A really useful half-century

That icon of classy composers Andrew Lloyd Webber is 50 years old. John Lyttle joins in the celebrations
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Indy Lifestyle Online
Lord Andrew Lloyd Webber has made a career - or should I say a killing? - out of... we wouldn't say composing. Let's say... constructing. Yes. That's it. Constructing.

Strike up the band: Andrew Lloyd Webber has made a career - or a killing - out of constructing musicals for people who don't much like musicals, but who do appreciate the labour-intensive, not to mention sheer mechanical know-how that goes into a making a chandelier plunge on cue, night after night, month after month, year after year as The Phantom of the Opera haunts the Haymarket. This alone makes Lloyd Webber an icon worth contemplating; the triumph of work ethic over art, the applauded master of heavy going, hold the light touch. Some call it showmanship. Which it is, if showmanship is showing the punters the money, the machine that has transformed the theatre into a theme park.

We are talking musicals for those who want a night out. A night out with foggy sewer rides, actors parading as pussies, roller-skating pretend trains and busy counterfeit notes they can quickly and confidently forget, no matter how many, many times the melody is recycled. Quick, what's the difference between That's All I Ask Of You and The Music of the Night? Okay. A trick question. And not one to fool aficionados who, in a very literal sense, know the score.

Still, this could be one answer to why Lloyd Webber productions keep on trucking. Musicals for people who want a night out can theoretically run forever, whereas musicals for people who actually like musicals have a limited audience and a finite span. (I am, of course, grossly underestimating the Good Lord's achievements. Across 26 years, 11 musicals and three wives, Lloyd Webber has also provided opera - phantoms of opera, indeed - for those who don't like opera. And created operetta - Aspects of Love - for those who have never heard of operetta, or had dismissed it as an inherently comedic form. (In the instance of Aspects, they are quite right.)

No more thoughts of darkness. Tonight is a night of a thousand stars, a moment to relax and muse upon the rewards of being Really Useful as opposed to Really Joyful; the journey from Joseph and His Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat to the upcoming Whistle Down the Wind. Tonight, a few thousand of the Good Lord's closest and carefully screened friends gather at the Albert Hall to help Lloyd Webber - were you aware that Lords may not possess hyphens? - to celebrate the big Five-0. (Fifty. Five decades. A half century. Sweet Jesus Christ Superstar, why does it seem so much longer?)

Problems, problems. Just what does one give a man with a knighthood, a life peerage and an estimated pounds 550 million fortune? (Apart from ear plugs.) Something sentimental with a guaranteed television pre-sale, naturally. Round-up the usual A, B and C-list suspects, happy to warble Tell Me On A Sunday on a Tuesday: Antonio Banderas, Elaine Paige, Julian Lloyd-Webber, Donny Osmond, Boyzone, Bonnie Tyler (previously believed lost in France), Sarah Brightman (performing I Don't Know How To Love Him), the singular Michael Ball, and - a drum roll and a girlish gasp, please - Glenn Close.

Glenn Close! We Lloyd-Webber observers couldn't be more stunned if Faye Dunaway and Patti Lupone were to turn up. But there's no way that's going to happen after both were dropped from Sunset Boulevard at a combined sum not unadjacent to one million dollars. (Actually, I'm stunned that the guest of honour himself is going to be there. Does anyone recall a vow to leave the country if Labour won the election?) Glenn, however, did play Norma Desmond, only to find herself dressed up to the nines but at sixes and sevens with the Maestro for inflating Sunset's LA box office figures by pounds 100,000 a week while she was on holiday.

Sing it like a laughably serious crypto-aria, sister, the overweening, overkeening sort that aims to impress the furrowed middle brow and instead hits the bulls-eye of pretension every time. On the other hand, why rely on singing With One Look when you can write an entire letter: "I am furious and insulted... a representative of your company went out of their way and lied to try to make out my contribution to this show is nothing... it sickens me... You... have made me feel... that ALL you care about is money... If I could leave tomorrow, I would."

Glenn, the inviolate artist stands proud. And don't forget to sign the birthday card with big kisses, dear.

I'm doing it, aren't I? The thing that upsets the Mail's Lynda Lee-Potter - note the hyphen - who writes, absolutely correctly: "There have been endless sneering complaints about Lloyd Webber's looks, his talent and his music." That is absolutely true. Mind you, Lee-Potter also hails the Good Lord as "the man who has single-handedly written the best musicals of his generation". This will be news to, among others, lyricists Tim Rice and Don Black, producer Cameron Mackintosh and a touchy pride of directors, home-grown and US imported.

But anyhow, the complaints are sneering and, by this late date, stale too; spectacle over content, a reliance on Puccini over originality, la- de-da, la-de-da. But what is one to do? If one agrees with the criticisms one is doomed to repeat them as often as, say, a Lloyd Webber motif. Besides, the man's so damn prolific. Influential, also - though who would want the lumbering Les Miserables, Miss Saigon or Martin Guerre as part of their legacy?

Perhaps not Lloyd Webber. Fifty is traditionally an opportunity to re- assess your life, wax nostalgic and touch up your roots. Thus, last year saw the Good Lord downsizing. Sunset, after all, had seen Lloyd Webber hoisted on his own petard, as costs overwhelmed profit. The Really Useful Company lost pounds 10m on unsecured loans from Coutts, causing, as the Mail reported, "some existing productions to be remodelled". A wine cellar worth pounds 3m was flogged off, as was the grand Eaton Square pile. Why, even contributions to the Tories were cut back.

Most tellingly, Whistle Down The Wind, terminated during its American try-outs, has been budgeted for the West End at a trifling pounds 2.2m and sees the Good Lord collaborating with (old-fashioned, over-the-top) "rock 'n' roller" Jim Steinman. Gone is the bloat, back is the daffy, pseudo-panto, semi-religious pop simplicity of Joseph and His Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat and Jesus Christ Superstar, complete with wailing guitars and a really heavy beat. Just in time to siphon off the trendy Rent audience, in fact. Whether it is modernisation or revival, one will have to wait until 1 July to discover, though whisper has it that the line from Joseph to Whistle is actually a circle. In the meanwhile, let us agree with Lee-Potter that Andrew Lloyd Webber has indisputably given pleasure to millions. Let us also record that on the occasion of his retirement he will certainly give pleasure to millions more. And that it really isn't useful to contractually ban first night parties - as Webber does - and then hire the Albert Hall to gather tributes for one's brilliantly-talented self.

I'm doing it again, aren't I?

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