Books: Star-struck excess?

Love them or loathe them, this duo made a revolution on the musical stage. But where did you hear that tune before?Oh, What a Circus: the autobiography by Tim Rice Hodder & Stoughton, pounds 18.99, 456pp; Cats on a Chandelier: the Andrew Lloyd Webber story by Michael Coveney Century, pounds 17.99, 282pp
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Which comes first, the music or the words? "The contract" snaps Charley in Merrily We Roll Along, Stephen Sondheim's show about a composer/lyricist duo. Given the seven-figure business deals which dominated the famous split between Andrew Lloyd Webber and his lyricist Tim Rice, that gag has the ring of art mirroring life.

Of course, the argument over initial inspiration is less urgent in Sondheim's case. He writes both, as did Noel Coward and Ivor Novello, the only other British musical writers to challenge the Lloyd Webber/Rice team. Together they wrote Joseph and His Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, Jesus Christ Superstar and Evita by sorting out the plot, then the music and finally the lyrics. Whether you like or loathe their output, their collaboration is easily the most important in British musical theatre since Gilbert and Sullivan. The style, scale and, overwhelmingly, the economics of their success changed the entire theatrical landscape here and abroad.

Thanks to good ideas, good fortune and a succession of guiding hands (notably manager David Land and producers Robert Stigwood and Cameron Mackintosh), Lloyd Webber and Rice reinvented the mechanics of musicals. Unplanned circumstances had a role to play. Rice, a failed lawyer, was working for record producer Norrie Paramor, whose client list included Cliff Richard and the Shadows. And when Joseph - a chirpy, 20-minute show written for Colet Court school - took off, the pair wound up recording an album before anyone dreamed of a commercial staging. By the time it eventually hit the theatre, audiences were going in humming the tunes.

That happy accident became their blueprint. Both Superstar and Evita began life as double albums. That determined the way the shows were conceived. As Rice observes in Oh, What a Circus, no one wanted a complete recording of a traditional "book musical" with discrete songs and scenes. Acres of dialogue would be unendurable on repeat listenings.

Thus they broke with tradition and fashioned the so-called "through sung" show (or "operatic musical"), in which for better or worse the curtain rises, everyone starts singing and doesn't stop until curtain-down time. The rest is money - sorry, history.

It all began on 21 April 1965 when 20-year-old ex-Lancing College pop fanatic Tim Rice wrote a letter introducing himself to a young composer. "As I have been writing pop songs for a short while now and particularly enjoy writing the lyrics I wondered if you would consider it worth your while meeting me." Reader, he married him - professionally speaking.

Quite the shrewdest passage in Rice's bizarrely unleavened book, which stops at the opening of Evita in 1978, is the prologue describing their meeting. With what can safely be surmised as hindsight, Rice deftly sketches 17-year old Lloyd Webber's "instantly apparent" defining contradictions. "He seemed at once awkward and confident; sophisticated and naive; mature and childlike." Rice speaks of gradually discovering other qualities. "Humorous and portentous; innovative and derivative; loyal and cavalier; generous and self-centred; all these characteristics to the extreme".

That final word is the key to both men, whose widely differing temperaments ensured their joint success and failure. In both his book and in critic Michael Coveney's official Lloyd Webber biography, Cats on a Chandelier, extremity appears to be Rice's enemy. An immensely clubbable fellow, with all that that implies, he comes across as pathologically genial. His book feels like a kind of official history, a stubbornly pleasant thank-you letter to everyone he has ever met.

Those who, unaccountably, have failed to get in touch with him since the dawn of his celebrity are urged to do so. This carefully assembled roll-call - and he's endearingly honest about his anorakish tendencies - extends from family members to school chums, teachers, work colleagues and former lovers. Indeed, his list of so-called close friends is so wide you wonder that he finds the time to pen a lyric.

He's determined to give everyone a good review. As a result, his equivocal depiction of his erstwhile writing partner is a quietly lethal cross between assessment and assassination. Beneath the praise he justifiably heaps upon Lloyd Webber, there's a faint beat of resentment. We are told at least three times that life is tougher for lyricists who cannot recycle their words, whereas composers regularly disinter dead tunes. He ensures we learn about previous appearances of the music of the title song in Sunset Boulevard, and drops in references to Lloyd Webber's alleged borrowings - from the slow movement of Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto reappearing as "I Don't Know How to Love Him", to the central phrase of "Rosemary" from Frank Loesser's How To Succeed in Business Without Really Trying triumphing as the basic chords of "Jesus Christ Superstar".

Surprisingly, Coveney's authorised biography is also not above sly digs in that direction. The first time the Cats cast heard "Memory", Trevor Nunn told everyone to remember the very moment they first heard the composer's next smash hit. "No one," remarks Coveney, "shouted out, `When I last heard the opening bars of Ravel's Bolero'".

In fact, it is really only in the chapter subtitled "Spot that Tune" that Coveney moves into all-out defence mode. He works himself into a lather fending off attacks on Lloyd Webber and all his works both from critics and characters in novels and plays - by Jonathan Coe, Phyllis Nagy, Martin Crimp and David Hare, all dismissed as "metropolitan cultural snobbery".

Elsewhere, the tone is refreshingly objective, with more clear-eyed input from naysayers than expected. Like Rice, Coveney provides detailed analysis, but even his most complimentary writing is more insightful than Rice's colourless, pedestrian prose. His approach is obviously partisan - how else would he have gained so much useful and entertaining access to the man? - but, mercifully, this pacy book on the material, the man and his business interests falls far short of flaccid hagiography. If he errs on the side of the works' own ambitions and too often gives Lloyd Webber the benefit of the doubt, that's no bad thing for someone who usually only invites invective or adulation.

Rice's book closes with a disingenuous apology for not writing more about what he thought and felt. At the time, "I was too busy making it". That phrase alone undercuts all his seemingly good intentions and betrays an astonishing lack of interest in his audience. It's the last accusation you could level at Lloyd Webber.