After decades of struggling to shed its image as the poor relative of the European operetta, the American musical finally found its breakthrough on 30 March 1943, when Rodgers and Hammerstein, working together for the first time, delivered the trailblazing Oklahoma!. In the years that followed, Broadway entered “the golden age of musicals”: an era of solidly crafted shows, with stories that were compelling and tunes that people could whistle admiringly, no matter where they lived or what language they spoke. Hollywood soon adopted these major works, turning them into breathtaking screen extravaganzas that took them to confines where they might not have otherwise been seen. Eventually, other countries began to develop their own homegrown productions, none more aggressively than England, which already had a rich background in musical theatre, but now, through the impulse of up-and-coming composers such as Lionel Bart and Leslie Bricusse, could begin to effectively compete with the Broadway musical itself. In the 60s, with the rock opera emerging, one composer began to revitalise the stage musical once again: Andrew Lloyd Webber.
In the space of a few decades, Andrew Lloyd Webber not only succeeded in creating shows that have been celebrated around the world, but who conquered and imposed his brand of shows on Broadway where, at one time, three of his productions were running consecutively, a feat rarely achieved by others. In doing so, Lord Lloyd Webber (he was knighted by Queen Elizabeth in 1992, and named a Baron in 1997) also broke many records, most specifically that of longevity with his main opus, The Phantom Of The Opera, currently enjoying its 25th year on Broadway, a success unequalled anywhere.
Particularly attracted to the theatre (his aunt, Viola, an actress, often took him to see the shows in which she appeared), Lloyd Webber sealed his future in 1965 when he met Tim Rice, who had ambitions of writing pop songs. The two began to work on a show, The Likes Of Us, based on the life of Irish philanthropist Thomas John Barnardo, founder of homes for poor children, in which Lloyd Webber’s music inevitably recalled Broadway composers the likes of Richard Rodgers and Frederick Loewe.
Though the play was not produced at the time, it convinced a friend of the family to ask the young men if they could come up with a “pop cantata” based on the Old Testament. The result, a short work of about 15 minutes, was Joseph And The Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, which was soon expanded into a fully-fledged stage production. What singled the work out was its youthful energy and apparent disregard of conventions, in which the score (and musical attitudes) were astute reflections of pop music, among them early rock’n’roll, country, even a dash of calypso, rather than conventional musical theatre expressions. Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice had found their calling.
In quick succession, they wrote Jesus Christ Superstar, created in 1971 and probably their most familiar work thanks to the lavish film version Norman Jewison directed the following year; and Evita, inspired by the life of Evita Peron, wife of the Argentinean dictator, which had its premiere in London in 1978 and on Broadway the following year. Their relationship soured after that, and each went his own way. Tim Rice attached himself to other projects, among them Mamma Mia (which happily blended the story of the film Buena Sera Mrs Campbell with the songs of ABBA) and Disney’s The Lion King, with songs co-created with Elton John.
For his part, Andrew Lloyd Webber, with other partners, went on writing shows that became hugely successful. After Evita, he created the music for no less than 15 shows, including Cats, which debuted in London in 1981 and on Broadway in 1982, where it scored 7,485 performances and became the fourth longest musical on record; Starlight Express, a hit in London in 1984 and on Broadway in 1987, where it stayed on for 761 performances; and Sunset Boulevard in 1993, which enjoyed a successful run of 977 performances on Broadway. All stand out as being the most popular and most talked-about theatrical productions ever to reach the stage.
His latest opus, School Of Rock, which had its premiere on Broadway, on 6 December 2015, to rapturous reviews, already stands poised to join this hallowed list of great hits.
But the incontestable champion remains The Phantom Of The Opera, a phenomenal success in London, where it premiered in 1986, and on Broadway, where it opened in 1988, becoming a permanent fixture there, with an unheard-of total of well over 12,400 performances to date and counting.
Surprisingly, this success was largely achieved seemingly without the support of Hollywood. If Evita, starring Madonna as the title character with Antonio Banderas as Che, was an enjoyable cinematic entry in 1996, and Phantom became a screen success when it was first presented, the only other Lloyd Webber show to reach the screen was the ever popular Jesus Christ Superstar, which became a worldwide blockbuster in 1973, under the skilled direction of Norman Jewison, who also directed the film version of Fiddler On The Roof. The musical was then again reinterpreted for another generation of audiences in 1999, starring Donny Osmond as the singing messiah in a straight-to-video release.
While many of his productions have still not made it to the big screen, they have populated the small one, with countless made-for-TV stage presentations of Cats, Joseph And The Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, Starlight Express and By Jeeves. Andrew Lloyd Webber has also worked in reverse order, using the 2003 film School Of Rock, starring Jack Black as a struggling rock star and a band of prep school kids as source material, for his 2015 musical adaptation to great success.
As the maverick composer comes upon his 70th birthday, his work is being celebrated with the Andrew Lloyd Webber Unmasked: The Platinum Collection. Appearing as career-spanning 2CD and expanded 4CD releases, the collection features classic cast performances, original film soundtrack recordings, and new versions of Lloyd Webber hits, recorded by the likes of Lana Del Rey (‘You Must Love Me’, from Evita) and Beyoncé (the Oscar-nominated ‘Learn To Be Lonely’, penned for the 2004 movie adaptation of The Phantom Of The Opera).
As the success of La La Land and Into The Woods have proven, the time is right for Sir Andrew’s grand narratives to make their cinematic debut. Talk of a Cats movie has been in the works for years. According to Lloyd Webber, “Basically what’s happened is that the success of the movie of Les Mis is that everybody is looking now at old musicals and thinking, Is there a possibility of making them again? And I think that for the first time there is a real possibility that Cats will happen.”
The 4CD deluxe edition of Unmasked: The Platinum Collection will be released on 16 March and can be ordered here.
Photo: Gregg Delman