Andrew Lloyd Webber is someone many people have strong feelings about. I like Phantom of the Opera and Jesus Christ, Superstar. I think they work better in recording, for some reason, than live onstage. (I saw Phantom on Broadway several years after its opening, and a dance production of Superstar. I’m comparing them to the cast album and movie version of Phantom, and the movie and soundtrack of Superstar.) The others I’ve heard, not so much. Dreamcoat has some good numbers but it’s hard to take seriously: the world did not need a play that makes Joseph from the book of Genesis into a political superhero, a kind of Mark Zuckerberg of his age, except more sensitive. Cats has some good numbers but is weird, and it’s not too good an idea to spend much time wondering what the writers were thinking.
I was pretty young when Evita opened, so of course I know some of the songs, somewhat, but I’ve never seen the show, only the movie with Madonna and Antonio Banderas. A few years ago I got a copy of the Broadway cast album as a gift, and I’ve been listening to it recently. It isn’t awful, any more than any of Lloyd Webber’s music is. But it is odd, especially in the context of Lloyd Webber’s other shows, and in the context of what was happening at the time with musical theater, and with the music industry generally.
One thing that rubs some people the wrong way (including me) is the way Andrew Lloyd Webber borrows bits of melody from other composers for his shows. He’s been criticized (and evidently sued) for appropriating bits of contemporary songs, as well as reusing melodies from classical pieces. And if you listen to Evita, you hear lots of this kind of thing. You hear that there are bits of melody that he already used in Jesus Christ, Superstar, and you hear bits that he’d reuse later in Aspects of Love. There’s a melody that sounds like it was taken from a Neil Young song I can never quite place.
And besides this, there are repetitions from show to show. His Joseph has a lot in common, musically, with his Jesus. Weirder, his Evita Perón has a lot in common with his Jesus. He reuses vocal types, similar to the way a bass baritone, say, would be stereotyped as the heavy in a nineteenth century opera (and for Lloyd Webber as Caiaphas, or the pretentious yet philistine male opera star in Phantom), but more than that, choosing particular varieties of reedy tenor to signify shades of male virtue or male evil.
There’s nothing exactly wrong with this. All artists do something similar. And pretty much all artists borrow. (T.S. Eliot wrote that lesser artists borrow, actually, while great artists steal.) If you believe, as New Historicists do, for instance, more or less with Foucault, that artists speak for language itself, and that language changes over time as society changes, then social and cultural changes that took place at a certain time can be tracked through artistic expressions that were created during that time, as similarities that might only become visible at a distance. In that case, we’d expect to see lots of reuse of elements, in ways that might be indistinguishable from borrowings or allusions. And although this can happen unconsciously or spontaneously, artists also do it on purpose. I took a literature course once where the instructor pointed out a series of poems in which Coleridge and Wordsworth borrowed lines and images from each other. They were close friends, as well as rivals, but the same thing might easily happen at a greater distance, among members of the same generation. Or, even, between generations, borrowing and reimagining ideas, transforming them in ways like those described by Harold Bloom (in The Anxiety of Influence). Moreover, borrowing at the level of plot and character—or, at least, something that looks a little like borrowing—is as old as theater itself. Shakespeare borrowed plots from plays by his contemporaries, and by playwrights going back to ancient Rome.
But Lloyd Webber’s borrowings go beyond that, well beyond the way “My Sweet Lord” borrowed from “He’s So Fine”. They sound like outright quotations. And whatever may be the level of allusion-making that’s actually accepted practice, it doesn’t descend to outright quotation. The result is a show that’s somehow “off.”
Where Mamma Mia! might seem to ignore Broadway conventions, Lloyd Webber more usually tries to embody them in what ends up an entirely wrongheaded way. Cats, when I finally saw it, struck me as a terrible misunderstanding of Bob Fosse—of contemporary pop music itself, and the dance that went with it—as very simply lewd (in a way that gave new meaning to the line in Angels in America where Roy Cohn tells his out-of-town donors that they’d hate La Cage but simply had to see Cats). It was fascinating; it was very well done; and it was wrong.
By the 1980s, traditional Broadway musicals were being replaced by what’s known as the corporate musical: adaptations of Disney movies and other Hollywood blockbusters, compilations of pop songs, imports from London. Some of these are very good. Alan Menken is right in the middle of the Broadway tradition, and Julie Taymor’s work is entirely original. Others just aren’t really the same thing: Les Misérables is really operetta. (The sense, from maybe the fifties through the seventies, that pop could be combined with older forms to produce, not a replacement for those forms, but a continuation of them, had by then lost most of its traction.) And Andrew Lloyd Webber’s productions have often seemed simply corporate.