LOrd Of The West End

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The Independent Culture
On Wednesday, 'Whistle Down the Wind', Andrew Lloyd Webber's first all-new musical for nearly a decade, opens in the West End. Already, the critics have reviled it. And already, a loyal public has paid up pounds 3m in advance sales. Do critics and audiences never agree? Maeve Walsh trawls the archives; and (right) Michael White explains why he hates the Lloyd Webber experience


The West End premiere: Albery Theatre, 1973

The run: seven months

The story: adapted from the Book of Genesis by Tim Rice. Joseph, youngest of Jacob's 12 sons, has prophetic gifts and a psychedelic coat. His brothers tear up the coat and sell him into slavery in Egypt, where there's a famine.

The show: the release of a single, "Close Every Door to Me", in 1968, and an album in 1969, tested the water before the music was adapted for the stage - the first instance of what would become a shrewd marketing strategy. A 40-minute Edinburgh show in 1972 grew into a two-acter with new material added by Galton and Simpson (later dropped). Frank Dunlop's West End production was pure showbiz: a pelvis-thrusting Pharaoh in a white Elvis suit; a soft-shoe shuffle from the brothers, in bath towels and gold lame boaters.

What the critics said: "The dialogue is ... too close to showbusiness to fit into the work of Webber and Rice, whose basic strength is that they think these stories worth telling" - Irving Wardle, Times


The West End premiere: Palace Theatre, 1972

The run: 3,358 performances grossing pounds 7.5m

The story: the seven days leading up to the crucifixion of Jesus Christ. He's the good guy; Judas Iscariot, who narrates, is the treacherous villain. Rice and Lloyd Webber had considered - and rejected - the idea of calling the show Christ!

The show: Beating Joseph to the West End by six months, JCS had already had its premiere on Broadway in 1971. A formula was now emerging: the title song was released in 1969. Lloyd Webber claimed it was a "completely serious attempt to stimulate discussion about Jesus Christ among record- buyers"; four million people bought the record.

The critics: "If it is anything else related to rock at all, it is on the bottom rung of bubble-gum." - Alan Rich, New York magazine

"The total effect is brilliant but cheap" - Clive Barnes, New York Times


The West End premiere: Her Majesty's, 1975

The run: 38 performances

The story: A Bertie Wooster selection-box culled from the stories of PG Wodehouse

The show: Rice wanted to do a musical about Eva Peron; Lloyd Webber wanted to do Wooster. Alan Ayckbourn wrote the words; the preview show was four and three-quarter hours long.

The critics: "It sinks like a stone, fatally holed by an iceberg of immeasurable boredom" - Jack Tinker, Daily Mail


The West End premiere: Prince Edward, 1978

The run: 2,900 performances

The story: a poor social climber makes her way to Buenos Aires and into the bed of rising politician Juan Peron. Encouraged by her, he leads a workers' uprising and is swept to power. Evita dresses like a Hollywood star, takes advantage of the people's poverty and is hailed as a saint. She sings "Don't Cry For Me Argentina", and dies young.

The show: Rice and Lloyd Webber again produced a (No 1) signature single, and a best-selling album, 18 months before the show was ready to roll. Legendary Broadway director Harold Prince kept the album's through- sung structure and created stunning, stylised scenes. Elaine Page, a former Superstar chorus girl, won the role of Evita; pop star David Essex was Che Guevara, and Joss Ackland Peron. With audiences knowing all the words already, it sold out months in advance.

The critics: "One of the most disagreeable evenings I have ever spent in my life, in or out of the theatre ... there is still a greater corruption at the heart of this odious artefact, symbolised by the fact that it calls itself an opera and has been accepted by such as people who have never set foot in an opera house ... next we'll have a musical about Hitler" - Bernard Levin, Times


The West End premiere: New London, 1981

The run: last night's performance was number 7,329. $2bn has been taken worldwide, and Cats is now the longest-running musical ever.

The story: TS Eliot's Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats set to music, with an added prologue and ending. Sad old Grizabella is chosen by the other cats to go to paradise, "up, up, up to the Heaviside layer".

The show: signalling the end of the collaboration with Rice, a team of Cameron Mackintosh, Trevor Nunn and John Napier was assembled; the latter two brought Gillian Lynne with them from the RSC. Nunn and Richard Stilgoe provided the extra words; Nunn's "Memory" has earned him more than pounds 1m. Napier designed a rubbish dump on a revolve, as well as the costumes: psychedelic wigs and face paints, slinky body-stockings and legwarmers, and a black satin boiler-suit for Brian Blessed. Lynne's choreography produced routines unseen before on a British stage, and Mackintosh marketed what eventually became a global franchise. Cast included Wayne Sleep, Paul Nicholas, Bonnie Langford and Sarah Brightman. A Tom Stoppard- scripted animated version is planned.

The critics: "The real plaudits must be reserved for ... Gillian Lynne" - Michael Coveney, Financial Times

"Lloyd Webber's music is always melodic and appropriate. But its impact is blunted by the fact that some of it sounded better in other Lloyd Webber musicals" - Milton Shulman, Evening Standard


The West End premiere: Palace, 1982

The run: 781 performances

The story: Lloyd Webber welded together his rock/ Paganini hybrid Variations (written in 1978 for his cellist brother, Julian, and now the theme-tune of the South Bank Show) and Tell Me on a Sunday, written with John Black in 1979. Filmed by the BBC, the latter deals with the Manhattan love- trials of an English girl with a predilection for married men.

The show: Marti Webb did the singing and lamenting in the first half; Wayne Sleep danced to Webber's tunes in the second, and Webb reprised.

The critics: "It's a very long time since I have sat through a more ostentatious, less theatrically coherent evening" - Michael Coveney, FT


The West End premiere: Apollo Victoria, 1984

The run: last night's performance was the 5,933rd

The story: Rusty the steam engine can't keep pace with his diesel and electric brethren. But he eventually triumphs in a race, pulling the most glamorous carriage of them all.

The show: futuristic roller-skaters, a rotating gantry bridge and a record-breaking pounds 2m budget. John Napier built a three-tier race track. Richard Stilgoe did the lyrics, Trevor Nunn the direction, and Arlene Phillips coached the roller-skaters.

The verdict: "Intellectually, the plot would not tax the imagination of a retarded eight-year-old" - Milton Shulman, Evening Standard

"Most of the best performances are given by the scenery" - Sheridan Morley, Punch


The West End premiere: Westminster Abbey, 1985, after one performance in New York.

The show: written as a showcase for Lloyd Webber's second wife, the former Hot Gossip dancer Sarah Brightman. She was joined on stage by Placido Domingo. "Pie Jesu" was the hit single; the album was still in the classical charts in 1989.

The critics: "Sanctimonious whoopee" - Martin Bernheimer, LA Times

"So concertedly serious it seemed more like a parody" - Michael Kimmelman, Philadelphia Inquirer


The West End premiere: Her Majesty's, 1986

The run: last night's show was the 4,850th

The story: based on Gaston Leroux's 1910 novel, a melodramatic tale about a disfigured, embittered composer who stalks the Paris Opera House and engineers a series of disasters to ensure the young soprano he worships gets the good parts. She falls in love with the Opera's wealthy patron and the "phantom" seeks revenge. Lloyd Webber summarised it as "about a man who is hideously ugly, who falls hopelessly in love with this girl, and is only able to express himself through music"; "only those of a very cruel frame of mind would suggest the musical was at all autobiographical," said Today.

The show: Sarah Brightman sang in the role of the stalked soprano; Harold Prince directed, and the 24-year-old Charles Hart wrote the lyrics. A radio-controlled boat ferried the Phantom and Christine across the lake "beneath" the Opera, lit by 100 candles; a huge chandelier rose from the stage in the opening scene, to crash down at the end of Act One. "The Music of the Night" and "All I Ask of You" were the pre-show hits.

The critics: "Even the thrill of sitting agog before millions of pounds' worth of technological gimmickry soon fades when both music and drama remain pathetically empty and banal" - Christopher Edwards, Spectator

"The first musical ever to star a chandelier" - Sheridan Morley, Punch

"Unmitigated tosh" - John Barber, Daily Telegraph


The West End premiere: Prince of Wales, 1989

The run: 1,325 performances

The story: Based on a novella by minor Bloomsbury writer David Garnett. Briefly, it's a menage-a-six over the course of 20 years involving an art-forger, two mistresses, the art-forger's nephew and the 15-year-old daughter of the forger's eventual marriage to his French mistress (who then takes a lover). And so on.

The show: the score had been around since 1983, but many of its melodies had been transferred to Phantom. To Rice's chagrin, Lloyd Webber then recycled melodies from Cricket, a collaborative score which had an airing at the Queen's 60th birthday party. Nunn directed, Maria Bjornson designed, and Hart and Black wrote the lyrics - "Shall I order an espresso/ Or a cappuccino?" Roger Moore was cast as George the forger; he couldn't sing, and retired with dignity during rehearsals. Michael Ball took the central bed-hopping role. "Love Changes Everything" had already reached No 2 in the pop charts when the curtain went up. Radio 1 refused to play it.

The critics: "Only one word does justice to Aspects of Love: BRILLIANT" - Sun

"Bloomsbury bullshit" - Rhoda Koenig, Punch


Revival: Palladium, 1991

The run: 1,086 performances

The show: revised, it boasted Jason Donovan in a loincloth, hoisted over the audience at the climax.

The critics: "No amount of orchestral ingenuity, chorus-line pizzazz or Jason Donovan can disguise the fact that most of the tunes comprise the weakest sort of pastiche" - Robert Sandall, Sunday Times


The West End premiere: Adelphi, 1993

The run: 1,550 performances

The story: a faithful staging of Billy Wilder's classic 1950 film about fading silent-movie star Norma Desmond. "The boys hit on a great idea: they didn't change a thing," Wilder modestly jested.

The show: Lloyd Webber had been trying to get the rights since the mid- 1970s. Directed by Nunn, with lyrics by Don Black and Christopher Hampton. But despite pounds 5m and $37.5m advances in London and America, Sunset made a massive loss, partly due to a conveyor-belt of starry Normas- Patti LuPone, Elaine Paige and Petula Clark. Glenn Close won a Tony on Broadway; Faye Dunaway sued, and settled for $1.5m out of court, when the LA show was taken off before she had set foot on stage.

The critics: "You hear it for the first time and you've heard it all before ... the effect is like sucking a poisoned ice cream" - Michael Coveney, Observer


Revival: Stephen Joseph Theatre, Scarborough; transferred to Duke of York's, 1996

The run: three months, then moved to the Lyric

The show: substantially revised and directed by Alan Ayckbourn. The satirical, mock-revue piece had no special effects: Bertie made his own car out of a couple of boxes, a table and sofa.

The critics: "A tongue-in-cheek pastiche of amateurishness" - John Gross, Sunday Telegraph

"Rarely has a Lloyd Webber show provided so much humour" - David Lister, Independent


Revival: Lyceum, 1996

The run: 570 performances

The show: darker and starker than the original; a contrast to the five other Lloyd Webber West End shows running concurrently.

The critics: "A sensitive re-telling of the greatest story ever told ... Electric and emotion-charged, you're all right by me, JC"- Bill Hagerty, News of the World

"A rock album with costumes" - Robert Butler, Independent on Sunday


The West End premiere: Aldwych, Wednesday 1 July 1998.

The story: adaptation of the 1961 Richard Attenborough film of the book by Mary Hayley Bell. Some children discover a lost man and ask him his name; he says, "Jesus Christ!", and they believe him. In fact, he's an escaped convict.

The show: Lloyd Webber's first entirely new musical for nine years arrives with a bit of undertow: it was panned when first seen in Washington in 1996, and its Broadway run was cancelled for a rethink. Now it has lyrics by Meatloaf's Jim Steinman, choreography by Anthony Van Laast and design by Peter J Davison. Gale Edwards directs.

The run: who knows, but the show's already taken pounds 3m in advance

The critics: see the papers towards the end of the week. If you'd rather make up your own mind, ring the Aldwych's box office on 0171 416 6000.

Additional reporting by Oliver Rawlins