Watch out Lloyd Webber, here comes Broadway's finest - and he's after you

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The Independent Online
THE CRITICS sneer at him; the public adore him. Audiences go in droves to his musicals, though the chattering classes claim never to have seen one. A theatre has been built in Europe just to accommodate one of his shows; and his wife sang many of his best known songs. He is - Frank Wildhorn.

It's a curriculum vitae that seems to scream Andrew Lloyd Webber. And Mr Wildhorn has a remarkable number of traits in common with Britain's own populist composer. But the American, whose name is virtually unknown over here, is now set to become Lord Lloyd-Webber's biggest rival.

He said yesterday he is planning to bring one of his musicals to London next year.

Yesterday, The Wall Street Journal described 40-year-old Wildhorn as "a New York born and bred Lord Andrew Lloyd Webber". Later this month, he will have three musicals playing simultaneously on Broadway: a new one, The Civil War, will join the current hits Jekyll & Hyde and The Scarlet Pimpernel - all with his trademark pop ballads. In two years, Jekyll has grossed $70m (pounds 44m); and, in 18 months, Pimpernel has brought in over $30m.

Last week, a custom-built theatre opened in Bremen, Germany, for the German version of Jekyll.

Despite his popular success, Wildhorn has suffered from a critical sniffiness that Lord Lloyd-Webber knows all too well. One New York reviewer described The Scarlet Pimpernel as "galumphing and dunder-headed". Another said Jekyll was "leaden".

Lord Lloyd-Webber may be rubbing his eyes at some of the other reflections of his life. Lloyd Webber cast his second wife, Sarah Brightman, as the female lead in Phantom of the Opera; Wildhorn builds shows around his singer wife, Linda Eder.

Both composers started their own companies to present their products: Lloyd Webber created The Really Useful Group, Wildhorn runs his own record label - Atlantic Theatre. His six-album oeuvre has sold a million units.

Wildhorn's song "Where Do Broken Hearts Go" went to the top of the US charts for Whitney Houston. Lloyd Webber's "No Matter What" topped the British charts for Boyzone.

Both composers write musicals based on classic stories. Both write the music for their songs, and work with a number of lyricists. Both are notable control freaks.

Freddie Gershon, chairman of Music Theater International in America, which licenses rights to musicals, said: "No composer since Andrew Lloyd Webber has taken such a leading role in controlling how his musicals get made."

He said of Wildhorn: "He is unbelievably tenacious. Part of it is ego, part of it is self-esteem, but for the world to make fun of you, and to believe that people will keep coming, no matter what the critics say, is an amazing thing."

Wildhorn who claims critics "have no clue what a hit song is" uses the Internet and has devoted fans who call themselves "Jekkies" or "Pimpies" monitoring news of his shows on a dozen websites.

Wildhorn plans to bring his shows to London. He said yesterday: "Talks are proceeding. Jekyll and Hyde and Pimpernel are made for London. Of course, I want to go there. Are you kidding?' He added that he had met Lloyd Webber, but didn't agree with the comparisons. "I'm a self-taught musician. I'm a blue-collar pop song writer," he said. "But of course I'm a fan. I'm a fan of anyone who writes melodies."

Lord Lloyd-Webber was not available yesterday to comment on the rival soon to challenge him on his own patch.

When Wildhorn does bring Jekyll to London next year, he will bypass the usual channels in marketing his shows. On Broadway, he does not advertise in The New York Times, putting ads for his shows direct on to cable networks. He also releases his show tunes on albums well before the opening of the shows "to put the music in the public consciousness".

Both Wildhorn and Lloyd Webber have obsessive followers of their shows. In Britain one fan of Phantom has changed her name to the name of the heroine and seen the show dozens of times. In New York, Salvatore Italiano, a Brooklyn music promoter for heavy metal bands, has seen Jekyll 31 times. "I came because I saw the television commercial," he says. The Jekyll ad was a 30-second spot featuring Wildhorn's actress wife dressed in a cleavage-revealing bodice.

Even before the opening of The Civil War, Wildhorn has started work on his next musical. It is called Havana, and the female lead is Mrs Wildhorn.