With the blockbuster opening of "Phantom of the Opera" in New York, Andrew Lloyd Webber is once again the toast of Broadway. Whatever his talent for theatricality, however, Lloyd Webber's music remains suspect to many of those schooled in more than disco tunes and easy listening. Today Washington's foremost keyboard interpreter of jazz and Broadway standards weighs in with his opinion.
"Stop playing whatever that is and play 'Memory from Cats,' " said the lady in the blue hat.
From a nearby table I watched the pain flicker across the bar pianist's face. I understood the pain. I had been there. In my days as a lounge player, I received hundreds of such gracious ultimatums, loosely translated in lounge language as "requests." This, however, was no run-of-the-mill ultimatum. This was the tune, the hymn, the anthem -- the veritable song of songs. Quite simply, "Memory" from the show "Cats" by Andrew Lloyd Webber had become the most requested song of the 1980s -- to the apparent exclusion of all other songs except perhaps "New York, New York" for an occasional change of pace.
What spell, I wondered, had this new-found "Memory" cast to obliterate all previous musical memories? What had happened to the hundreds of songs infinitely more inspired: the songs of George Gershwin, Cole Porter, Paul McCartney, Jerome Kern? Why in the midst of such plenty, had people suddenly chosen to limit their musical experience to the endless reiteration of one tune -- and not a very good tune at that?
Of course this was only one man's opinion -- an opinion moreover one dared not utter publicly. Besides, what was such an opinion worth, no matter how informed or strongly felt, when measured against the passionate convictions of others? Like the woman I had heard of in Palm Beach, who jumped up on a table at a dance where "Memory from Cats" was being played, and shouted, "Quiet, you fools! This is a work of art!"
After 30 years of performing, teaching, lecturing about and listening to music, I thought I knew what a musical work of art was. It was something that through a combination of talent, inspiration and craftsmanship caused the listener to feel. Furthermore, I had decided these qualities were not solely in the ears of the beholder, but somehow in the music itself.
But where are these qualities to be found in the music of Andrew Lloyd Webber? An educated musician he clearly is. And a talented entrepreneur as well. But an artist?
How about a musical rag picker. I first learned Lloyd Webber's music from "Jesus Christ Superstar" through "Evita" partly because it was current and therefore in demand, and partly because it seemed to offer promise of something new and interesting to play. But as I listened to what I was playing, I had the disquieting sense that I'd heard it all before, somewhere, in bits and pieces, in some other context. "Jesus Christ Superstar," for example, itself suggests vaguely some fragment of stillborn Mendelssohn. The "melodies" from "Evita" echo every musical cliche' from the bandstand of Xavier Cugat, but with considerably less life and feeling. I haven't seen "Phantom of the Opera," but just last week in these same pages, Washington Post writer Megan Rosenfeld reported its music "almost mesmerizing, insistently boring into one's brain ... even when you'd really rather it would go away."
"Memory from Cats" seems to sum it up for me. While not intentionally or legally plagiaristic, the melody to "Memory," like so many Lloyd Webber tunes, sounds just a little too much like a lot of other things. Half-digested phrases from Ravel's "Bolero" and Puccini seem to float near the surface yet remain just amorphous enough to preclude one's reaching in and saying "gotcha!" If Lloyd Webber is a musical artist, where is his original voice? Where is that enzyme of inspiration, that evidence of talent that cannot be faked and that alone justifies the term "art"?
One thing I had learned from that lady in Palm Beach. She had shown one must speak out for one's beliefs. And so slowly, safely at first, in my concert appearances out of town before audiences of strangers, I started to say things. Like: "Ladies and gentlemen, in tonight's concert you will not hear 'Memory from Cats.' "
When this sort of thing went down without incident, I became bolder. At a 1984 lecture-concert at the Smithsonian, I laid it on the line and declared, " 'Memory from Cats' is an outrageous piece of fakery."
There. I had finally done it. What would happen? A lynch mob? Rotten eggs?
Cringing behind the podium, I heard startled gasps. Then generous laughter. And finally, applause.
What could this mean? That people's passion for Lloyd Webber's music did not run as deeply as its universal "popularity" might suggest? That people's hunger for real music was as strong as ever, but left unsatisfied by diminishing opportunities to hear good music, new or old? That people were therefore settling for anything they could get?
I decided all that, and something else as well: that because an Andrew Lloyd Webber loves the vacuums nature abhors, he, with impeccable timing, had marched in with his placebo music and won by default.
I have begun to see certain parallels in the Andrew Lloyd Webber phenomenon, the stock market crash and the muddle in the Reagan administration: Nobody can explain exactly how they happened. And now that they have, nobody knows quite what to do about them.
Lately, I have had a fantasy in which I see Lloyd Webber running for political office, or heading a brokerage firm, and leaving the writing of music to others.
With "The Phantom of the Opera" behind him, he will need new worlds, or vacuums to conquer. But who will write his campaign song? Ravel and Puccini are dead. Maybe someone from Palm Beach?