- The Phantom of Reflection
There are generally two camps of musical theater aficionados: those who love Andrew Lloyd Webber and those who love Stephen Sondheim. Those who love Sondheim feel Webber is too spectacular (in the Aristotelian sense), too derivative (particularly of Puccini), and too commercial. Those who love Webber feel Sondheim's work is verbose, ill-structured, and pretentious. Both camps are right about some aspect of some work. No one composer or lyricist can please everyone. Perhaps I am too easy to please because at different parts of my life, and in different moods, I love both—so I was eager to read Webber's new memoir, Unmasked. Readers, like me, are probably looking for the memoir to be Webber's The Phantom of the Opera (1986), that is, a dark boat ride into the labyrinth of a musical theater genius. Instead, it was more akin to Starlight Express (1984), a quirky trip that looks cooler on the surface than it really is.
The text, a whopping 487 pages (excluding the appendix and index), only covers Webber's career to Phantom on Broadway. This means that it includes minute details and images that feel extraneous at best, especially when first presented to the reader. The first few chapters repeatedly reference a monkey present in Webber's early childhood. For those who know Webber's work intimately, or even those who just know Phantom, the haunting image of the monkey topped music box comes to mind, but Webber seems blissfully unaware of that imagistic connection. Also early in the text, Webber discusses the Bohemian characteristics of his Aunt Vi and the traditionalist background of his father a classical and church musician. He leaves those two opposites juxtaposed, but not analyzed. For a memoir geared at a general audience, the analysis should be completed by the author.
Again, for readers who know Webber's work, this juxtaposition seems to be demonstrated easily in the once-again popular Jesus Christ, Superstar (1970). Superstar, in its plot, takes a relatively conservative look at the adult life of Jesus with special focus on the events leading to his death, a period known in Christianity as Holy Week. The presentation of the events, however, is for many audience members non-traditional, especially given the increasingly wonderful portrayals of Herod, frequently as some version of a highly sexualized rock star. The early images seem to indicate the genesis of Webber's imagination, but Webber himself seems either unaware or unwilling to discuss it.
Another example of a chance for sustained analysis missed is in Webber's discussion of the genesis of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat (1970). He writes amusingly about his, and more specifically Tim Rice's, desire to be a pop star. He lets the readers hear snippets of his encounters with Elvis and the Beatles. He even drops in a reference to Potiphar being cast in the persona of Elvis, but again he fails to show the substantive connections between his experiences and the word he produces. It seems virtually impossible for such a brilliant composer to be unable to reflect on or analyze himself.
Webber is quick in the memoir to show the reader his indebtedness to Richard Rodgers. In all of Webber's recounting of his musical theater education, he credits Rodger's work. In the text, it posits Webber was a composer from early on. He never mentions Hammerstein, the lyricist of that famous pair and the musical father to Webber's American nemesis, Sondheim. Webber must be aware of the parallels: Two musical fathers inspire two musical sons who rival each other, even now. It is, in part, the story of Joseph, which may be part of the unconscious reason Webber was attracted to that Biblical tale. Webber never considers this or, if he does, never tells his readers.
The missed analysis that perhaps upsets the reader the most is that lack of sustained analysis, as evident in Webber's own missing discussion of modernism. For his two longest running and most beloved musicals, Cats (1981) and The Phantom of the Opera, and for what might be his most under-rated musical, Aspects...