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The Musical Lord

Dateline: 28th April, 1997

I had a bit of bother last week with my comms program and had to re-install the whole thing. Then I found I had to get it to reconstruct the News database and so, the next time I went on-line, the damned thing insisted on downloading a full list of all newsgroups on my server. In an idle moment, when inspiration had dried up, I scrolled through some of the list, just to see what was there. I found the alt. section - and, in particular, alt.binaries - quite interesting. For many reasons, not just that one!

Now it may not be PC to say so, but I can understand the desire to download the alt.binaries.lots.of.ladies.with.no.clothes.on groups. I can even understand those who frequent alt.binaries.the.cars.I.could.never.afford, but when I came across alt.binaries.Andrew.Lloyd Webber, you could have knocked me down with a sheet of manuscript paper! I just had to go and see.

I had had visions of lots of very sad people drooling over pics of Lord Who-wants-to-be-a-billionaire-I-do himself. There were ten articles there: seven were spam adverts about how to make loadsamoney without any investment, talent, work etc., one protested about spam adverts about how to make loadsamoney without... etc., whilst two were about Evita, but I couldn't read them 'cos they were in Spanish. Looks like Lord I'll-leave-the-country-if-Labour-wins (Oh, sorry! He didn't say that. He was misquoted. He said so himself!) isn't as popular as... well, lots of ladies with no clothes on.

Seriously though, having a newsgroup devoted to you is really quite an accolade. Couple that with the fact that there are more websites devoted to ALW and his shows than to any other theatrical figure, and you begin to realise just what an impression this man and his music have made on the world of theatre - at least as far as the ordinary punter is concerned.

The last time I counted, there were nearly seventy websites and the one newsgroup devoted to the man and his work. I have not been able to find anywhere near that number dealing with Shakespeare! The X Files, Pamela Anderson and the various incarnations of Star Trek may each equal or even surpass this figure, of course. Do not these facts show something important about public taste?

Now, I'm not going to deviate into talking too much about TV shows, and certainly I'm not going to take myself into Miss Impressive-Mammaries country...

(That reminds me: the Amazons of Ancient Greek legend used to cut off one breast to make fighting easier. They used to do this at a ceremony where the breast was ceremoniously removed as a test of the Amazon's bravery and stoicism in the face of pain. When removed, the offending piece of flesh was thrown into the large metal box. That, of course, was the origin of the old song, "Tanks for the mammary...")

... but I am more than interested in exploring the Andrew Lloyd Webber phenomenon. You see, critics have been less than kind to the man and his shows, and it is de rigueur in certain theatrical quarters to slag off his work. And yet the public love it. Rarely have the critics and the public been so at odds with each other. (There was Crossroads, of course, but that's a different story!) So what lies at the bottom of this critical aversion to ALW?

As far as we Brits are concerned, of course, it is partially our national tendency to rubbish anyone who is successful (unless they play football!). It is, I think, one of our less attractive national characteristics that we undervalue our home-grown creative talent. But there is also, I think, the idea that popularity and quality are incompatible. It has been suggested that critics and intellectuals (not always the same people - not by a long shot!) will condemn something that is popular because they want to preserve (or create) a mystique, a smoke-screen of impenetrability which serves to boost their egos, as being privy to secrets which the hoi polloi wot not of!

You may think so. I couldn't possibly comment.

Be that as it may, just what lies behind the Lloyd Webber success story?

Well, tunes to begin with. The man writes good tunes, and that's what the majority of the public like. To suggest, as some have, that this is in some way a prostitution of music is frankly absurd. What makes the great Verdi, Puccini et al arias so popular? - their tunes, what else? It has been argued, too, that he has only a couple of tunes in each show, and that he uses and re-uses them ad nauseam. There's a certain amount of truth in this - rather like a writer of symphonies who constructs a movement around three tunes!

He's made sure, too, that he works with good lyricists. They don't come much better than Tim Rice, and the others he's co-operated with have not been exactly slouches. Now, what was that fella's name? ... Eliot, wasn't it? He wrote a couple of OK pieces, if I'm not mistaken.

He has been criticised because of his plots. Fancy writing a musical about the wife of a dictator! Hell's fire, it was hardly Springtime for Hitler! And anyway, you couldn't call it a ringing endoresment of Peronism.

He's been accused of sentimentality. Well, yes, but what else would you call La Bohème?

He has been derided for writing shows which were less than perfect. By Jeeves was not exactly a critical success, agreed, but then, have you ever seen (or even tried to read) Pericles, Titus Andronicus or Timon of Athens?

He has been accused of plagiarism, on occasion taking musical ideas from others - something which Bach never did, of course! And to suggest that Shakespeare based his King Lear on a play of the same name by another author is, quite frankly.... well, true.

There is no fault that ALW has which has not been possessed by writers which his critics would acknowledge to be great. For God's sake, Shakespeare makes errors, pinches other people's plots, writes some appalling plays which would have been totally forgotten if they hadn't been written by him. Wagner can be pretty damned turgid and as for sentimentality, pick any writer of opera, operetta, or musicals.

No, the trouble with Andrew Lloyd Webber is that he is popular. People - the man in the street, on the Clapham omnibus, in the pub - like him, can understand his work, and feel at home with it. That's his great sin. Oh yes, and he doesn't deal with ideas of great significance (like Calamity Jane does, for instance, or Guys and Dolls).

The minute a writer, musician, artist, whatever, becomes popular, he is accused of selling out, of prostituting his art.

What a load of cobblers!

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©Peter Lathan 2001