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.