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
Joel Edgerton, John Turturro and Christian Bale in Exodus: Gods and Kings
film Ridley Scott reveals truth behind casting decisions of Exodus
Arts and Entertainment
An unseen image of Kurt Cobain at home featured in the film 'Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck'
filmThe singers widow and former bandmates have approved project
Arts and Entertainment
Jake Quickenden and Edwina Currie are joining the I'm A Celebrity...Get Me Out Of Here! camp
Arts and Entertainment
George Mpanga has been shortlisted for the Critics’ Choice prize
Arts and Entertainment
Roisin, James and Sanjay in the boardroom
tvReview: This week's failing project manager had to go
Arts and Entertainment
Carrie Hope Fletcher
booksFirst video bloggers conquered YouTube. Now they want us to buy their books
Arts and Entertainment
Damien Hirst
artCoalition's anti-culture policy and cuts in local authority spending to blame, says academic
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
A comedy show alumni who has gone on to be a big star, Jon Stewart
tvRival television sketch shows vie for influential alumni
Arts and Entertainment
Jason goes on a special mission for the queen
tvReview: Everyone loves a CGI Cyclops and the BBC's Saturday night charmer is getting epic
Arts and Entertainment
Image has been released by the BBC
Arts and Entertainment
Will there ever be a Friends reunion?
Harry Hill plays the Professor in the show and hopes it will help boost interest in science among young people
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
A Van Gogh sold at Sotheby’s earlier this month
Arts and Entertainment

MusicThe band accidentally called Londoners the C-word

Arts and Entertainment
It would 'mean a great deal' to Angelina Jolie if she won the best director Oscar for Unbroken

Film 'I've never been comfortable on-screen', she says

Arts and Entertainment
Winnie the Pooh has been branded 'inappropriate' in Poland
Arts and Entertainment
Lee Evans is quitting comedy to spend more time with his wife and daughter

Arts and Entertainment
American singer, acclaimed actor of stage and screen, political activist and civil rights campaigner Paul Robeson (1898 - 1976), rehearses in relaxed mood at the piano.
filmSinger, actor, activist, athlete: Paul Robeson was a cultural giant. But prejudice and intolerance drove him to a miserable death. Now his story is to be told in film...
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift is dominating album and singles charts worldwide

Arts and Entertainment
Kieron Richardson plays gay character Ste Hay in Channel 4 soap Hollyoaks

Arts and Entertainment
Midge Ure and Sir Bob Geldof outside the Notting Hill recording studios for Band Aid 30

Arts and Entertainment
Look out: Broad shoulders take Idris Elba’s DCI John Luther a long way
tvIdris Elba will appear in two special episodes for the BBC next year
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

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

    Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

    Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

    It's in all our interests to look after servicemen and women who fall on hard times, say party leaders
    Millionaire Sol Campbell wades into wealthy backlash against Labour's mansion tax

    Sol Campbell cries foul at Labour's mansion tax

    The former England defender joins Myleene Klass, Griff Rhys Jones and Melvyn Bragg in criticising proposals
    Nicolas Sarkozy returns: The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?

    Sarkozy returns

    The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?
    Is the criticism of Ed Miliband a coded form of anti-Semitism?

    Is the criticism of Miliband anti-Semitic?

    Attacks on the Labour leader have coalesced around a sense that he is different, weird, a man apart. But is the criticism more sinister?
    Ouija boards are the must-have gift this Christmas, fuelled by a schlock horror film

    Ouija boards are the must-have festive gift

    Simon Usborne explores the appeal - and mysteries - of a century-old parlour game
    There's a Good Girl exhibition: How female creatives are changing the way women are portrayed in advertising

    In pictures: There's a Good Girl exhibition

    The new exhibition reveals how female creatives are changing the way women are portrayed in advertising
    UK firm Biscuiteers is giving cookies a makeover - from advent calendars to doll's houses

    UK firm Biscuiteers is giving cookies a makeover

    It worked with cupcakes, doughnuts and macarons so no wonder someone decided to revamp the humble biscuit
    Can SkySaga capture the Minecraft magic?

    Can SkySaga capture the Minecraft magic?

    It's no surprise that the building game born in Sweden in 2009 and now played by millions, has imitators keen to construct their own mega money-spinner
    The King's School is way ahead of the pack when it comes to using the latest classroom technology

    Staying connected: The King's School

    The school in Cambridgeshire is ahead of the pack when it comes to using the latest classroom technology. Richard Garner discovers how teachers and pupils stay connected
    Christmas 2014: 23 best women's perfumes

    Festively fragrant: the best women's perfumes

    Give a loved one a luxe fragrance this year or treat yourself to a sensual pick-me-up
    Arsenal vs Borussia Dortmund: Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain celebrates century with trademark display of speed and intuition

    Arsenal vs Borussia Dortmund

    The Ox celebrates century with trademark display of speed and intuition
    Billy Joe Saunders vs Chris Eubank Jnr: When two worlds collide

    When two worlds collide

    Traveller Billy Joe Saunders did not have a pampered public-school upbringing - unlike Saturday’s opponent Chris Eubank Jnr
    Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: Drifting and forgotten - turning lives around for ex-soldiers

    Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: Turning lives around for ex-soldiers

    Our partner charities help veterans on the brink – and get them back on their feet
    Putin’s far-right ambition: Think-tank reveals how Russian President is wooing – and funding – populist parties across Europe to gain influence in the EU

    Putin’s far-right ambition

    Think-tank reveals how Russian President is wooing – and funding – populist parties across Europe to gain influence in the EU
    Tove Jansson's Moominland: What was the inspiration for Finland's most famous family?

    Escape to Moominland

    What was the inspiration for Finland's most famous family?