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In some circles it's not cool to dig ALW, but I'm proud to admit it
Andrew Lloyd Webber currently has three (soon to be four!) musicals running on Broadway: Cats, School of Rock, and The Phantom of the Opera. The latter is the longest-running production ever on the Main Stem, as well as one of the highest-grossing shows of all time. Plus he's been knighted. Clearly, ALW is no underdog! He certainly doesn't need my help.
And yet I feel compelled to speak up on his behalf since so many of my fellow musical theatre lovers are awfully condescending about his work. He's been used as a punching bag/punch line since around the time the original Cats debuted. Apparently, "serious" theatregoers are supposed to adore Stephen Sondheim, not Sir Lloyd Webber. This becomes especially apparent on their shared birthday of March 22, when social media invariably favors one over the other. So I just cannot remain an anonymous fan any longer:
Hello, my name is Linda Buchwald, and I love Andrew Lloyd Webber.
The other night I saw the revival of the late Jonathan Larson's autobiographical musical Tick, Tick...Boom!. At one point, someone compares the Larson character to Lloyd Webber and he cringes. It gets a huge laugh because everyone associates ALW with a certain type of musical: over-the-top spectacles for tourists. Yet if you look back on ALW's varied career, he has more in common with Larson than you might realize. Larson's Rent, the generation-defining rock opera of the '90s, feels like a musical descendant of ALW's 'Jesus Christ Superstar, which started as a 1970 rock-opera concept album and was later developed into a stage show.
My personal ALW favorite, Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, really shows off his versatility. The musical numbers range in style from Western to calypso to rock 'n roll. And in a particularly effective move, predating Something Rotten!'s rock god Shakespeare by decades, Pharaoh is portrayed as an Elvis-like figure. Joseph was written in 1968 but didn't make it to Broadway until 1982, and was only revived once a decade later. Yet it's performed in London all the time. Can we please get another NYC production going?
And it's not just his work that I admire. ALW donates a ton of money to various arts initiatives. Plus, he's a surprisingly entertaining guy. I've watched a bunch of the British TV talent competitions he produced online -- How Do You Solve A Problem Like Maria? (casting for Maria in The Sound of Music); Any Dream Will Do (casting for the title role in Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat); I'd Do Anything (casting for various roles in Oliver!); and Superstar (casting for Jesus himself). If you've never seen any of those, stop what you're doing and go down the rabbit hole. ALW often made constructive comments, but the best moments were when he got snarky. Perhaps the result of decades of snobs putting him down?
Mostly I ♥ ALW because his songs are catchy. I defy you to see any of his shows and not have at least one number stuck in your head for days after. No, not all of his work is on the same level. In fact, I count one of his musicals as the worst I've ever seen. (I won't write it here, but if you tweet me I'll DM you.) But I don't love all of Sondheim's musicals, either. When you're prolific, there are bound to be misses.
ALW definitely does not deserve to have his entire oeuvre dismissed. With School of Rock his first critical hit in decades, Phantom still a date-night destination, and Cats back slinking around on Broadway, perhaps "a new day will begin."
Are you also a big ALW fan? Share your love in the comments.
Photos by Matthew Murphy. Top image: Andy Huntington Jones in Cats.