Have Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice lost the Midas Touch?

Midas Men no longer? Why it may be time for Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice to make way for the next generation.

If you strike up a conversation with any theatre fan about the best musicals to have played in the West End, the names of Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber are sure to crop up at some point. The lyricist and composer have had great success over the years, on both their joint ventures and solo projects, and are widely regarded as two of the giants in the world of musical theatre. There is no doubt their invaluable contributions have placed them amongst the most important and influential figures within the industry, but unfortunately it is also true that they have struggled to better those early successes as their careers have progressed, and in light of recent events regarding their latest respective musicals, one may begin to question whether they are still relevant in today’s theatre scene?

It was the partnership between Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice which first put the names of these two musically-minded men on the map. Together they created a succession of shows which have enjoyed a long-lasting popularity with theatre fans and secured them both a place in musical theatre history. They collaborated on Joseph and the Technicolor Dreamcoat, Jesus Christ Superstar and Evita before going their separate ways for many years, briefly reuniting to write a number of additional songs for the 2011 revival of The Wizard of Oz.

Lloyd Webber had great solo success with such musicals as Cats, Starlight Express, Aspects of Love, Sunset Boulevard, and of course, The Phantom of the Opera. The musical, based on the Gaston Leroux novel of the same name, has been running at Her Majesty’s Theatre for 27 years now and is not only considered the most successful show in Lloyd Webber’s repertoire, but in the history of musical theatre. Rice, in comparison, has been equally acclaimed for his work on such musicals as Chess and Aida, while his collaboration with Elton John on Disney’s The Lion King remains one of his greatest achievements as the award-winning show is just as popular as when it first opened at the Lyceum Theatre in 1999.

In late years however, they have notably failed to offer works of the same value and substance as they once did and the names of Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber no longer appear to carry the same weight, judging by the fate that has befallen the most recent productions they brought into the West End. Much was made of the fact that they were both opening new musicals within two months of one another and it was somewhat turned into a competition between the former writing team, but that attention should perhaps have been focused less on Rice and Lloyd Webber, and more on how their shows would fare against the rest of the West End.

Tim Rice was first to the race, joining forces with Stuart Brayson after being approached to create a musical adaption of James Jones’ 1951 novel From Here To Eternity. The story centres on a group of US army soldiers stationed in Hawaii in the months leading up to the attack on Pearl Harbour. The musical, which had a book by Bill Oakes, surprised some audiences with its explicit adult content as it had scenes which featured nudity, swearing and references to prostitution and gay sex. Starring Darius Campbell (First Sergeant Milt Warden), Robert Lonsdale (Private Robert E. Lee Prewitt) and Ryan Sampson (Private Angelo Maggio) alongside Siubhan Harrison (Lorene) and Rebecca Thornhill (Karen Holmes), From Here To Eternity opened at the Shaftesbury Theatre in October 2013 and received mixed reviews from critics.

Andrew Lloyd Webber followed shortly after with Stephen Ward, reuniting with lyricist Don Black with whom he had previously worked with on such shows as Tell Me On A Sunday and Aspects of Love. Also on board was Christopher Hamilton, who had worked with both Lloyd Webber and Black on Sunset Boulevard. The musical is based on the real life events behind the 1963 Profumo Affair and charts the rise and fall of Stephen Ward who introduced showgirl Christine Keeler to politician John Profumo, bringing about ‘one of the biggest political scandals and most famous trials of the 20th century’. Stephen Ward, which stars Alexander Hanson as the title character alongside Charlotte Spencer (Christine Keeler), Charlotte Blackledge (Mandy Rice Davies), Daniel Flynn (John Profumo) and Joanna Riding (Valerie Hobson), opened at the Aldwych Theatre in December 2013 to mixed reviews.

The involvement of Lloyd Webber and/or Rice used to mean musical theatre greatness every time, but no longer it seems, as both of their recent shows have generally been regarded as flops. Early closing notices were posted for each of the productions which will now end their respective runs on the same day funnily enough: 29th March 2014. From Here To Eternity closes after a six month run while Stephen Ward only lasted four months, despite initially extending the booking period to the end of May. So what went wrong?

Unfortunately there is no magic formula to create a hit musical. Success is often unpredictable and there is no definitive answer as to why certain musicals work while others do not, although many have tried to fathom it out. Rice and Lloyd Webber enjoyed a lengthy winning streak which saw them churn out a succession of hit musicals, but where everything they once touched turned to gold, they now seem to have lost the secret of King Midas. Is it merely a slump in their careers? Are they out of touch with today’s audiences? Perhaps they are simply lacking creative inspiration?

Tim Rice was notably absent from the West End for over a decade, with From Here To Eternity marking his first original musical in thirteen years. While the offers of work were still rolling in during that time, his cites the reason for not taking any of them up as that he was simply waiting for the right production.

Andrew Lloyd Webber on the other hand, has maintained his presence in the West End with various musical projects. The majority of these however have tended to be revived musical theatre works, and mostly the works of other composers. Between 2006 and 2011, he staged a number of musicals which were the subject of talent competitions on BBC One as he searched for unknown stars to play the lead roles. This casting format began with his revival of Rodger and Hammerstein’s The Sound of Music which saw Connie Fisher win the accompanying television show How Do You Solve A Problem Like Maria, and subsequently, the role of Maria von Trapp in the forthcoming production. After that came Joseph and the Technicolor Dreamcoat (Any Dream Will Do – won by Lee Mead), Oliver! (I’d Do Anything – won by Jodie Prenger) and The Wizard of Oz (Over The Rainbow – won by Danielle Hope). He moved to ITV in 2012 to continue the series with a new show titled Superstar, in which he searched for someone to play Jesus in a planned arena tour of Jesus Christ Superstar despite criticism from the musical’s lyricist, Tim Rice.

In fact, Lloyd Webber’s only original musical between 2004’s The Woman in White and 2013’s Stephen Ward has been the sequel to his greatest success, The Phantom of the Opera. Love Never Dies revisited the musical’s beloved characters approximately ten years later when Christine comes face to face with The Phantom once again in America’s Coney Island. Starring Ramin Karimloo and Sierra Boggess, it opened at the Adelphi Theatre in March 2010 and ran for just 16 months after dividing audience opinion. Although it had its followers, it received a mainly negative response from critics and failed to live up to both its predecessor and the expectations of the fans.

Lloyd Webber, who has spoken out in the past about his difficulty in finding a source of inspiration in recent years,  came under fire for Stephen Ward with many criticising his choice of subject matter, including Daily Telegraph critic Tim Walker who said it was ‘too obscure to appeal to a broad audience’. The composer recently retaliated against Walker’s comments, defending the musical and using the example of Cats, which was inspired by the poems of T.S. Elliot, to demonstrate that obscure material can result in a commercially successful show. In his letter, Lloyd Webber commented that: “The difference between success and failure in musical theatre is a horrifyingly thin line,” and went on to say, “We are all immensely proud of Stephen Ward. But what makes a hit musical? Fools give you reasons, wise men never try.”

Is it time for Lloyd Webber and Rice to make way for a new generation?  Matilda The Musical is one of the biggest hit musicals to come to the West End in recent years; it has been an overwhelming success for its book writer Dennis Kelly and composer/lyricist Tim Minchin and brought a torrent of critical acclaim and theatrical plaudits to both. They have shown that an original musical that doesn’t have the name of Rice or Lloyd Webber attached to it can not only do well in the West End, but stand tall alongside its most popular shows. As a long-standing advocate for new work, I love the example that Matilda has set and can only hope that it has helped pave the way for more original shows and creative minds to enter the West End. There is still a way to go in achieving this however.

The biggest shows to open in the West End in 2013, aside from Stephen Ward and From Here To Eternity, were the Broadway transfers of The Book of Mormon and Once The Musical and the musical adaption of Roald Dahl’s Charlie and The Chocolate Factory which, although having a book by Scottish playwright David Greig, featured the music and lyrics of American composing duo Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman. We could probably include the adaption of hit film The Bodyguard (which is basically a Whitney Houston jukebox musical) in this list as well as it opened one month shy of 2013.

Each of these has proven themselves worthwhile additions to the West End and I use them merely to raise the point that all the biggest successes in recent years have come from alternative sources, not Rice or Lloyd Webber. That being said, my aim is not to cast disparagement on what they have achieved in their careers. They have given the world of musical theatre some of its greatest hit shows, and The Phantom of the Opera will probably always be my own personal favourite. I don’t think any future production from anyone, no matter how good, will ever be able to topple it from pole position. I would however, love to see them produce another musical, either together or separately, which could rival their earlier efforts and reaffirm the reputation they hold, but will that happen? Unfortunately I doubt it, especially since both men have said as much themselves in various interviews. That being said, they have nonetheless created a legacy that will last long after they have gone, but there are concerns that they may damage that legacy by continuing to try and compete in a world which just may have outgrown them.

By Julie Robinson @missjulie25

Tuesday 4th March 2014

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