Friday 3 January 2014

Stephen Ward the Musical, or, How is Andrew Lloyd Webber like Philip Glass?

Andrew Lloyd Webber's latest musical is, from the point of view of the musical theatre regular, an interesting beast. There's been a trend lately for musicals dealing ever more explicitly with sex, with plenty of bad language and nudity thrown in. Their creators, and some theatregoers appear to find this shocking (either pleasantly or horrifyingly depending on your point of view). I have usually found it ineffective and/or dull. Lloyd Webber's version of Stephen Ward feels a little like his attempt to join this bandwagon. That is there's plenty of swearing, nudity and sexual references. I'll grant you that this show produces a whole new interpretation of never having it so good, but apart from that none of this is new or terribly exciting – however it might possibly have passed the time better had Lloyd Webber not also wished to jump on a second bandwagon. This is the other principle of the modern musical that it ought to be trying to say something big – about sexual relations (e.g. Spring Awakening), religion (The Book of Mormon) or race (The Scottsboro Boys) to name a few recently used themes. I don't say this is necessarily a bad thing, but I think there is more room for the light frothy show other than the juke box musical (for example Kander & Ebb's Curtains) than this trend is allowing and a number of these shows are not nearly as thought provoking as they clearly want to think they are (The Scottsboro Boys is a notable, really hard-hitting exception). But to get back to the Stephen Ward story which is clearly rich ground for such an enterprise – miscarriage of justice, corruption of British political and criminal justice systems, British social hypocrisy. Here we run up against the other fundamental flaw in Lloyd Webber, and one I thought was also evident when I saw Sunset Boulevard. He just doesn't have the musical language to enable him to tackle such themes with success.

All the blame cannot be laid solely at the Lord's door. He is not especially helped by Christopher Hampton and Don Black who provide the book and the lyrics. Although the title would seem to be giving a whopping big clue as to the subject, the authors actually prove to be very unclear as to whose story they are telling. It begins as Ward's but by the end we have had segments on Keeler, Mandy Rice-Davis, Jack Profumo and, in one of the show's better numbers (not saying much) Valerie Hobson. This is compounded by the seeming inability of the writers really to get at what made any of the characters tick. I did not come out feeling I understood any of the characters any better than I did at the outset. For the Profumos David Profumo's family memoir does a far better job. There is a desperately trite feeling to many of the lyrics - as if anybody could be singing this rather than each one being an utterance keyed to that particular character. Finally, Lloyd Webber has particular problems with basic word setting – there's a pretty constant feeling of text being squeezed and scrambled into the musical phrasing.

Under the circumstances I felt considerable sympathy for the performers, in particular Alexander Hanson in the title role. He previously impressed me in the Menier Little Night Music. He does his level best to wring something out of the mediocre score and to carry us over his disappearance for a large chunk of Act Two, but it isn't enough. Joanna Riding, fine in Chichester's Pajama Game last summer, does a remarkable job of engagement given that she's barely on stage beyond a single scene. Anthony Calf also registers despite his brief appearances. I was less convinced by the performances of Charlotte Spencer as Keeler and Charlotte Blackledge as Rice-Davies neither of whom led me to feel much sympathy with their characters – though the show may be more to blame here than the performers. The rest of the cast do a solid enough job, especially in the trial.

Now, you may be wondering how is Andrew Lloyd Webber like Philip Glass, as suggested in the title. The problem both composers face, thinking here of Glass's Satyagraha recently seen at ENO, is that they appear to want to write a big issue based piece and neither of their compositional capacities is up to the challenge. Lloyd Webber scores over Glass in some areas: there is a fairly coherent story and the odd tune (things Glass emphatically does not believe in), but is worse in others, not least bankability. Top price stalls were on at the TKTS booth yesterday, that area was half empty and given people appeared to be being reallocated seats as they arrived I strongly suspect the Upper Circle was shut. Closing notices cannot, I suspect, be far away.


The Wagnerian said...

"He just doesn't have the musical language to enable him to tackle such themes with success." I personally think he doesn't have the musical language to deal with ANY subject. But that might be just me.

Unknown said...

I beg to differ with shortchanging Andrew's abilities. Especially in Sunset -- I am true musical snob and the opening note of the overture are worthy or a Waxman, Steiner or Rosza. Let's Have Lunch is jaunty, 5/4 in the title song. two showstoppers. etc. Evita, Aspects, JCS, ETC< ETC. Ward is a tough nut and I agree on the lyrics and book. BUT, Webber can frame a scene and use recitative far better than anyone in the 70's to the 90's. Sondheim he aint, but there are moments in every show that give a thrill, By Jeeves.....

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