Through a bizarre coincidence, former collaborators Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice—who together wrote Joseph and The Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, Jesus Christ Superstar and Evita more than 30 years ago—have recently opened musicals that will close in London’s West End on the same day, March 29.
The simultaneous demises of their latest separate attempts—Lloyd Webber’s Stephen Ward and Rice’s From Here to Eternity—sounds like a festival for schadenfreude practitioners. At the very least, when the famous composer’s tuner finishes after a four-month run and the famous lyricist’s after an only slightly better five-month run, it certainly suggests an opportunity to comment on the current state of musicals.
As it turns out, much of the commenting has been done by Lloyd Webber and Rice themselves. Considering the lack of audience response to From Here to Eternity, Rice issued his assessment of the tuner climate, saying, “The public doesn’t seem interested in new musicals. They just want old songs repackaged.” Evidently he hasn’t noticed that Matilda and The Book of Mormon, both originals, are packing them in at theaters near his.
Pointing out that the difference between hits and failures is a “horrifyingly fine line,” Lloyd Webber was quoted as warning, “The costs of doing musicals have risen absolutely hugely. I don’t think I’ve got enough money to do very many more.”
Are you laughing? Lloyd Webber is speaking as the force behind The Phantom of the Opera, which, as its website reports, has grossed $5.6 billion world-wide since its 1986 opening. He’s speaking as a man who, in 1991, had six West End shows running. Rice is speaking as a lyricist whose songs in The Lion King are heard every night in many cities. He’s speaking as a lyricist whose fortune is estimated at $270 million (okay, pauper’s wages compared to Lloyd Webber’s, but still)—and his lyrics for Disney’s Aladdin are about to be exposed on Broadway. In other words, he’s not that averse to old songs repackaged.
So reading into their simultaneous shutterings doesn’t really yield much. What can be read into it is that maybe Stephen Ward (Lloyd Webber’s shortest run in his 40-year career) and From Here to Eternity aren’t very good. But heaven forbid that any creator would ever go so far as to mention that. Heaven forbid that any creator might admit something like, “I made a mistake this time and am sorry at the money wasted but at least I was able to give many people employment for a time.”
I did see both musicals and can say, as they complete their entrenchments at, respectively, the Aldwych and the Shaftesbury, that they aren’t deserving of long runs. I can also say they both have a few features to recommend them—Rice’s From Here to Eternity more so than Lloyd Webber’s Stephen Ward. There just aren’t enough of those elusive assets.
From Here to Eternity is an adaptation of James Jones’s novel and in some respects a better adaptation than the Oscar-winning 1953 movie. Librettist Bill Oakes retained scenes from the novel that were apparently considered too controversial for ‘50s filmgoers. There’s something to be said for newcomer Stuart Brayson’s music and plenty to be said for Javier de Frutos’s militarily athletic choreography. Also, the musical is flag-wavingly pro-America and, though it’s unlikely to be exported, could be bigger stateside than it is on England’s shores.
The least to be said in its favor is anything about Rice’s lyrics. That’s not far from the truth about all the lyrics he’s written throughout his enormously successful career. He’s risen to excitement a few times—certainly in a couple Evita songs—but read through many of his lyrics and what comes across is how prosaic they are. Recite the lyric to “I Don’t Know How to Love Him” aloud and hear a woefully plodding expression of love. One of the major problems with From Here to Eternity is that it revolves around two impassioned romantic affairs, but there are no even minimally stirring ballads. Perhaps Rice should be crafting “I don’t know how to write love songs / What to do, how to frame them.”
As for Stephen Ward, the pluses run to the performances by the leads. The eponymous real-life Stephen Ward, for those who don’t know, was the social-climbing osteopath who introduced M.P. John Profumo to goodtime girl Christine Keeler more than 50 years ago, thereby setting in motion a scandal that rocked the Tory government. Alexander Hanson is Ward, Charlotte Spencer is Keeler and Daniel Quinn is Profumo, and all are commendable.
The book and lyrics are by Christopher Hampton and frequent Lloyd Webber collaborator Don Black (their Tell Me on a Sunday is currently in revival at the Duchess), but the story line is sketchy and plays up the vulgarity, especially in a number about the splendors of sadomasochism. The musical does make a fairly convincing case that Ward became a scapegoat for higher-ups, and that’s clearly Lord Lloyd Webber’s intention. Incidentally, Hampton and Black were also Lloyd Webber’s co-creators on the superior Sunset Boulevard.
Lloyd Webber’s score is at best middling. Ever since he began composing, the poor little rich man has suffered regular attacks for lifting from predecessors, not the least Giacomo Puccini. But if the old one-liner that goes “Genius is knowing what to steal” has any validity, then Lloyd Webber is a genius and can indisputably be called one.
Over the years, he’s written numerous sumptuous melodies. His Sunset Boulevard overture alone is remarkable for its plangently evocative, even menacing, mood. But not one outstanding melody is here for the listening. In the second act when Profumo’s wife, actress Valerie Hobson (Joanna Riding, who can sing like a bird), gets to proclaim her abiding love, it’s to a deadly number called “I’m Hopeless When It Comes to You.” Shame on Black and Hampton, too, for being so leaden.
The Stephen Ward lyrics are so pedestrian that they prompt a lengthier rethink of all lyrics that have been set to Lloyd Webber’s melodies. There are some stirring numbers but not that many. Take Phantom’s “All I Ask of You.” The tune is indelible, but you don’t want to look too closely at the words.
Aside from T.S. Eliot, Lloyd Webber has never connected with a first-rate lyricist. (Remember: “Memory” from Cats was shaped by director Trevor Nunn from Eliot’s “Rhapsody on a Windy Night” and “Preludes.”) His partnership with Rice makes sense in terms of their starting out as schoolmates. But the later collaborators don’t match his abilities. Anyone might begin to wonder whether he has ever tried to join with more broadly talented men or women, and if not, why not? Or has he made overtures (no pun intended) and been turned down?
So Lloyd Webber and Rice addressing the future of musical comedy can’t be construed as passing along unassailable wisdom from on high. Instead, they come off as men who are, to play on the title of another Lloyd Webber misfire, whistling down the wind. It sounds as if they’re squashing sour grapes in the twilight of their careers. But maybe they’re merely in a temporary dip and, joined or apart, should get back to the drawing board, sadder but wiser.
“What makes a hit musical?” Lloyd Webber has asked, answering his own question with, “Fools give you reasons. Wise men never try.” Interestingly, in that reply he quotes from one of the finest love songs ever written, “Some Enchanted Evening” from South Pacific, cribbing one of the best lyricists who ever wrote for the theater: Oscar Hammerstein II. At last he reaches out to the greats.