Countdown: My Top Ten Andrew Lloyd Webber Songs

Countdown: My Top Ten Andrew Lloyd Webber Songs

Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber has been a Broadway fixture for the past 50 years. He wrote his first show with Tim Rice, The Likes of Us, in 1965. Today the theatre icon turns 70 years old. 

So what better time to look back on this polarizing icon of musical theatre by ranking, what I feel, are his best 10 pieces of work. 

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"Where Did the Rock Go?" : Andrew Lloyd Webber's Saddest Song?

Aaron Netsky

OnStage New York Critic

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I went into the new musical adaptation of School of Rock very skeptical. Skeptical that it could be as good as the movie, skeptical that Jack Black’s shadow could be thrown off, skeptical that Andrew Lloyd Webber should be doing a musical that seemed so trendy, being filled with children. I rarely go into a new musical with such reservations, and I admit it clouded my judgment the first time through (I was very lucky to get a second chance to appreciate it). There was one part, though, that got me even with the wall of skepticism I put up during that first viewing. It was the part when Sierra Boggess, as Principal Rosalie Mullins, stood up and lamented the loss of the music that used to drive her life. Upon her completion of “Where Did The Rock Go?” I very annoyingly turned to my theatrical companion and expressed my immediate excitement for the song. I hadn’t so loved a Webber song in years, and I love Webber songs. As I thought more about it, I began to think that it might be the saddest song he’s ever written.

If you recognize my name from the byline, you may recall that I once wrote an article for On Stage about what seemed to be a Holocaust song in Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, and if you made that connection, you might question why I think a principal singing about her more carefree days might be sadder than a Holocaust song. “Close Every Door” resembles but is not actually a Holocaust song, and in fact is ultimately a hopeful song, “for [he knows he] will find [his] own piece of mind.”

Thinking back on all of the Webber I know, which is pretty much all of it, I don’t really think he has very many songs that might be sadder. “Memory” springs immediately to mind, and is admittedly similar in theme to “Where Did The Rock Go?” Songs about lost or unrequited love, like “Nothing Like You’ve Ever Known,” might be as universal, but the feelings expressed in them are easier to get over than considering lost youth and opportunity. Those feelings don’t go away with a new love interest. In a show like Jesus Christ Superstar, there’s plenty of sadness, especially toward the end, but the songs themselves, including the title song sung as Jesus takes his final walk, are of a more radical, revolutionary tone, mocking and angry and looking for change.

The sad parts of Webber musicals are found more in moments than in songs. “Wishing You Were Somehow Here Again” is beautiful, but if you want a punch to the gut from The Phantom of the Opera, consider these few lines from toward the end: “This face which earned a mother’s fear and loathing, a mask my first unfeeling scrap of clothing.” His mother covered his face before she swaddled him. I don’t care how jealous you are of Phantom’s success, that hurts. But it’s not a song. Part of the reason for this is that Webber’s musicals tend to be about determined, unstoppable people, like Eva Peron or Marian Halcombe, or people too delusional to feel real, relatable sadness, like Norma Desmond. The Phantom has had a terrible existence, but we don’t feel bad for him because he kills people.

Now, using a superlative to describe anything is a risky game, and when I do it here I’m not objective. I can’t relate to a cat or a messiah or a phantom the way I can relate to Rosalie Mullins, which may be why her song gets to me more than their plights. I’m no one’s principal, but I have reached that point in life where the colors are not as bright, the music not as seductive, and I’m really noticing and wishing I’d done a few things differently that might have preserved those tones. “Somehow I got older, year by busy year. Yes, the songs kept playing, but I didn’t stop to hear.” She sings of “youth and swagger” being replaced by “grown-up doubt,” which I not only experience but see all over my facebook feed, from friends in all different walks of life but somehow at the same stage I am in that sense. Many lyrics express a very specific kind of loss: “Where do last year’s one hit wonders go to?” “The music faded out” “When did all the static fill the airwaves” “Now the only thing I’m hearing are the echoes disappearing.” It’s like “the day the music died” was Groundhog Day.

But the lyric that kills me is one of the last: “If you flip the record and start over, does it sound the way it did before?” No, Rosalie, it doesn’t. If you replay a CD or a sound file, something digital, it will sound exactly the same, but by playing a record you have worn it down just a little bit, and it will never sound exactly the same again. I don’t know how deliberate the imagery was, but major kudos to Glen Slater for that line in particular. After the climax of the song, she apologizes for getting all nostalgic and regretful, not knowing that her companion at the table, Dewey Finn, knows only too well what she’s going through, as do we all. School of Rock looks like its about kids, which was part of my reluctance to embrace it in the wake of musicals like Billy Elliot, Matilda, and Finding Neverland, and maybe the kid factor is a major contributor to financial success, but as in those musicals, the kids have their stories, but they are also means to adults’ ends. School of Rock is about exactly that sad reality of replaying records, that most tangible and earthy of listening experiences: it won’t sound the same, you can’t go back and re-do life. But you can keep listening, and find more to love upon future listenings (as I do whenever I re-listen to a Webber cast recording), and go forward in a positive new direction.

One of the drawbacks of writing about songs is I can only really quote the lyrics, which in this case are by Glen Slater, but I referred to the song as possibly the saddest by Andrew Lloyd Webber, who writes the music. So while I can’t quote the music, I want to finish up by describing it and its importance to my appreciation as best I can, and also write a word or two about Sierra Boggess’s voice for this song. First the voice: she’s an operatic singer, she was in Master Class and Phantom and Love Never Dies, and even in School of Rock sings everyone’s favorite operatic lick from the Queen of the Night’s aria in The Magic Flute.

But whereas you can’t really create operatic power from a light voice, you can focus operatic power into a light touch, and even though I know she can reach the top note in the arpeggio on the word “where” in the refrain of this song, the delicate way that she sings that word, seemingly almost breaking at the top, brings so much feeling to the song. And I don’t know enough about rock history to know who Webber was trying to emulate with “Where Did the Rock Go?” though my instinct tells me Stevie Nicks, since the characters bond over her music just before the song starts, but from the kind of folk-rock feel of the solo guitar at the beginning to the almost Jesus Christ Superstar-like passion at the climax, I cannot imagine such a song sounding any other way. There’s a simple yearning in the music that represents how collected and organized Rosalie Mullins and her feelings about music are, with a hint of the freedom they so desire that nearly breaks through. Makes me want to learn guitar just so I can perform this song.

 

Aaron Netsky writes the 366 Days/366 Musicals blog on tumblr (http://366days366musicals.tumblr.com) and writes about culture and politics at Cantonaut (http://cantonaut.blogspot.com). He has also been published on ThoughtCatalog.com and TheHumanist.com. Follow him on Twitter @AaronNetsky. 

The Holocaust & Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat

Aaron Netsky

Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat is not the most well regarded of musicals. Many see it as no more than a patchwork of musical styles, and it is an easy target for musical theatre purists. I happen to love it, and it is the first musical I was ever involved in, sitting by the side of the “stage” in the gym when I was in sixth grade, part of the set crew of the middle school production. Yes, the song list could read “The Rock Song,” “The Country Song,” “The Reggae Song,” etc., but they are all tons of fun and frequently clever. I’ve always thought of “Close Every Door” as simply a powerful ballad of loneliness. I recently realized, though, it actually feels much deeper.

I’m not the first to see the Holocaust themes in the lyrics of this song. The lyrics “Just give me a number instead of my name” and “Destroy me completely, then throw me away” are often cited as obvious references to what it was like for Jews in concentration camps, and I would add just about every other lyric in the song, minus the uplifting “peace of mind” passages. After all, Joseph was only imprisoned in Egypt for allegedly seducing Potiphar’s wife, and he had his dreams to keep him hopeful. When he sings “Forget all about me and let me decay,” he probably doesn’t think that’s a real possibility, like the Jews in the ghettos and camps.

The music of “Close Every Door” also has a hint of hopefulness during the refrain, which somewhat resembles Israel’s national anthem, but it mostly sounds like one of the songs that came out of the ghettos, especially when the chorus of children (in the Donny Osmond home video version of Joseph) starts singing. It’s haunting and lonely. One of the most beautiful songs to come out of the ghettos was “Unter Dayne Vayse Shtern,” or “Under These White Stars.” Some of the lyrics from that, translated into English, are “But in cellars, in holes the murderous quiet weeps” and “I hang – a ruptured string, and I sing to you.” Like Joseph, the singer knows “the answers lie far from this world,” but is desperately confused as to why he cannot find them. “Where are you, where?” the singer asks in “Shtern.” He’s looking for God, and God is not answering, no matter how hard he looks.

“Unter Dayne Vayse Shtern” was written as a poem by Avraham Sutzkever, and set to music by Avrom Brudno for a musical revue in the particularly culturally active Vilna Ghetto. Maria Friedman, who played the narrator in the Osmond Joseph video, sang the song in a musical called Ghetto in 1989, and on her album Now and Then. Joseph is a story about a hopeful time, before the Jews found the Promised Land, and the songs that came out of the ghetto are from a time long since. Chances are Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice knew what they were doing with “Close Every Door.” Because of the nature of the songs they were evoking, though, it is less obvious than the rest of the score, and therefore harder to fully grasp on a first listen, when we are immersed in Joseph’s own troubles. But it adds depth to a musical often seen as frivolous, and which is why it is always good to go back for second listens.

Aaron Netsky writes the 366 Days/366 Musicals blog (http://366days366musicals.tumblr.com). It's only two months in, so there is still plenty of time to catch up on some very interesting and obscure musicals.  

Godspell or Jesus Christ Superstar?

Chris Peterson

In the summer of 1998, movie audiences were "treated" to rival movies about meteors that were going to destroy the planet unless a small team of astronauts saved the day. And while Deep Impact and Armageddon weren't exactly cinematic classics, they certainly gave their respective audiences plenty to talk about. 

The Broadway community was given a similar situation in 1971 when two shows opened in New York about the last days of Jesus. The shows were Jesus Christ Superstar and Godspell.

While both pieces focus on the same characters and are arguably the best works from their respective composers, they are much different from one another both musically and thematically. JSC is a rock opera while Godspell dabbles in various musical styles. While Godspell focuses on the Gospel according to Matthew, JSC takes its interpretation from multiple Gospels. In my opinion, Godspell is more celebratory while JSC is more investigatory. While JSC stirred up a lot of controversy, Godspell is considered a safe choice and endorsed by many church groups. In most cases it comes down between a show that is full of improvisation versus envelope pushing. 

But which one is better? There probably isn't an answer for that. My personal favorite is Godspell but only because I've been involved with multiple productions of it and never have done JSC. 

I asked my friend who I know has done both productions and he sent me the following:

Godspell I see as a far more reverent piece. The script is primarily taken from the gospels of St Matthew and the show was written and conceived in a very communal environment where the original cast had direct input to the songs and construction of the show and therefore has a much more personal feel to it. Also, the staging of Godspell is a very organic process. The version you've seen in the film mirrors the original off-Broadway production where the cast were portrayed as children playing games and learning through the parables. Later productions (including mine) were far different staging it in more modern settings and allowing the show to evolve. Also, there is a very improvisational aspect to the show in that the staging of the parables themselves are very up to interpretation and open to adding modern pop culture to the show making it accessible to newer audiences. It's these aspects that I think make Godspell a much more artistic show.

'Superstar' on the other hand is not only a fantastic piece of political and social commentary told through the final days of Jesus Christ, it is also Andrew Lloyd Webber's most brilliant musical he ever wrote! The show I find to be much more about Judas Iscariot, portraying him as a tragic figure and Jesus is portrayed more as a prophet who's divinity is constantly in question and is seen more as a man than in any other portrayal. It is a show that over thirty years later is still seen as controversial and really pushes the envelope in terms of telling the story of this historic and biblical figure.

In the end I enjoy both shows for different reasons and feel both are fantastic works of theatre that should be seen by everyone.