My favorite reference to Andrew Lloyd Webber is Elvis Costello’s lyrics from his 1989 song, “God’s Comic.” He writes of God:
So there he was on a water-bed
Drinking a cola of a mystery brand
Reading an airport novelette
Listening to Andrew Lloyd-Webber's Requiem
He said, before it had really begun
"I prefer the one about my son
I've been wading through all this unbelievable junk
And wondering if I should have given
The world to the monkeys"
For whatever reason, Webber is a composer that musicians love to hate. Non-musicians, too. I recall an episode of a short-lived 1990’s sitcom called The Single Guy, in which the lead character is mocked for having purchased tickets to Cats. (Robert Russo has an excellent summary of Cats and why some people hate it.)
But love him or hate him, Webber has had the kind of success that warrants a memoir, in this case a 480-page book called Unmasked that puzzlingly only covers the author’s life up through the year 1986, when he was on the cusp of what some claim to be his crowning achievement, The Phantom of the Opera. No details about Aspects of Love, Sunset Boulevard and School of Rock, which is a shame, because I would have loved to have read less about Webber’s first forty years and more about his last thirty. The author admits, “my verbosity got in the way,” and that is an understatement. The details with which he describes the meetings, compositions, rehearsals, trials and tribulations of productions are sometimes interminable. As a musician, I got some of the name-dropping references, but there were hundreds of other details that ended up muddling up the narrative.
Details aren’t Webbers only problem, unfortunately. It’s good that he went into composing rather than writing, because as an author his prose is often cumbersome, filled with choppy sentences, unnecessarily convoluted similes and obscure references, not to mention questionable punctuation (he seems averse to the use of hyphens). When I actively chose to read faster, I found myself having to slow down, as the narrative lacked flow. Consider this sample from page 86:
“EMI had such a postboy. His name was martin Wilcox. I don’t know if he ever blagged his way into the top honcho’s offices. But he did get as far as Tim Rice.” This choppiness makes reading 480 pages very laborious, indeed.
Which is too bad, because Webber has had a hell of a career. Like many professionally successful people, he risked it all, leaving Oxford after only a year to pursue writing full-time with Tim Rice, the type of decision that often separates the wanna-bes from the real thing, and the accounts of Webber’s struggles to get productions like Evita and Cats off the ground are inspiring. The former opened to terrible reviews in New York but still ran for over 1500 performances, and despite the jokes sometimes directed at Cats, it was the longest running musical on Broadway until another musical broke the record: The Phantom of the Opera. So there you go
Webber wisely addresses his personal life sparingly, thankfully admitting to transgressions without dwelling on them, and referring to his past wives with respect. He delves a bit deeper into various professional rifts he’s had over the years, but usually only slightly, often referring to a heated topic only to conclude, “It’s best left at that,” but on occasion he quotes unflattering letters he’s received from the likes of Tim Rice and Ken Russell, effectively settling old scores by using his wrong-doer’s own words against them. Nevertheless, Webber’s decision not to write a tell-all book is refreshing, as is the modesty he portrays at various points, and I don’t get the sense that he’s feigning for the benefit of posterity, though I could be wrong. He writes in detail about which sections of his Requiem are subpar, and he admits to being in over his head when composing Variations.
I’ve only seen two Webber musicals on-stage: a traveling production of Aspects of Love in 1993; and Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat when my girls were toddlers. Other than that, I’m only familiar with a handful of tunes. Go figure. I do wonder if Andrew Lloyd Webber’s music will have the staying power of, say, Stephen Sondheim or Richard Rodgers, but as a musician, it was interesting for me to gain a little insight into the creative process and how melodies composed for one purpose were resurrected for other stories, and Webber also does an admirable job of covering the business side of the industry, describing financial difficulties and concepts like grand rights in an accessible manner.
He also shares a few tidbits he’s learned over the years from people he admires. After seeing Webber’s failed musical, Jeeves, Hal Prince wrote to Webber, “Remember, you can’t listen to a musical if you can’t look at it.” And a meeting with Richard Rodgers led his conclusion that no one can take in too many melodies in one listening, a fact that often leaves me scratching my head after a musical crams two hours of new material down patrons’ throats with no melodic reprises.
All in all, I’m glad I read Unmasked, but I’m afraid I wouldn’t recommend it except for the most ardent fan of musicals in general, or of Webber’s specifically.