If, as the stuffier sorts among us like to contend, the current hallmark of the Broadway musical is wretched excess, the individual most responsible must surely be Andrew Lloyd Webber. Productions of his shows are monumental, complete with hurtling chandeliers and onstage swimming pools, and the publicity attending them is positively hyperbolic: Sondheim notwithstanding, Lloyd Webber is “the melodic musical genius of our age.” The box-office take is simply staggering ($1.5 billion as of last month for The Phantom of the Opera, only his second-highest-producing cash cow). As for the music, which frequently pretends to legitimacy, it’s blatantly manipulative, the worst kind of lowest-common-denominator stuff. Or is it? The debate has been running nearly as long as Cats, and the flashy homage to Lloyd Webber now playing at the National Theatre won’t do much to help end it.
“Music of the Night” is a new—or at least newly reconstituted—revue of what might be called Lloyd Webber’s greatest hits. (Much of the same material found its way into a recent “in concert” version, which was pretty much a stand-and-sing snooze.) Featured in this rather more enthusiastically choreographed incarnation are endless selections from Phantom, that most overripe of ’80s musicals, along with several from Sunset Boulevard, its only slightly less overblown ’90s counterpart. The arrangements are, if possible, more garishly offensive to refined musical sensibilities than the originals (call it Lloyd Webber’s Law: No more than two choruses without an upward modulation). But there are other tunes, some of them not quite so grandiose, and the format of the evening makes clear what the least biased observers of Lloyd Webber’s career have long known: When he is working with a good lyricist, and when he doesn’t surrender to his gaudier instincts, the composer is capable of balanced, even nuanced musical expression. Some of his work, much as I hate to admit it, can actually be moving.
I’m thinking here of mild-to-moderate torchers like “Tell Me on a Sunday” and “Unexpected Song,” both from Song and Dance, the nearest thing there is to an unknown Andrew Lloyd Webber musical. (Put down your pens; I know about Jeeves, and it doesn’t count.) In the first, the singer begs an inconstant lover to let her down easy: “Take me to a zoo that’s got chimpanzees/Tell me on a Sunday, please.” Don Black’s lyrics are wistful and witty and plaintive all at once, and Lloyd Webber captures the mood perfectly with a lilting, almost singsong melody. The result is a blend of worldliness and vulnerability that can be heartbreaking in the right hands. “Unexpected Song” is a straightforward surprised-by-love ballad, its lyrics unpretentious, its tune simple to the point of elegance. Janet Metz sings both songs in “Music of the Night,” and she does a fine job with them (though real Broadway snobs will suspect her, especially during “Unexpected Song,” of mimicking Bernadette Peters’ rapid vibrato and slightly nasal tone).
Though Cats has been sneered at by no less exalted a pop-culture arbiter than David Letterman—“What if it really is now and forever?” he worried—it contains a number of clever musical inventions. (Inspiration is easier, one suspects, with T.S. Eliot for a lyricist.) “Macavity,” with its vaguely burlesque swagger and gleefully transgressive feel, and “The Old Gumbie Cat,” originally conceived as a close-harmonied ditty in the Andrews Sisters mold, and here done as a sharper-edged dance break without vocals, were favorites of mine from early on. “Jellicle Songs for Jellicle Cats” is still a giddy parody of a chorale—what a gaggle of back-fence felines might make of Haydn’s “Awake the Harp.” And “Memory,” the favorite of Ramada Inn lounge pianists everywhere, became an instant cliché because its melody is one of the most searingly lyrical things since “Nessun Dorma.” (Yes, Lloyd Webber knows it’s derivative. He likes Puccini.) Metz sings the bejezus out of “Memory” in this show, and brings down the house.
Lloyd Webber’s most ardent partisans point to his Requiem as evidence of his musical sophistication (the truly well-informed know that it’s a setting of the Latin Requiem Mass inspired by Lloyd Webber’s father’s death, and that someone named Lorin Maazel recorded the piece with one of the Three Tenors). The Requiem is indeed among Lloyd Webber’s more accomplished works, successfully blending neoclassical formality and rock-inspired rhythms. Its “Pie Jesu,” originally a gorgeous duet for adult soprano and boy treble, was a No. 1 hit on English pop charts, which in no way detracts from its spare, dignified lyricism. What does cheapen the piece is the way Laurie Williamson sings it in the unambig uously commercial “Music of the Night”—hands folded in mock piety, the high A on each “requiem” a good quarter-tone flat. Similarly debased is the “Hosanna,” whose intricate syncopations are far less beguiling coming from a chorus-boy with a Star Search grin and a blond bouffant, who not only mispronounces the Latin but marches in place, elbows aswing, as he sings praise of He Who Comes in the Name of the Lord.
There are innumerable other vulgarities, including an egregiously overamplified orchestra, and many ill-considered lyrics: In “Gethsemane,” from Jesus Christ Superstar, headliner Colm Wilkinson asks the Father to take away the bitter cup of destiny the singer had earlier accepted: “Then I was inspired/Now I’m sad and tired.” But God, as we know, has other plans, and to drive the point home, the producers of this spectacle have arranged for a giant cross (cunningly formed of hundreds of little white lights) to be gradually illuminated as Wilkinson belts the final bars. It’s downright appalling.
But there are those few redeeming moments. And the poor soul who can’t avoid attending—who goes dragged, say, on the arm of a melody-besotted mate—can take comfort in sneering quietly to himself when, at intermission, the gentleman behind him turns to his companion to breathlessly effuse, “It’s such accessible music.”