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The Curiosity of Cats

When the musical opened on Broadway, 25 years ago, few predicted its amazing success—or what it would mean for composer Andrew Lloyd Webber

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Neither music nor melodies arise or exist in a vacuum. Irving Berlin was accused by none other than Scott Joplin of having stolen the theme of "Alexander's Ragtime Band" from the final number of Joplin's opera, Treemonisha, the deeply moving "A Real Slow Drag." (Berlin was probably innocent.) Early Richard Rodgers owes a clear debt to ragtime, as does the music of Harry Warren, the great Warner Bros. composer and songwriter. Lloyd Webber's case is even more complicated.

From his father, he absorbed the whole spectrum of British art music, from Thomas Tallis to Sir Edward Elgar and Ralph Vaughan Williams. His younger brother, Julian, has had a successful career as a classical cellist. And Andrew's own predilections led him, after a life-changing exposure to the movie South Pacific in his youth, to Broadway. Coming of age in the 1960s (he was born on March 22, 1948), Lloyd Webber drank deeply at the trough of rock 'n' roll, internalizing its harmonies and rhythms and spitting them back out again in Jesus Christ Superstar. Lloyd Webber is a musical sponge, promiscuously soaking up influences that include not only music, but Victorian art and architecture as well. Politically conservative, he's the quintessential Tory, adrift in a tsunami of cultural and demographic change, desperately clinging to what made Britain great.

But does that make him a plagiarist? Absolutely not.

"Memory" turned out to be a big hit and a best-selling single for Barbra Streisand. It is, however, anomalous among Lloyd Webber's output for the simple reason that Lloyd Webber does not write songs, he writes shows. Of course, the shows are made up of individual numbers, but the very scarcity of "hit" songs from Lloyd Webber productions—quick, name another besides "Don't Cry for Me, Argentina"—sets his shows apart from those of Irving Berlin and Rodgers and Hammerstein. He has long (since Superstar, in fact) protested that he doesn't write musicals, he writes operas, and it is long past time that critics take him at his word.

Through the years, Lloyd Webber's most prominent American critic and chief antagonist has been Frank Rich, the former drama critic of the New York Times. In his time on the drama desk, the "Butcher of Broadway," as he was known, was notorious for working political references into his reviews; today, he works showbiz references into his weekly political column. Like most drama critics, Rich had minimal qualifications to pronounce judgment on musical matters, which did not stop him from trying. (On Aspects of Love: "[T]his time the composer's usual Puccini-isms have been supplanted by a naked Sondheim envy.") In time, relations between Lloyd Webber and Rich grew so acrimonious that when the composer acquired a racehorse, he named the beast after the scribe. "That way, if it falls, we won't mind," explained Lady Lloyd-Webber.

So it may come as a surprise that Rich gave Cats, on balance, a favorable notice, one that had everything to do with the show's theatrical values and nothing to do with its music: "[Cats] transports its audience into a complete fantasy world that could only exist in the theater and yet, these days, only rarely does. Whatever the other failings and excesses, even banalities, of Cats, it believes in purely theatrical magic, and on that faith it unquestionably delivers."

Still, to attribute the initial success and staying power of Cats to its junkyard setting and levitating tire is to miss the point. Audiences were thrilled by the crashing chandelier that ends the first act of Phantom, but no one hums a crashing chandelier or buys an original-cast album because of it. Lloyd Webber's music stays in the popular imagination in spite of its origins in megamusicals, not because of them. As noted, Superstar and Evita both began life as rock double albums (as did Rice's Chess), and in that form they will outlive their theatrical incarnations and "original-cast" albums.

But no one stays on top forever, and it's entirely possible that Lloyd Webber's long stint at the heights of the West End and Broadway is over. His last international hit—Sunset Boulevard (1993)—was preceded by the relative failure of Aspects of Love (musically, his finest work) and followed by a string of flops, including Whistle Down the Wind, The Beautiful Game (neither of which made it to Broadway) and The Woman in White. Even Sunset, which opened with the largest advance sale in Broadway history and won seven Tony Awards, failed to recoup its investment.

Which naturally gives rise to the question: Is he finished?

It seems all but certain that the megamusical is finished. Enormously expensive to mount, the genre had a great run lasting nearly a quarter of a century, but despite the recent revival of Les Miz, it does not appear to be coming back anytime soon. Boublil and Schönberg's more recent works—Martin Guerre and The Pirate Queen—have not replicated the success of their earlier works. And after a brief flurry of interest, the shows of Frank Wildhorn (Jekyll & Hyde, The Scarlet Pimpernel), sometimes referred to as "Lloyd Webber Lite," have faded from the scene. Although reports of the death of Broadway inevitably turn out to be exaggerated, its creative energy seems to have departed once again, leaving a trail of revivals—not only Les Miz, but also Grease, Sondheim's Company, Kander and Ebb's Chicago and Marvin Hamlisch's A Chorus Line—and such cobbled-together shows as Mamma Mia! (based on ABBA songs from the 1960s and '70s) and Jersey Boys (Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons), designed to appeal to aging boomers eager to relive the music of their youth. The only spiritual heir of Lloyd Webber still chugging along is the Walt Disney Company, whose stage spectaculars Tarzan, The Lion King and Beauty and the Beast owe much to Lloyd Webber's trailblazing.

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