Webber knows how to write fancy rock

January 05, 1992|By Knight-Ridder News Service

The Victorians used to say the sun never sets on the British Empire. These days, it never sets on Andrew Lloyd Webber.

Mr. Webber is his own empire, a commercial colossus whose songs sit astride the pop musical world the way the English navy did the 19th-century one. In Germany, a Teutonic Elvis Presley figure called Greaseball sings in Lloyd Webber's "Starlight Express" in the town of Bochum. In the United States, Barbra Streisand and everybody else who was singing "Send in the Clowns" a generation ago have recorded "Memory" from Lloyd Webber's "Cats."

In the year of our Lloyd 1991, the composer's greatest hits were on Broadway, in London's West End, in Las Vegas and in other foreign countries, and on pop album racks. Lloyd Webber is seeping into the mass musical market more widely than even Jerry Herman did in the 1960s with such songs as "Hello, Dolly!"

Some say he is oozing into it. He may not be a Mozart, a defensive Michael Walsh, his American biographer, says, "but neither is he Jerry Herman, or Pee-wee Herman, for that matter."

How many times can a listener stand to hear "Don't Cry for Me, Argentina," "Memory" or "I Don't Know How to Love Him," not to mention the more recent but ubiquitous "All I Ask of You" from "Phantom of the Opera"?

What makes Lloyd Webber a pop star is this: He knows how to write fancy rock 'n' roll, and he pours on the volume. Invariably, his songs sound much bigger in performance than they are. Lloyd Webber learned his lesson with a show called "Jeeves."

"Jeeves," based on the P.G. Wodehouse stories of the know-it-all butler, was scored for a band with banjos! It went down the pipe in 48 performances in London in 1975. Lloyd Webber went immediately to the mock-operatic bombast of "Evita," and he's never looked back.

To his credit, while he may like the image of being (as Walsh calls him) a modern-day Rossini, Lloyd Weber is most successful at big-record productions. The just-out "Michael Crawford Performs Andrew Lloyd Webber" with a backup battalion of Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, was produced at the hallowed sanctuary of big-time modern rock 'n' roll: the Beatles' old Abbey Road Studios in London.

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