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

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.

Arts & Entertainment
Jessica Pare as Megan Draper and Jon Hamm as the troubled, melancholy Don Draper
tvAnd six other questions we hope Mad Men series seven will answer
Arts & Entertainment
Heads up: Andy Scott's The Kelpies in Falkirk

What do gigantic horse heads tell us about Falkirk?

Arts & Entertainment
The London Mozart Players is the longest-running chamber orchestra in the UK
musicThreatened orchestra plays on, managed by its own members
Arts & Entertainment
Seeing red: James Dean with Sal Mineo in 'Rebel without a Cause'

'Rebel without a Cause', 'East of Eden' and 'Giant' re-released

Arts & Entertainment
TV The second episode of the hit HBO featured a surprise for viewers
Arts & Entertainment
artGraffiti legend posts picture of work – but no one knows where it is
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition iPad app?
Arts & Entertainment
A close-up of Tom of Finland's new Finnish stamp

Finnish Postal Service praises the 'self irony and humour' of the drawings

Arts & Entertainment
Pierce Brosnan as James Bond in 2002's Die Another Day

The actor has confessed to his own insecurities

Life & Style
Green fingers: a plot in East London

Allotments are the focus of a new reality show

Arts & Entertainment
Myleene Klass attends the Olivier awards 2014

Oliviers 2014Theatre stars arrive at Britain's most prestigious theatre awards
Arts & Entertainment
Stars of The Book of Mormon by Trey Parker and Matt Stone of South Park

Oliviers 2014Blockbuster picked up Best Musical and Best Actor in a Musical
Arts & Entertainment
Lesley Manville with her Olivier for Best Actress for her role in 'Ghosts'

Oliviers 2014Actress thanked director Richard Eyre for a stunning production
Arts & Entertainment
Rory Kinnear in his Olivier-winning role as Iago in Othello

Oliviers 2014Actor beat Jude Law and Tom Hiddleston to take the award
Arts & Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch is best known for this roles in Sherlock and Star Trek

Arts & Entertainment
theatreAll hail the temporary venue that has shaken things up at the National Theatre
Arts & Entertainment
musicShe is candid, comic and coming our way
Arts & Entertainment
booksHer new novel is about people seeking where they belong
Arts & Entertainment
Arts & Entertainment
tvGrace Dent on The Crimson Field
Arts & Entertainment
Gian Sammarco plays Adrian Mole in 'The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole'

Sue Townsend's much-loved character will live on
Arts & Entertainment
Kylie has helped to boost viewing figures for the talent show

Kylie Minogue quits The Voice UK

Arts & Entertainment
Chiwetel Ejiofor, Favour Asikpa and Thandie Newton in 'Half of a Yellow Sun'

Review: Half of A Yellow Sun

Arts & Entertainment
Andrew Motion would send 'Great Expectations' by Charles Dickens
booksLeading writers protest against government restrictions on prisoners receiving books
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition iPad app?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Homelessness: Why is the supported lodgings lifeline under threat?

    Why is the supported lodgings lifeline under threat?

    Zubairi Sentongo swapped poverty in Uganda for homelessness in Britain. But a YMCA scheme connected him with a couple offering warmth and shelter
    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: When the world’s biggest shed took over Regent’s Park

    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

    When the world’s biggest shed took over Regent’s Park
    The pain of IVF

    The pain of IVF

    As an Italian woman vows to keep the babies from someone else’s eggs, Julian Baggini ponders how the reality of childbirth is often messier than the natural ideal
    Supersize art

    Is big better? Britain's latest super-sized art

    The Kelpies are the latest addition to a growing army of giant sculptures. But naysayers are asking what a pair of gigantic horse heads tells us about Falkirk?
    James Dean: Back on the big screen

    James Dean: Back on the big screen

    As 'Rebel without a Cause' is re-released, Geoffrey Macnab reveals how its star perfected his moody act
    Catch-22: How the cult classic was adapted for the stage

    How a cult classic was adapted for the stage

    More than half a century after it was published 'Catch-22' will make its British stage debut next week
    10 best activity books for children

    10 best activity books for children

    Keep little ones busy this bank holiday with one of these creative, educational and fun books
    Arsenal 3 West Ham United 1: Five things we learnt from the battle between the London sides

    Five things we learnt from Arsenal's win over West Ham

    Arsenal still in driving seat for Champions League spot and Carroll can make late charge into England’s World Cup squad
    Copa del Rey final: Barcelona are paying for their complacency and not even victory over Real Madrid will put things right

    Pete Jenson on the Copa del Rey final

    Barcelona are paying for their complacency and not even victory over Real Madrid will put things right
    Rafa to reign? Ten issues clay courts will serve up this season

    Rafa to reign? Ten issues clay courts will serve up this season

    With the tennis circus now rolling on to the slowest surface, Paul Newman highlights who'll be making the headlines – and why
    Exclusive: NHS faces financial disaster in 2015 as politicians urged to find radical solution

    NHS faces financial disaster in 2015

    Politicians urged to find radical solution
    Ukraine crisis: How spontaneous are the pro-Russian protests breaking out in Ukraine’s east?

    Ukraine crisis

    How spontaneous are the pro-Russian protests breaking out in Ukraine’s east?
    A History of the First World War in 100 moments: The first execution at the Tower of London for 167 years

    The first execution at the Tower of London for 167 years

    A history of the First World War in 100 moments
    Fires could turn Amazon rainforest into a desert as human activity and climate change threaten ‘lungs of the world’, says study

    New threat to the Amazon rainforest:

    Fires that scorch the ‘lungs of the Earth’
    Liverpool, Chelsea and Manchester City: And the winner of this season’s Premier League title will be...

    Who’s in box seat now? The winner of the title will be ...

    Who is in best shape to take the Premier League prize?