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

Smithsonian Magazine | Subscribe

(Continued from page 1)

Composers never throw anything worthwhile away, so even when a musical dies stillborn, parts of it find their way into other shows. (Rossini liked his overture for La gazza ladra so much he used it in at least two other operas.) Years before, Lloyd Webber had toyed with writing an opera about the competition between Puccini and Ruggero Leoncavallo, who wrote different versions of La Bohème. (Puccini's has held the stage since its première, in 1896; Leoncavallo's, which premièred the following year, has all but vanished, and its composer's reputation today depends almost solely on his one-act opera, Pagliacci, most often seen with Pietro Mascagni's Cavalleria Rusticana—the "ham 'n' eggs" of double-bill legend.) Nothing ever came of Lloyd Webber's Bohème project, however, and the music he had sketched for it wound up in a bottom drawer.

Now it came out, in the form of the tune for "Memory." The first person Lloyd Webber played it for was his father, Bill, a noted church organist and minor British composer of the mid-20th century. Lloyd Webber waited anxiously for his father's judgment: "Did I steal it?" he inquired, fearful that the catchy melody, underpinned by a distinctive, falling-thirds harmony, might have originated in some other composer's oeuvre, half-remembered and now, however unwittingly, regurgitated.

Bill just shook his head and said, "It's going to be worth two million dollars to you, you fool." Shortly thereafter, Lloyd Webber played it for Nunn, who asked what it was. "It's a very extravagant, emotional theme," Lloyd Webber told him. "Make it more emotional, more extravagant, and we'll have it in Cats," said Nunn.

And so they did. When Lloyd Webber played it for the cast, Nunn turned to the performers and said, "What is the date? The hour? Remember, because you have just heard a smash hit by Lloyd Webber."

In a poignant example of what-might-have-been, Tim Rice took a crack at writing the words, in part because his mistress, Elaine Paige, had suddenly replaced Judi Dench as Grizabella, and in fact his words were used for a long stretch in rehearsal. (Although married, Rice was carrying on a very public affair with Paige.) But in the end his lyric was replaced by one written by Nunn (who used Eliot's "Rhapsody on a Windy Night" as his starting point), and Rice had to watch millions in publishing royalties slip away. The rejection only further soured Rice's already precarious relationship with his former partner.

And what of the melody itself? A standard criticism of Lloyd Webber, especially from drama critics, is that his music is derivative—a gloss on his betters when it is not an outright theft. Since most drama critics are, to put it charitably, nonmusical, this is an odd criticism, and one that smacks of received opinion: "Puccini-esque" is a term one encounters often in criticism of Lloyd Webber's music, but aside from "Growltiger's Last Stand," which parodies the first-act love duet from Madama Butterfly, there is precious little Puccini in Cats.

Indeed, Lloyd Webber has always been more highly regarded by music critics, who not only know the repertoire he is alleged to be pilfering, but also can place him correctly in a dramatic-operatic context. Far from being the love child of Puccini and Barry Manilow, as some would have it, Lloyd Webber is more correctly seen as a kind of latter-day Giacomo Meyerbeer, the king of the Paris Opera in the mid-19th century, whose name was synonymous with spectacle. But a little ignorance goes a long way, and with "Memory" the notion that Lloyd Webber is a secondhand pastiche artist—if not an outright plagiarist—got its start.

This is partly Lloyd Webber's own fault. His melodies sometimes skirt perilously close to earlier classical and Broadway sources, and while the showbiz axiom that "good writers borrow, great writers steal" may well apply, it is also true that some of his tunes, both large and small, evoke earlier sources. As drama critic John Simon wrote after the première of Phantom: "It's not so much that Lloyd Webber lacks an ear for melody as that he has too much of a one for other people's melodies.... I predict that Gershwin and Rodgers, let alone Puccini and Ravel (another of his magnets), have nothing to fear from him." Other critics have been less subtle: "Webber's music isn't so painful to hear, if you don't mind its being so soiled from previous use," wrote Michael Feingold of the Village Voice.

So, are the critics right? Is Lloyd Webber a kind of musical ragpicker, offering secondhand tunes at first-rate prices? Certainly, there is more than enough aural evidence to support such a claim. The melody in The Phantom of the Opera at the words, "And in his eyes/all the sadness of the world," is closely related to Liu's suicide music in the last act of Puccini's Turandot. (Yes, this bit is "Puccini-esque.") The opening theme of the revised Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat bears a striking resemblance to the piano tune Magnolia is practicing aboard the Cotton Blossom in Jerome Kern's Show Boat. The thundering chromatic chords that open Phantom are the spiritual heirs of the first notes of Ralph Vaughan Williams' London Symphony.

But it's far too facile to dismiss Lloyd Webber as an imitator. Plagiarism entails much more than mere correspondence of notes; the test of actual theft involves whether the same sequence of notes (there are, after all, only 12 of them) functions in the same way as in the source material. That is to say, does it have the same dramatic and emotional function?


Comment on this Story

comments powered by Disqus