at the Auditorium Theatre

October 17-22

I have no doubt that composer Andrew Lloyd Webber will be known to future generations as the most successful opera composer of the second half of the 20th century. Few, I suppose, would question his unparalleled success. Not only is his Cats still playing on Broadway and in London’s West End after almost nine years–an all-time record–but two other Lloyd Webber shows are also running in each district, none with a clear end in sight. Some might question calling him an opera composer, but there is virtually no spoken dialogue in a Lloyd Webber show and every nuance of story telling comes directly from his carefully crafted scores–something that cannot be said of the musicals of Rodgers and Hammerstein, or Lerner and Loewe, or even of George Gershwin or Leonard Bernstein.

Perhaps Lloyd Webber’s operatic style would be more obvious if his productions employed operatically trained singers, something the shows could easily withstand, perhaps even benefit from. Today no one questions Porgy and Bess being routinely presented by opera companies, although at the time it was written theater people thought it was an opera and opera people thought it was a musical. Similarly, there can be little doubt that the great divas of tomorrow will be sinking their teeth into the title role of Evita and that even the most conservative opera companies will be presenting Jesus Christ Superstar and The Phantom of the Opera.

Oh, yes, I know many opera lovers and serious music buffs will protest that Lloyd Webber appeals to a wide public and that therefore his work represents the lowest common denominator possible. His music is commercial, to be sure, but it has a warmth, vitality, and style that are unmistakably his own. And while he certainly has an incredible nose for what the public wants, his shows never cater directly to public taste; rather, he knows exactly where to meet his audience so that he can take it on a challenging journey, which I would argue actually raises its aesthetic sensitivities.

Some might add that Lloyd Webber is shamelessly Romantic and tonal, and that he incorporates rock and pop idioms–surely no contemporary opera composer worthy of the title would do such things. Yet Lloyd Webber is certainly no more romantically manipulative than Puccini, who was writing beautiful but syrupy melodies at a time when tonality was breaking down. Nor is he more tonal than minimalist opera composers such as Philip Glass and John Adams. As for incorporating popular music and its techniques and rhythms, what was Verdi doing with all of those oompah-pahs? Sure, the situations of Cats and Starlight Express are silly, but they look like Shakespeare next to most Gilbert and Sullivan–and they don’t look too bad next to Cosi fan tutte or The Magic Flute.

What I find particularly fascinating about Lloyd Webber is the clever way he has continued the Wagnerian tradition of music drama. Not only does he put the music and drama on absolutely equal terms, with each one a full partner to the other (opera is seldom so dramatic), but he also makes full use of the Wagnerian leitmotiv, by associating particular music with major characters and places that can then be heard in a variety of guises and combinations.

If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, then Lloyd Webber is one of the most flattered composers of our time. But what pale imitations such as Les miserables and Chess lack is not only Lloyd Webber’s extraordinary ability to write simple, heartfelt, and memorable melodies, but also his ingenious way of combining lush, lyrical music with popular-music idioms in a way that perfectly complements what is happening onstage. In fact, Lloyd Webber’s shows are so theatrical that you may end up wondering how well the music could stand up on its own–without the acting, colorful costumes, scenery, and special effects.

“The Music of Andrew Lloyd Webber in Concert” stood the music on its own. This concert of his best-known songs and theater music hit town last week, complete with a 70-piece orchestra–the economics of the theater usually dictate that his scores be pared down to small ensembles that lean heavily on electronics, although his original conceptions are almost always orchestral on a grand scale. Also along was an ensemble of 15 singers–many from past Lloyd Webber productions and all “show” voices–and, of course, soprano Sarah Brightman. Brightman is Lloyd Webber’s wife (which meant the composer was along to take a final bow, at least on opening night), and she’s also the creator of some of Lloyd Webber’s classic roles, most recently Christine in The Phantom of the Opera.

Conducted by Michael Reed, the orchestra began the evening with the overture from the first Lloyd Webber success, Jesus Christ Superstar, written in 1971. Despite a shaky start and some brass flubs early on, the orchestra effectively evoked the essence of the rock rhythms, although it lacked the edge that this music can have at its best. There also seemed little reason to have amplified the orchestra so much in a theater with the superb acoustics of the Auditorium.

Jesus Christ Superstar began as a double album, and it was only after its success that a Broadway production was planned. That totally distorted the work’s original character: not a rock opera so much as an oratorio or passion. Ray Walker sang the title song with emotion and clarity, but the ensemble was not fully warmed up, and the piece lacked its customary energy. By the time Sarah Brightman came out and sang Mary Magdalene’s “Everything’s Alright” and “I Don’t Know How to Love Him,” songs made famous by Yvonne Elliman, things were faring much better. Brightman was amplified–as were all the singers–so her true power was impossible to gauge (I suspect she has a small to midsized voice), but her ability to clearly enunciate and to bring off the tenderness and confusion of Magdalene’s love for Jesus was extraordinary.

A suite from Lloyd Webber’s earlier work Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat was also included. Originally a 20-minute cantata for a school-children’s choir, the work grew and took on a life of its own. Lloyd Webber’s later popularity inspired many revivals, but though the work does have a certain charm, I’ve always found it to be a mere taste of works to come. Ken Ward sang an effective Joseph and even wore a multicolored sport coat as he strutted along.

Evita, which also began as a double album, marks the period when Lloyd Webber came fully into his own as a composer. It was represented by an orchestral suite and two ballads–actually arias–sung by Brightman. “Another Suitcase in Another Hall” is a hauntingly beautiful exploration of the transient life of a prostitute evicted by Evita, and “Don’t Cry for Me Argentina” is Evita’s public anthem, which takes a variety of forms during the course of the story. In singing the act-one finale–in which Evita tries to justify her new position as wife of the president as a way of being able to help the poor of the country–Brightman gave a moving performance that reminded me that Lloyd Webber may have reached his summit with this extraordinary work.

Many post-Evita scores became frivolous, silly affairs, largely because of Lloyd Webber’s breakup with librettist Tim Rice, whose witty, rhythmic lyrics have given impetus to most of Lloyd Webber’s finest music. Cats and Starlight Express have little drama, though they do have some wonderful moments musically. Neither work does very much for me, though it is difficult not to be swept away by the lyrical beauty and melancholy mood of “Memory.”

Song and Dance was a theatrical hybrid of two Lloyd Webber works: Variations, a Paganini-based instrumental composition written for his cellist brother Julian, and Tell Me on a Sunday, a short soliloquy about a middle-aged English actress and her adventures and mishaps in New York. Brightman was hilarious as she played the character as herself (obviously drawing from pre-Lloyd Webber days), making phone calls to the likes of Steven Spielberg to let him know she was in town and even singing over the phone for his unimpressed secretary.

The Lloyd Webber Requiem–written as a memorial to his father and premiered with tenor Placido Domingo, Brightman, boy soprano Paul Miles-Kingston, and conductor Lorin Maazel in 1985–has the unusual distinction of bringing Latin to the pop charts with “Pie Jesu.” The work’s original beauty came from the unique pairing of Brightman and Miles-Kingston, both of whom sang with very straight, pure tones and sounded almost ethereal. That effect was obliterated when Brightman sang it as a solo, with a flute playing the line given to the boy soprano. A faster tempo and a synthesizer instead of an organ further marred the effect.

Most of the second half of the program was given over to excerpts from The Phantom of the Opera, which will open here in May at the Auditorium Theatre. For this work Lloyd Webber returned to story telling in the most dramatic sense, which has always been responsible for his most powerful scores. Not surprisingly, these were the most polished excerpts of the evening. Brightman was superb in the role that she created in London and on Broadway, with effective foils in Ken Ward and Robert Michael Baker. She even sang “The Music of the Night,” which is sung by the phantom in the show; but since it had originally been promised to her, she explained, fair was fair.

Everything ended on a more upbeat note, as the entire ensemble sang the opening anthem “Love Changes Everything” from Lloyd Webber’s newest London show, Aspects of Love.