Dubbed by the New York Times as the most commercially successful composer in history, Andrew Lloyd Webber radically redefined musicals in the ’80s. Where before there had been happy-go-lucky Rodgers and Hammerstein musicals, Lloyd Webber ushered in sheer blockbusters that didn’t shy away from darker themes. His synthesis of traditional musical elements with unusual ideas met with resounding success, capitalising on the live element of theatre to keep audiences on the edge of their seats and render musical theatre an experience with a capital ‘E’.
By the beginning of the ’80s, Lloyd Webber already had such smash hits as Joseph and the Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat, Jesus Christ Superstar and Evita under his belt. Each brought a new element to the genre – Joseph was a modern oratorio, Jesus Christ Superstar was arguably the first rock musical, and Evita was controversially based on recent political history.
Not content, Lloyd Webber wanted to adapt one of his favourite childhood books into a musical, but this was no easy task when said book was T.S. Eliot’s bizarre feline poetry anthology Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats. Even the cast were confused by the idea that the original poems were to be the only text. The resulting musical Cats, debuting in 1981, was therefore a showcase of Lloyd Webber’s eclecticism and sheer daring. By cleverly parodying American musical forms, jazz, electro-acoustic songs and even hymns, Cats made up for its lack of spoken dialogue through a combination of Lloyd Webber’s showmanship and the superb choreography of Gillian Lynne. The famous show tune ‘Memory’ won Lloyd Webber the Ivor Novello award for Best Song Musically and Lyrically, and the song was covered by Barbra Streisand, cementing its place in the public consciousness.
Starlight Express followed Cats in 1984, famously (and precariously) performed on roller skates and revolving around a child’s train set that comes to life. This could have been another adaptation of a children’s book series, Thomas the Tank Engine, but without the required permission from author Reverend Awdry, Lloyd Webber refashioned his train-based narrative into a reworking of the Cinderella story instead. The songs were challenging for the cast, requiring sopranos to sing a high G in ‘AC/DC’ – such vocal acrobatics are another hallmark of Lloyd Webber’s scores.
1986’s The Phantom of the Opera, however, is perhaps one of Lloyd Webber’s greatest works, and is currently the longest running show in Broadway history and second only to 1985’s Les Misérables on the West End. Phantom, a story of love, opera and a creepy subterranean genius, became the epitome of the ‘mega-musical’, an all-singing, all-dancing extravaganza of epic proportions. The afore-mentioned West End staples Les Misérables and 1989’s Miss Saigon are examples of shows that boast immersive special effects and elaborate sets in the Lloyd Webber mould. At this point, Phantom is thirty-two years old and a familiar title to many West End visitors, to the extent that audience members can be enticed into theatres with the promise of unparalleled spectacle.
Lloyd Webber is by no means everybody’s cup of tea. Allegations of plagiarism have been thrown around regarding several of his songs, some of which have been settled amicably, and can be summed up by Pink Floyd vocalist Roger Waters – “Life’s too long to bother with suing Andrew f**king Lloyd Webber.” Some might even argue that the plot of his musicals are melodramatic and the songs hideously over-the-top, but the earnestness and aura of grandeur surrounding his work has almost become synonymous with musicals in general. It is in the ’80s where Lloyd Webber came into his own and produced musical after musical that inspired the likes of Rent, Wicked and The Lion King, each of which took the groundbreaking path of Cats, Starlight Express and Phantom.