This person’s genius settled on my perception slowly, partly because my church friends were disparaging his work as ‘devilish’. Almost literally, because Andrew Lloyd Webber gave us a shrieking Judas, and a barely more peaceful Jesus, and my friends struggled to swallow that. So it was only after some time, and with the sense that maybe I was accessing something heretical and evil, that I first gave Jesus Christ Superstar a hearing. It was stunning, and, in a way not recognised by my friends, inspiring. I’ve listened to it many times since then (over fifty years, actually, because it opened on Broadway on Oct. 12, 1971 – fifty years ago last week), and I still find its soaring passions inspiring, moving.
I learnt that, although this was his first big hit show (in collaboration with lyricist Tim Rice), it was not their first rodeo. It was their third. His first musical, about the establishment of the Barnardo charity homes, written (also with Rice) when he was seventeen, didn’t gain much traction; his second, Joseph and his Coat of Many Colours, also commenced as a seventeen-year-old, was produced for a local school, and was only fifteen minutes long! It was such a success though that it climbed all the way to London’s West End, and New York’s Broadway, by which time it was more than two hours long.
After a couple of hearings, and as I began to marvel at the intricacies of Webber’s Superstar score, another one came out – Evita. One of life’s lump-in-throat memories is watching my disabled three-year-old daughter dancing to Don’t Cry for me, Argentina in the aisle of Hamilton’s Founders Theatre.
And down the years Webber has gifted us twenty rock operas of various stripes, including the better known Starlight Express, Cats, and Phantom of the Opera; with his latest, Cinderella, now playing in London.
Is Webber a genius? Many readers will say no; and there have been other great composers in recent times – Rogers and Hammerstein (Sound of Music), George Gershwin (Porgy and Bess), Leonard Bernstein (West Side Story), Lerner and Loewe (My Fair Lady) and Schonberg (Les Misérables) among them. But none was as prolific as Webber. It’s a tough industry, and his twenty-fold portfolio alone elevates him above the others. And, as already referenced, the intricacies and musical arrangement of his compositions, to my ear, set him apart. Does he rank with Newton, Shakespeare and Beethoven? Or even Curie or Edison or Einstein or Goethe or Churchill or Banksie?
Maybe no, but to me – without a doubt.
One final note of mystification: how could a non-Christian pairing (in 1971, when asked if he was a Christian, Webber told the New York Times he was an agnostic, although he saw Jesus as “one of the great figures of history”) write such perceptive religious and (arguably) Christian material? A head-shaking mystery to me. Although, perhaps it’s telling that his Jesus stayed unresurrected and it was Judas who came back to life; and perhaps my church friends were more perceptive than me after all.
Whatever, Andrew Lloyd Webber: in my opinion an unalloyed genius.