Rock opera? Um, no

WHEN Andrew Lloyd Webber (allegedly) asked Alan Jay Lerner why people took an instant dislike to him, Lerner (allegedly) replied, "It saves time." And when, last weekend, I asked a group of music students propping up a seafront bar at the Aldeburgh Festival why they disliked Lloyd Webber, the consensus opinion - "because he's rich and ugly" - was much the same, if more robustly put. Responses to the life and work of music theatre's living peerhead tend to be intuitive rather than analytical. You simply know that what he does is wretched: it's a gut reaction, fuelled by outrage that so small a talent could have made it quite so big.

I've never met him, and for all I know he may be perfectly delightful. Kind to animals and children. He's unquestionably been a good son to his father, the organist and composer William Lloyd Webber, whose name has been kept alive by the devoted efforts of his children. He's been good to the Church of England, writing cheques to keep church buildings open to the public. And to the extent that the Lloyd Webber cheque book also underwrites the careers of young musicians through development and support schemes, I'm not going to complain about the trillions of dollars, yen, kroner and Deutschmarks that fall annually into his lap. If Cats and Phantom are what the public want for their money, it's a fair exchange. At the box office, at least.

But outrage began to gnaw at my gut when he picked up first a knighthood, then a peerage. To my knowledge there had only ever been two life peerages previously awarded to musicians in this country - one to Britten, one to Menuhin - and to place Lloyd Webber in that company was risible if not insulting. It debased the honour. And ultimately it did the new lord no favours, because it opened up his work to new standards of scrutiny. As a commercially effective music-theatre writer he could always plead for his work to be judged by the rough and ready rules of entertainment culture. But as one to be compared with Menuhin and Britten he was in a different ball game, and outclassed on every count.

The counts against him start, in fact, with his longstanding efforts to be "serious": to write West End operas. Most of his work to date has been avowedly "operatic" in that everything is sung - without recourse to spoken dialogue - and written in terms that echo the means, manner and melodic contours of late-19th and early-20th-century Italian verismo. That Lloyd Webber knows his Puccini has never been doubted - and if imitation is a form of flattery then the tongue of the Phantom speaks like hallmarked silver.

But I don't mind someone trying to be Puccini: it's a laudable ambition that more opera composers could usefully pursue. Puccini works. What doesn't work is technically inept Puccini, which is what you get in the Lloyd Webber surrogates. Take Phantom: it's absurdly crude. The recitative - if that isn't too grand a name for the banal banter that plugs the gaps between numbers - is brutal, raw, and shapeless. The numbers themselves are mostly turgid neo-Romantic Broadway belters, designed for mindless singing. And the music makes no meaningful response to the words it carries. There's a reservoir of one or two tunes that flow ad nauseam, and I guess Lloyd Webber would defend the repetitions as Leitmotifs - adopting the Wagnerian system of associating a musical idea with a specific character or a dramatic situation. But when Lloyd Webber's tunes come round (and round again), they come round randomly - in anybody's mouth (or instrument), attached to any situation. Melodies that previously carried some significant item of information return shackled to some trivial aside. And through the whole score the response to text is nil. "You feel," one long-standing member of the Phantom cast recently told me, "that there's a relentless format and the words have to fit it, no matter what."

On the subject of insider views, none of the several people I've met who have sung in a Lloyd Webber musical thought the music well-written for the voice. According to my Phantom friend, "There's no sense in the score of what a voice can do and where it sounds best. No idea of registers and voice-types. It's a brutal sing. I'd rather deal with Sondheim any day, even though the melodic shapes are more complicated, because Sondheim knows what he's doing."

Sondheim is of course the nagging thorn in Lloyd Webber's side, the industry standard by which his work will always be judged and found wanting. Sondheim's musicals are brilliant, sharp, disarmingly original, written with consummate dramatic skill and piercing irony. They are the broadsheet "qualities" to the Lloyd Webber tabloids; and it follows that they sell in lesser numbers. Never able to sustain themselves for long in the commercial sector, Sondheim scores tend to retreat into subsidised theatre and find a natural home there, as classics of the genre.

The likelihood of a Lloyd Webber score finding its way into the National Theatre or ENO is (mercifully) small and almost certainly unnecessary: if Lloyd Webber is possessed of one great skill, it's the ability to sell his products, market his ideas. But that's not art, it's what the board of ICI does to enhance their share price; and my guess is that the world of business is where history will, in the last resort, house Lloyd Webber's reputation. His achievements don't belong with those of Menuhin or Britten. They belong with Richard Branson, Terence Conran, and the human interest section of the FT Index. If I had a modest holding in the Really Useful Company, even I could learn to love the Phantom.

Arts and Entertainment

Will Poulter will play the shape-shifting monsterfilm
Arts and Entertainment

books
Arts and Entertainment
Paul Hollywood

'Whether he left is almost immaterial'TV
Arts and Entertainment

game of thrones reviewWarning: spoilers

Arts and Entertainment
The original Star Wars trio of Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher and Mark Hamill

George Osborne confirms Star Wars 8 will film at Pinewood Studios in time for 4 May

film

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

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

    Fishing for votes with Nigel Farage: The Ukip leader shows how he can work an audience as he casts his line to the disaffected of Grimsby

    Fishing is on Nigel Farage's mind

    Ukip leader casts a line to the disaffected
    Who is bombing whom in the Middle East? It's amazing they don't all hit each other

    Who is bombing whom in the Middle East?

    Robert Fisk untangles the countries and factions
    China's influence on fashion: At the top of the game both creatively and commercially

    China's influence on fashion

    At the top of the game both creatively and commercially
    Lord O’Donnell: Former cabinet secretary on the election and life away from the levers of power

    The man known as GOD has a reputation for getting the job done

    Lord O'Donnell's three principles of rule
    Rainbow shades: It's all bright on the night

    Rainbow shades

    It's all bright on the night
    'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

    Bread from heaven

    Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
    Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

    How 'the Axe' helped Labour

    UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power
    Rare and exclusive video shows the horrific price paid by activists for challenging the rule of jihadist extremists in Syria

    The price to be paid for challenging the rule of extremists

    A revolution now 'consuming its own children'
    Welcome to the world of Megagames

    Welcome to the world of Megagames

    300 players take part in Watch the Skies! board game in London
    'Nymphomaniac' actress reveals what it was really like to star in one of the most explicit films ever

    Charlotte Gainsbourg on 'Nymphomaniac'

    Starring in one of the most explicit films ever
    Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers

    Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi

    The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers
    Vince Cable interview: Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'

    Vince Cable exclusive interview

    Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'
    Iwan Rheon interview: Game of Thrones star returns to his Welsh roots to record debut album

    Iwan Rheon is returning to his Welsh roots

    Rheon is best known for his role as the Bastard of Bolton. It's gruelling playing a sadistic torturer, he tells Craig McLean, but it hasn't stopped him recording an album of Welsh psychedelia
    Morne Hardenberg interview: Cameraman for BBC's upcoming show Shark on filming the ocean's most dangerous predator

    It's time for my close-up

    Meet the man who films great whites for a living
    Increasing numbers of homeless people in America keep their mobile phones on the streets

    Homeless people keep mobile phones

    A homeless person with a smartphone is a common sight in the US. And that's creating a network where the 'hobo' community can share information - and fight stigma - like never before