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Andrew Lloyd Webber, a reconsideration

[Andrew Lloyd Webber - Variations]

Back in junior year of high school, I got bit by the musical theater bug hard.

My music collection was practically an altar to the two titans of Broadway in the late ’80s — Stephen Sondheim and Andrew Lloyd Webber.

Both composers were the gateway drugs to a world of modern classical music. Without either one, I wouldn’t have developed a cozy relationship with dissonance.

Lloyd Webber has fallen pretty hard since then. His last hit show was Sunset Boulevard in 1993, and his work has made nary a ripple in pop culture consciousness since. Hell, I didn’t even know he made a sequel to The Phantom of the Opera.

A few weeks back during my usual crate digging, I ran across a vinyl copy of Variations, his pop/classical album of variations on Nicolo Paganini’s 24th Caprice. Lloyd Webber wrote the piece after losing a bet to his brother. It was later turned into the “Dance” half of the show Song and Dance.

At the height of my Lloyd Webber craze, I wanted to hear this album badly. The original album was released in 1978, and in 1988, it wasn’t available in any of the record shops I frequented in Honolulu.

I did find a cassette of an orchestral version performed by Julian Lloyd Webber with Lorin Maazel conducting the London Philharmonic. I had to use a lot of my imagination to hear a rock arrangement in an 80-piece orchestra.

By the time the work was reissued on CD in the US, my priorities had shifted. I started my own music studies in college, and I treated Lloyd Webber as a phase I needed to get through to find Igor Stravinsky, Philip Glass and John Zorn.

When I finished college, Lloyd Webber was completely out of my system, but my sister didn’t know that when she gifted me a compilation of his greatest hits. Till then, my entire experience with Lloyd Webber was through cast recordings. I listened to his shows in their entirety instead of cherry-picking the showstoppers.

That compilation revealed a weakness in Lloyd Webber’s canon. Well, any song excerpted from a show suffers from this problem but moreso with Lloyd Webber. Stripped from the dramatic context of the story, his songs can get pretty schlocky.

And it doesn’t help when interpreters milk the drama. Michael Crawford really drained that cash cow as much as he could.

So I forged ahead and pretty much forgot about Lloyd Webber. I made sure to get Jesus Christ SuperstarEvita and The Phantom of the Opera on CD, but I wrote off the rest of his canon.

Of course, that meant I couldn’t pass up Variations when I saw it in the record bin more than two decades later.

Lloyd Webber may have been a phase, but he was an important one. At the time I encountered him, I was impressionable enough to be swayed by his use of dissonance. He won’t be mistaken for Elliott Carter in a million years, but Lloyd Webber knew how to balance the showstoppers with the grit.

The overture to Cats isn’t anything you can hum, but to a 16-year-old dipping a toe into the larger world of avant-garde music, it’s not a bad introduction to how all twelve notes in a chromatic scale can be spun into a melody.

Variations was a lesson in how to construct a large-scale work from everything and anything. Some moments were pastiche, others pure sentimental manipulation. But Lloyd Webber threw in some ugly distortion at points, and none of it felt purposeless.

Yes, it was a concept album, but it was more than that.

In its own way, Variations opened up the possibility that music didn’t have to be exclusively high-brow or low-brow. It could synthesize both. It could be ancient and modern, melodic and discordant. It was what a teenager needed to hear to ease him into some thornier discussions about art and life later in adulthood.

 

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