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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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Andrew Lloyd Webber will turn 60 in March. After two unsuccessful marriages—to Sarah Tudor Hugill, with whom he had two children, Nicholas and Imogen, and Sarah Brightman, the original Christine Daaé of Phantom, who, post-parting, has gone on to a career as a pop diva—the composer has found stability and happiness in his 1991 marriage to the former Madeleine Gurdon, an equestrienne who has borne him three children, Alastair, William and Isabella. Unlike the reclusive Sarah I or the flamboyant Sarah II, the no-nonsense Lady Lloyd-Webber of Sydmonton is at once lover, wife, helpmeet and business partner. Her husband's former indulgences, especially in fine wines, are largely a thing of the past, and his old crew of bibulous hangers-on has been replaced by savvy business folk and crisp personal assistants who administer the Empire from the offices of Lloyd Webber's company, the Really Useful Group, on London's Tower Street. It's quite possible that the old hunger has long since been assuaged, the creative fires banked.

And yet . . . for years Lloyd Webber has been talking about forsaking mere commercial considerations and embracing art as his one true mistress. This usually occasions a round of sniggers from those who understand neither the man nor the music, but there can be no doubt that, if he put his mind to it, Andrew Lloyd Webber could yet write a show, or an opera, of undeniable artistic worth.

In a sense, he already has. Those lucky enough to be present at Sydmonton to hear the first run-through of Aspects of Love in July 1988 will never forget the sheer, overwhelming beauty of the music (played on two pianos); there, at its very first performance, the show had already found its ideal form. Onstage, however, the show simply did not work. This was partly the fault of the set designer, the late Maria Björnson, whose brilliant aesthetic for Phantom here seemed leaden, earthbound, depressing. It was also partly the fault of the director, Trevor Nunn, who saw David Garnett's Bloomsbury-era novella of sexual high jinks as an opportunity for social commentary. It was also partly Lloyd Webber's fault; given the opportunity to finally come out from behind the Phantom's mask and show his face as a serious artist, he compromised his musical vision by tarting up the score with false climaxes and showy endings.

Andrew Lloyd Webber approaches his 60th birthday as something of an anomalous figure. Successful by any conventional measure, wealthy, the bearer of his country's highest honors, he has become a kind of dilettante in his own profession, conducting his own star searches on British television ("How Do You Solve a Problem like Maria?" and "Any Dream Will Do") for unknowns to cast as leads in Lloyd Webber-produced revivals of The Sound of Music and Joseph. Lloyd Webber even popped up on American television last winter as a judge on the Grease: You're the One That I Want talent search, an experience that so frustrated—or inspired—him that in July, he announced he was signing with the Hollywood talent agency William Morris Associates to look for an American television network deal for a star search. Between the House of Lords and appearing at the likes of a memorial concert for Princess Diana in July, he doesn't ever have to write another note.

Still, the young boy Bill Lloyd Webber dubbed "Bumper" for his restless—and occasionally reckless—curiosity is likely to reassert himself, as Lloyd Webber chases the one thing that's always eluded him: critical respect. For a time, the odds-on favorite for his next project was Mikhail Bulgakov's Soviet-era allegory, The Master and Margarita, a cult work much admired by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who has read it in the original Russian as well as in English. Featuring Satan as a major character, the novel circulated underground in the former Soviet Union and was not published until 1966, more than a quarter of a century after Bulgakov's death.

The fantastic source material and the religious/allegorical elements might have pointed the way to a fresh beginning, or at least a return to the spirit of Superstar and Evita. So what if the obscure Russian novel wasn't especially commercial? For years, Lloyd Webber has said that he harbors a desire to compose a genuine opera, or write a book about Victorian architecture—to get as far away as possible from the megamusical and reconnect with his roots. A musical that featured a suave, disguised Satan arguing with humans about whether either he or Jesus Christ ever existed would bring Lloyd Webber full circle, for redemption has always figured in his works, from Jesus to Evita to Grizabella to the little-engine-that-could in Starlight Express to the Phantom's redemption-by-love at Christine's kiss.

Instead, his next show is likely to be The Phantom in Manhattan, based on Frederick Forsyth's 1999 novel of the same name, which was itself written as a sequel to Lloyd Webber's show, not to Gaston Leroux's source novel. It's already off to a rough start: according to a report in the Daily Mail in June, Lloyd Webber's cat, Otto, managed to jump inside the composer's digital piano and destroy the entire score. (Yes, his cat.)

Still, there's always the bottom drawer; the original Phantom was at first intended to be a pastiche, and was later cobbled together from multiple leftovers. It would be regrettable, but not shocking, were Lloyd Webber to finally succumb to his critics' worst imaginings and, in the end, turn out to be a pastiche artist after all.

Far better, though, were he to rise to the expectation and create something entirely new, fresh and vivid. The Master and Margarita would seem to be a far greater and more exciting challenge than a Phantom rehash. Long freed of financial restraints, he has long had that option, though he hasn't chosen to exercise it.

But surely a show that pits Jesus against the Devil, art against commerce, opera against musical, is where Andrew Lloyd Webber has been heading all his life. Even if he has yet to realize it.

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