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Has Andrew Lloyd Webber lost his crown as king of the West End musical?

The first West End musical I ever saw was the 25th anniversary revival of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Jesus Christ Superstar. It started me on a wonderful path and the love of musical theatre that I discovered that day has stayed with me. Since then, I have seen a great many of Lloyd Webber’s musicals, such as Joseph and the Technicolor Dreamcoat, Cats, Love Never Dies and of course, my ultimate favourite, The Phantom of the Opera, which I’ll actually be seeing this week to have a gander at the new cast. One of the most recognised names in the world of musical theatre, Lloyd Webber was once the King Midas of the industry, turning everything he touched to gold – now it seems the opposite is true.

The last original show from The Lord was the Phantom sequel Love Never Dies in 2010. Although its leading man and lady, Ramin Karimloo and Sierra Boggess, received critical acclaim for their performances, the show itself divided opinion and was cruelly dubbed ‘Paint Never Dries’ by its detractors, with the musical’s book being cited as the main problem. Several changes were made to the show, which fared incidentally better in its transfer to Melbourne, Australia, but it still wasn’t enough to save Lloyd Webber’s creation and it closed in August 2011 after a little less than eighteen months in the West End. In recent years though, it is the revival of old productions and the use of television talent searches to cast the leading role he has been known for, such as with The Sound of Music, The Wizard of Oz and, most recently, the UK arena tour of Jesus Christ Superstar, which opened at the O2 Arena last Friday.

The rock opera, which features lyrics by Tim Rice, tells the story of the last seven days of Jesus Christ’s life, detailing the Passion and the Crucifixion amid the growing tensions between Christ and his disciple Judas Iscariot. In this latest revival however, director Laurence Connor has moulded the classic tale into a contemporary retelling amidst the 2011 London riots and the Occupy movement – a clever refashioning or a dud move?

Reading the critics’ reviews, opinions seem to be much divided; not merely on its modern spin but its principal cast too. Turning, once again, to the television casting format to find their ‘Jesus’ was not a universally popular decision, especially in the eyes of the musical’s lyricist Tim Rice who refused to have any involvement, and ITV’s Superstar caused its share fair of controversy. Similarly, when it was first announced that Tim Minchin (Judas), Melanie Chisholm (Mary Magdalene) and Chris Moyles (Herod) were to join the JCS tour, many outraged cries about ‘stunt casting’ followed. The one nod to those who actually work in the musical theatre industry was Broadway’s Alexander Hanson (Pontius Pilate). Now people have had the opportunity to see these performers in action and can offer an informed view.

Superstar winner Ben Forster comes off fairly well in most reviews, although no-one seems to have been particularly blown away by him. Mel C doesn’t seem to have overly impressed the critics either, especially Mark Shenton who quipped on twitter: “If anyone wonders why I’ve not mentioned Mel C in my JCS tweets, it’s that she barely registers (and her register is thin)”. Hanson receives his praise, as does Minchin, who looks to be the biggest hit of the show. The Telegraph, who awarded the production four stars, noted in their review that, “it is Minchin who proves that JCS is a work of conceptual genius.” Of all the cast, it is Moyles who provides the ‘marmite’ effect, entertaining some while annoying others.

Reviews have ranged from one star to four: one reviewer raved that JCS had been, “ear-splittingly restored to its heavy meta rock origin in a thrilling production by Laurence Connor.” Another failed to be swayed by Connor’s revival, commenting that, “it requires a more imaginative, subtle and better acted and sung production than it gets here.” It was in The Stage however, than JCS received its most damning judgement:

“Everything’s not alright, alas, about a production which isn’t so much a musical as a deafening, deadening travesty of a great show.”

If the critics appeared divided, so too do the theatre-goers. One twitter user posted: “Love the modern take on a classic show” whilst another lamented: “Can’t hear voices over the sound for several songs during act1 and choreography is horrific. Gutted.”

Of course, these are only a sampling of the responses to the arena tour (although I have made certain to give a voice to both sides), but overall, it seems most were hoping to be captivated by JCS once again and found themselves definitively underwhelmed instead. I’m not convinced that the show has been as in-demand as it seems either. I’ve seen entire sections of the O2 sitting empty and papering (where tickets are given away for free to aid the appearance of a show in-demand) seems to be abound too – I had several opportunities to go along to Sunday’s performance and if you’ve seen the photos of the queue for comped tickets…well.

Andrew Lloyd Webber has had his fair share of flops, as has any composer, but there was a time when The Lord held the West End in the palm of his hand. Now it all seems to be slipping through his fingers. If the JCS arena tour doesn’t turn out to be the success he hoped then the blame can’t sit squarely on his shoulders, but that once famous Midas touch may now be just gold-painted copper. The Melbourne production of Love Never Dies was created by an entirely new design team and was better-received than Lloyd Webber’s West End one. Similarly, the Stratford, Ontario revival of Jesus Christ Superstar was a major triumph and subsequently transferred to Broadway – once again without any input from Lloyd Webber. He himself made reference to the fact of their success, commenting that perhaps he shouldn’t involve himself in productions of his work any longer.

As written in The Stage review, in reference to the Ontario/Broadway revival:

“Could we start again, please, and have that production instead?”

I don’t think that Andrew Lloyd Webber has lost his talent for the composition of musicals – whatever its problems, Love Never Dies possessed a beautifully rich and succulent score. I do however, think that he is lacking in creativity right now and perhaps relying too heavily on both his name and the names of certain shows: the arena tour Jesus Christ Superstar may prove to be yet another example of this.

By Julie Robinson (@missjulie25)

Tuesday 25th September 2012

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