh hateful me for ranking the longest-running musical in Broadway history so low on this list. Double ridicule for ranking it below its much-maligned sequel. Look…I find The Phantom of the Opera to have a very thin plot, a score with chord progressions and melodies that seem to borrow just a little too much from elsewhere (including from Webber’s own past shows), and a premise that is mostly ludicrous, and certainly redundant. Guy/ghost/whatever falls in love with girl, drags her down in the sewer, she goes back upstairs, rinse and repeat. The only reason this musical has run as long as it has is that an amazing director (Harold Prince) and a brilliant design team polished a half-turd into a glorious amusement park ride. I will grant you that four of the songs rise above the mediocrity: “The Music of the Night”, “Prima Donna”, “All I Ask of You”, and “Masquerade” work beautifully in their context, but most of the other Charles Hart and Richard Stilgoe lyrics feel like reheated rejects from Hallmark greeting card discards. It’s production value over content here. It’s thrills over substance.
11. School of Rock
I’m sorry, but this musical just sounds like noise to me. How I wanted to embrace School of Rock. I loved the movie and even had the pleasure of once working with the man on whom the story is based. I must admit that, of all of Webber’s projects, this one felt the most outside the norm of what he usually does. Kudos to him for stretching and evolving. But in the end, the score isn’t all that memorable for me. I think part of the problem is the pairing of Sir Andrew with lyricist Glenn Slater. This was a musical that demanded to be a bit edgier than it turned out to be, and Webber’s efforts to sound “rock & roll” sounded feeble, especially when the cacophony was juxtaposed against Slater’s milquetoast lyrics. Slater does better when he is writing in the old-fashioned musical theatre vein. It would be interesting to see what Lin-Manuel Miranda or Pasek & Paul would have done with the same story. This was just not Webber’s story to tell and that disjunct is felt in the final product.
10. Love Never Dies
I rank Love Never Dies slightly ahead of The Phantom of the Opera because, even though it is another over-produced spectacle, this one is a touch more daring in its storytelling. Where Webber was confined to the same five or six melodies for the original, the sequel has much more musical variety and texture. Lyricist Glenn Slater also feels more in his element here, trading the antics of School of Rock for something more grandiose and theatrical, befitting his talents. Taking place ten-years after The Phantom of the Opera, Love Never Dies transports the action from glorious Paris to the seedier world of New York’s Coney Island. It is because of this shift in time and place that Webber is forced to think differently about the piece and its music. The result is a distinctly different musical than its predecessor.
9. The Beautiful Game
Who would have thought that a game of European football (American soccer for those who aren’t savvy of such things) would be the impetus for an ALW musical? Granted, Andrew Lloyd Webber’s The Beautiful Game never crossed the Atlantic to play Broadway so many people might not even be familiar with this show. This is a shame because it features one of Webber’s better scores, influenced by its setting in Northern Ireland. It is also a more intimate story, just real, straightforward storytelling without the spectacle. His lyricist on the project was left-wing political satirist Ben Elton who brings a decidedly different flavor to the piece: a less-elevated, more down-to-earth voice. The musical is very British in ways that Americans would have a hard time embracing or understanding, so I can understand why producers are reticent to bring it to Broadway.
8. Sunset Boulevard
Many of you would probably place this title in the number one or two slot in this ranking. I’ll explain to you why it’s where it is. The Billy Wilder film Sunset Boulevard is a masterpiece of cinema, beloved for its dark, edgy, flawed characters who are both at the height of their delusional desperation, then drawn together for a tragic, if inevitable, conclusion. It was a hearty foundation to build on; a subject that was perfect fodder for musicalization. Indeed, Sunset Boulevard as a musical is compelling in many ways, but the allure mostly comes from the actress playing Norma Desmond, the silent film star who hopes to make her triumphant return to the silver screen, unaware that the industry (and life in general) has moved on without her. The actress makes the role, not vice-versa. The problem is, a mighty character, a spider-like creature such as Ms. Desmond demands a great score and Webber only succeeds in fits and starts. “With One Look” and “As If We Never Said Goodbye” are easily two of Webber’s greatest songs (lyrics are by Don Black and Christopher Hampton), but everything outside of that feels empty, uninspired, vacant. I often wish that Webber & Co. could have succeeded in making Sunset Boulevard on a par with the far superior Evita which is constantly worthy of the great character it explores. Okay… cue the hate mail.
7. Starlight Express
What at first glance appears to be another mega-musical built on technology and special effects, Starlight Express is, at its heart, a sweet story for kids. A child’s train set magically comes to life and a race is on to see which train can out-speed the others and take the title of “Fastest Engine in the World.” While on the surface, this may just seem like a story about a race, but what it is really about is finding your self-worth and employing it to make your dreams comes true. Webber’s score is, at times, very moving and even more so, it is ethereal and reverberates with magic. Sadly, it is also repetitive, keeping the musical from ranking in the higher echelons of this list. What keeps it from being more-widely-produced is that it is a complicated musical that requires a cast of actors to perform stunts on roller skates. Most high school drama programs just don’t have that kind of insurance coverage. If there were a way around it, Starlight Express would be produced everywhere as a family-friendly piece that ignites the imagination and warms the heart.
6. Song & Dance
This little, one-woman musical is big of heart, the Don Black lyrics are particularly intimate and, occasionally visceral in their honesty. The “song” portion of the piece is the one-act musical Tell Me on a Sunday, the story of a British woman named Emma and her heartbreaks and adventures in America. The “dance” portion of the musical is a dance-piece that follows the story of one of Emma’s boyfriends, exploring his issues with commitment. The musical has a plethora of terrific character songs, including the bitter “Take that Look Off Your Face”, the saccharine “Capped Teeth and Caesar Salad”, the lovely “Unexpected Song” and the heartbreaking “Tell Me on a Sunday.” I particularly like this piece because Webber allows himself to keep things small and human, emotionally accessible to the everyday person. There is nothing grand scale in Song & Dance, which makes it refreshingly outside the box for this composer who tends toward the epic and the spectacular.
5. Aspects of Love
A musical that was more successful in London than it was on Broadway, Aspects of Love may have suffered from a convoluted, soap opera-style story with ever-changing lovers and a directionless plot. What it does have going for itself is arguably the lushest, most romantic of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s scores. The title song is an anthem to love. A summation of the matters of the heart and how we as human beings behave within its chains. “Anything But Lonely” is my singular, favorite Andrew Lloyd Webber song: achingly palpable in both its melody and its mournful lyrics (Don Black and Charles Hart). Based on the David Garnett novella of the same name, Webber finds in Aspects of Love the potential for new melody and musical substance that evaded him for a large portion of the 1980s. With a little pairing down and focusing, I think Aspects of Love could find an audience in America, especially in the form of an intimate chamber piece.
4. Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat
The variety of musicals styles that Webber employs in this show is a clever device: calypso, country, French folk, disco. It is fun to see what he comes up with for each number, and he does it surprisingly well. Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat is the best example of Webber’s ability to pastiche a variety of music genres, but it also makes you wonder why he doesn’t employ more of this talent in other scores. Tim Rice has always been Webber’s best lyricist, and Joseph… features some of his cleverer, more tongue-in-cheek work. The biblical tale of “Joseph” isn’t exactly lengthy enough to fill a full musical, but somehow Webber and Rice make it work. Among the better songs in the score are the hopeful “Any Dream Will Do”, the hilarious “Those Canaan Days”, the twangy “One More Angel in Heaven”, and the infectiously vibrant “Go, Go, Go Joseph”.
3 Jesus Christ Superstar
Andrew Lloyd Webber advanced the phenomenon of the rock opera with his concept album and subsequent stage musical Jesus Christ Superstar. The miraculous and harrowing story of the last days of Christ, leading to his crucifixion, were dramatically heightened by the use of rock music, a music genre that can explode with pain and shake with unbridled emotion. Webber is at his most free and wild here, and it is perhaps in that place where Webber is his most-inventive. As anachronistic as it must have felt to have Jesus, Judas and company sing in the rock voice (not to mention blasphemous to the more conservative contingent), it was cutting edge in its day, predated only a few years by the revolutionary rock musical Hair. Tim Rice’s lyrics are also unyielding, unafraid to paint these characters as human beings. It is the piece’s innovation that propels it toward the top of this list. Even now, I have “Simon and the Zealots” thumping in my mind, that glorious chorus wailing “You’ll have the power and the glory…forever, and ever, and ever…” Perfection.
2. By Jeeves
Readers, I will defend this placement at the #2 slot to my death and beyond, even if it is not remotely one of the more popular Andrew Lloyd Webber musicals. The Jeeves and Wooster stories by P.G. Wodehouse are among some of the wittiest any British author has ever produced. It’s a series of stories about the perfect valet/butler and his quirky young employer, and the adventures they share together. Andrew Lloyd Webber sounds like an entirely different composer on this musical, as if he abandoned all habits and pitfalls and, in doing so, created his most-uniquely distinguished score. For his lyricist on this project, Webber joined forces with playwright Alan Ayckbourn, who brought a very stylized, very British flavor to the piece. By Jeeves is a great story and the score really fleshes out characters while keeping the plot moving forward. If you haven’t spent some time with it, I really must recommend that you do. There is even a professionally recorded production on YouTube that you can enjoy, front to finish.
I don’t think that there will be too many arguments from my readers over giving Evita top placement on this list. It is decidedly Webber’s best musical, particularly because he is paired with lyricist Tim Rice who is also at the top of his form on this project. The story of Eva Peron, the wife of an Argentine president, a woman who crawled out of the gutters, reinvented herself, and ensconced herself as the country’s most beloved and controversial leader, is a fascinating one. Add into this the character of Che, who is the voice of the people, the narrator, and Eva’s conscience, and you have the ingredients for a perfect musical theatre storm. In Evita, Webber is motivated to create a dozen or so melodies that serve as motifs for characters and situations. The lyrics are smart, sometimes sarcastic, and always driving the action forward. It is the perfect marriage of composer and lyricist, tone and subject. Among the amazing songs are the lightning-charged “Buenos Aries”, the reflective “High Flying, Adored” and the musical’s hit song “Don’t Cry for Me, Argentina.”