Award-winning journalist, arts critic and record producer Dennis Polkow holds degrees in music theory, composition, philosophy and religious studies from DePaul University, Chicago, and has written frequently about religion and the arts for the Chicago Tribune and is currently on the adjunct faculty of Oakton Community College in Des Plaines, IL.
This article originally appeared as the March 18-25, 1987 cover story of The Christian Century. Copyright 1987 Dennis Polkow, and used with the permission of the author, who may be E-mailed: mailto:email@example.com. Current articles and subscription information to The Christian Century may be found at www.christiancentury.org. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.
A conversation with Andrew Lloyd Webber, the prolific and popular British composer who frequently employs religious themes in his work. Lloyd Webber has demonstrated in Requiem that he can also write beautiful serious music in the English choral tradition – while still holding on to his more rock-inspired identity.
From his first success with Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat in 1967 at the age of 19, Andrew Lloyd Webber’s works have given a prominent role to religious themes. Recently, in a surprising move prompted by the 1982 death of his father, William Southcombe Lloyd Webber, organist at All Saints Church near Westminster Abbey, the composer departed in style and set to music the same Latin text of the Roman Catholic Mass for the Dead that fascinated composers from Mozart to Verdi. The result, Requiem, which premiered in New York in 1985, was immediately subject to both controversy and criticism. As one critic wrote, "Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Requiem? Why not give us Sylvester Stallone as King Lear while we’re at it?"
Yet the 38-year-old British composer of such blockbuster musicals as Jesus Christ Superstar, Evita and Cats, who has written such enormously popular melodies as "I Don’t Know How to Love Him," "Don’t Cry for Me, Argentina" and "Memories," demonstrated in the Requiem that he can also write beautiful serious music in the English choral tradition — while still holding on to his more rock-inspired identity. (The "Hosanna" of the Requiem is scored with drum kit, synthesizer, saxophone and piano added to the tenor solo, orchestra and chorus.)
Both musically and theologically the Requiem is far removed from Lloyd Webber’s earlier works. Its colorful collage of musical images coheres largely because of the work’s persistent overall theme of death. This theme is treated from a variety of perspectives — confusion and resistance, anger and bitterness, mourning and sadness, and a simple but profound proclamation — "perpetua." We mourn the dead, but we, too, will soon be among them. The distance between the living and the dead is far too narrow to make the radical separation that we, the living, usually put between them. Lloyd Webber seems to have come a long way from the days of Jesus Christ Superstar, with its flippant caricature of Jesus and its use of 1 960s-style English slang (such as in What’s the Buzz, Tell Me What’s Happening?")
When Lloyd Webber visited this country for the world premiere (in Chicago) of the American Ballet Theatre’s staging of the Requiem as a ballet, I had the opportunity to ask him about this apparent change. That opening led into a discussion of the Requiem and his extraordinary career since Jesus Christ Superstar.
Your earlier work, Jesus Christ Superstar, and the more recent Requiem seem to exhibit very different theological points of view. Does this represent a personal change over the years?
Well, I haven’t suddenly become a "born-again Christian" or something, although I could see where the tremendous differences in the points of view of both works could lead people to assume that.
Superstar had a contemporary text by Tim Rice, and was never really intended to be anything more than a piece examining the story of Jesus from the point of view of Judas Iscariot. In that sense it is a dramatic work, and not specifically a religious work at all. I can now recognize that there is a dramatic level of me as a composer present in both works that took them both into the theater, even though that was not anticipated or planned. So hindsight tells me that both scores have a theatricality in common.
With Superstar it was very clear where my own feelings as a composer lay, and the most successful music there in "pop" terms was the music sung by Judas. That was a long time ago, and of course I would write such a piece differently now. The thing that I hope does come through theologically even now is the great climax of the whole first act, the song "Gethsemane," which is very much Jesus’ moment.
As far as the Requiem goes, it was basically intended to be primarily a contemplation for myself, to deal with some things that I was feeling after the death of my father (and then later, the subsequent death of a journalist in the Northern Ireland conflict who had just interviewed me, and that obscure piece in the New York Times about the Cambodian boy who had the option of killing his mutilated sister or being killed himself). But as for any composer, so many things come into one’s mind that I wouldn’t want to call even the Requiem specifically a "religious" piece either, although there are things in it that I hope are quite moving.
But Jesus Christ Superstar was really not an irreligious piece, as has been so often suggested. In its own way and in its own time it was simply a work attempting to ask a couple of questions, the chief of which was stated by Bob Dylan some years ago: "Did Judas Iscariot have God on his side?" That was the question that intrigued Tim Rice and me, and that was Tim’s starting point for the text. I mean, clearly Iscariot was not an unintelligent man, and how much was the whole thing in the end an accident of what was necessary given the politics of the day? That’s really what we were asking in Superstar.
What about the work’s ambiguity concerning the resurrection?
Superstar never set out or intended to discuss anything at all like the resurrection. All it ever did was to declare itself to be a version of the last seven days of Jesus Christ. It never even remotely said it was going to move into that area, and to do so would have removed its dramatic purpose. Not to sound irreligious, but quite apart from its religious value, it is a wonderful story, and we wanted to deal primarily with the story’s dramatic rather than its theological side.
It always seemed to me that Superstar was more of the oratorio or passion genre than that of the musical or even "rock opera."
That is well put. In fact, the work has never had a staging which really brings out its full dramatic value, especially in America.
Back in the days when Broadway picked up Superstar, I was someone who had a whole lot of ideas, but no real influence in the theater. So we got locked into what we ended up with. I tried, believe me, to change things as much as I could without simply coming out and being openly disloyal, but the Broadway production ended up being, at least in my view, simply appalling. Broadway’s vulgarization and cheapening of the piece was one of the reasons that I myself took such a stand about it that the Broadway production never went on tour or moved anywhere else — it was never done again. The productions elsewhere in America, such as Los Angeles, were entirely different, though largely because of the time, there were no real attempts to stage or film the work with a primarily dramatic intention in mind.
I have seen one version of Superstar — in, surprisingly enough, Japan — that gets much closer to the kinds of things I originally envisioned for the work than any other version I’ve seen.
You’ve mentioned that you never really intended the Requiem to be a theater piece as such. Given that liturgical use of the piece was not likely or practical, what did you think would happen with it?
Frankly, I really had no idea. I was very aware when I was writing it that the final product would not be considered by critics and audiences to be part of the mainstream of what they consider "contemporary serious music." But it is, to the best of my ability, a serious work with a serious intention.
I was lucky enough to be able to commission the Requiem myself. Having had a tremendous commercial success with the London production of Starlight Express (a musical intended for kids which is great fun, but not exactly a piece that I thought would change the course of Western art music), I thought there was now the possibility of being able to develop an area of my writing that I had been quietly working away on ever since I began composing.
Although I don’t claim to be terribly familiar with the Requiem mass as a genre, the text has always intrigued me. It’s so theatrical. And I very much enjoy writing for the sound of the Latin language, which obviously has something in that it has endured as long as it has. I was also very interested to see whether or not I could make a requiem for an audience of today.
Many critics were puzzled that you would venture off into such a different direction from your more recent theater successes.
It’s always difficult for people to realize that a composer, especially one who has been as lucky and as successful as I have been, can have many sides. My last international success was Cats, and that may have made people forget the bleaker parts of something like Evita, where I was working in a more serious way.
Evita has never been performed anywhere in the world with the orchestration that I actually wrote for it because the conventional commercial theater couldn’t possibly afford it. It was originally scored for full orchestra, quite differently from how it appeared in London and on Broadway. I very much hope that one day it can be done the way I originally wrote it.
Even the cost of the American Ballet Theatre’s staging of the Requiem as a ballet, complete with soloists, chorus and orchestra, is something completely outside the resources of the commercial theater. It wouldn’t be possible to do it without a heavily subsidized group such as ABT picking it up. I have been fairly lucky to have had such top-flight performances of the piece originally, and I realize this can’t be maintained. It is not an easy work to perform, and I realize that it must be performed, and one must let people have a go at performing it because that’s half the point of having written it. But it’s one of those pieces of which quality performances are going to be much rarer as time goes on. It’s a complicated piece.
One of the most distinctive and innovative features of the Requiem is the major emphasis on a child to proclaim a message of death. We tend to think of children as symbolic of life and hope and the future. But that expectation is shattered here.
Yes, that’s all very true. Although it is common in the English choral tradition to feature boy sopranos as soloists, they are not used quite in this way. The crucial thing here is that, ideally, the [female] soprano should also be much younger than one who would normally be used, to keep the suggestion that [the two singers] could be brother and sister. It works less well if you have a bigger, very full soprano voice. It needs the younger interplay between them, particularly in the "Pie Jesu." Yet it’s difficult to find a soprano with the ability to sing a note purely and totally straight; this is not something you often find in a soprano with conventional classical training. Obviously, I’m especially pleased with the way my wife, Sarah [Brightman], sings it.
American Ballet Theatre had something that for the Requiem was a very powerful plus, namely, Alessandra Fern [the ballerina who danced the lead]. There is no question that the way her part was choreographed has a very remarkable resonance with what I intended when I wrote the soprano part.
Did you collaborate with ABT to achieve this effect?
Not really, except to tell Kenneth [MacMillan] what I had told you and everyone else when he asked me about my original intention for the piece. He has choreographed something that is very surprising and very interesting, and certainly something that I would never have thought of myself.
In both Superstar and the Requiem you have not only dusted the cobwebs off two very traditional genres, but you have breathed new life into them. To my mind, the last really significant passion had been Penderecki’s St. Luke Passion, and the last important Requiem mass was probably Britten’s War Requiem. Britten, however, felt the need to supplement the Latin text with some English poetry to convey his message and make the work more accessible. Your Requiem uses the Latin text alone.
The falling away of Latin from the liturgy is another issue altogether, and my exclusive use of the Latin text is one of the reasons that I really despair when critics accuse me of having had a commercial purpose for this piece. That is also one of the reasons why the Requiem is not a piece that can be expected even to approximate the kind of wide pop appeal that Jesus Christ Superstar had, and I never expected it to.
In truth, what pop appeal the Requiem has had has surprised me tremendously. As you may be aware, the "Pie Jesu" was a huge hit in Europe on the pop charts. That was totally bizarre, and nobody could have guessed that would happen, least of all me. If you were to ask, "Do you think that a song with a lyric in Latin sung by a little boy and a girl soprano would be a smash hit?" I would say, "That doesn’t sound like the instant recipe for fame and fortune!"
I was surprised when they asked me if they could release the "Pie Jesu" as a single, and I said, "Fine, if you want to, but I must give my own royalties to a charity," which I did. And for some reason, it’s been the biggest European hit I’ve ever had. It’s all very surprising.
Was it at that point that you decided to make a music video of the "Pie Jesu"?
Yes, I was intrigued with that possibility. It was a reflection of my belief that, regardless of the genre, a composer should use everything within his means to ensure that his music is brought to the broadest number of people.
I’m absolutely convinced that if people were to be making really well-done videos of well-known operatic arias, you’d find that there is a much broader public for opera than people believe. I’m certain of it, in fact.
You have hit on what is simultaneously considered to be your greatest strength and, to many, your greatest weakness — namely, that you do feel that music should communicate with the broadest number of people.
There isn’t a real point to composing if you don’t give the people the opportunity to decide whether they like your music or not. It would be ludicrous to say that Puccini’s music was terrible just because he attracted and accommodated large crowds with free sweets in the cafes on the opening nights of his operas. Verdi also had a cafe arrangement, and in his own way, so did Wagner.
It had never been part of music history that composers did not try to make their music communicate with broad numbers of people until relatively recently. Composers started to get terribly precious around 1910 or so. It’s all nonsense. Duke Ellington once said, "There are only two types of music — good music and bad music." In the long term, that’s an accurate assessment.
When we were first rehearsing the Requiem in New York, I had a very nice meeting with a person from the "Entertainment Tonight" television show, who saw the "Pie Jesu" video and asked me, "May I borrow that?" I said, "Fine," figuring that he wanted to show it to some friends or something. When I got back to my hotel that night, I discovered that they had phoned England for clearance and showed the complete video in its entirety on national television that same night. I remember seeing this with huge mixed emotions, thinking, "My God, everyone is going to think that this is the most hyped thing in the world!" What had actually happened was that the editor of the program saw it and was genuinely moved by it, and in fact used it again for Holy Week, and later, after the death of Rock Hudson. There are times like this when people must think that someone like myself, or other people in my position, premeditate such things. But we don’t.
I also recall a review in Los Angeles that was very disparaging about the fact that the Requiem was going to be premiered on PBS, saying, more or less, "This piece will of course do well because it will be reaching people in various cities who would not ordinarily be able to hear this sort of thing." I remember thinking, "Well my God, what do they expect? That a piece shouldn’t be heard? Or that if it is heard, that that automatically ensures its instant popularity?" You may recall that Philip Glass’s Einstein on the Beach was also shown on PBS’s "Great Performances," but how many copies has that sold at the end of the day? Somebody singing, "one, two, three, four, five, six, seven — one, two, three, four, five, six, seven… is not going to find any real popularity simply because it’s been exposed to a large audience, and frankly it doesn’t deserve to.
I take it then that the "minimalist" style of composition is not something that appeals to you.
I got myself into terrible trouble back in Britain not long ago when I said, "The problem with me is that I’m a maximalist." But I really do not believe that the future of music is about playing to a very limited audience, the members of which you can increasingly count on one hand. That’s nonsense.
The joy for me personally with my own works is that large numbers of people are actually affected by them. That is exciting. It’s so gratifying when ordinary people come up to you in an airport and say, "We’re really looking forward to the performances — the Requiem wasn’t a piece that we thought anyone would do today." It’s then when you realize that you’ve achieved something that matters a very great deal more than whether or not you’ve appealed to some critic for some smart publication who thinks that music must now be "minimalist" or whatever else is temporarily in vogue.
Many critics seem frustrated by how difficult it is to categorize your works, and yet that seems to be a large part of your appeal to the general public, much as it was for Gershwin with Porgy and Bess or Bernstein with West Side Story.
That certainly has been a problem, and though I would in no way compare my music to Gershwin’s, he certainly did face the same problem. People couldn’t quite understand why a "commercial composer" would want to write something serious.
When Porgy and Bess came out, some people said, "Well, the tunes are all right, but the operatic bits are terrible." Still others said, "The operatic bits are good, but what a pity he had to spoil them by putting all of those silly commercial tunes in there."
But the issue of genre is an interesting one. I firmly believe that if I or anyone actually sits down and says, "What I am going to do now is write an utterly cynical exercise that I know is going to work for an audience," failure will inevitably be the result. If I sit down and deliberately try to write the ultimate number-one hit single, I can assure you it will sell about two copies.
There is no question that I have been very, very lucky, and I cannot hide the fact that Cats has been the most successful musical of all time. You do not plan for that, I assure you. There is no way that you possibly could.
Tell us about your latest show.
It opened recently in London and is called Phantom of the Opera, a gothic tale which has always intrigued me, and which I felt cried out for scoring. It is an extension of my interest in writing for wider voice ranges. American Hal Prince, who also directed Evita, is directing the show.
Are there plans to mount the show in America yet?
If it works well in London, which it seems to be doing, I think it would be one that would come to America pretty fast. We did want to try it in London first, however — not only because I live there, but also, I am afraid, because the enormous expense of launching a new show in America is a major factor for avoiding it as an initial testing ground.
I know you see yourself as a theater composer and that you were unhappy with the Hollywood treatment of Jesus Christ Superstar. Has all of this served to turn you away from the film industry completely, or would you consider allowing other works of yours to be filmed? Evita is one that is often talked about.
I am very interested in and very keen on the idea of writing an original musical expressly for the cinema, taking into account the differences between the world of the cinema and that of the theater — which is rarely done when a theater piece is transformed to the cinema.
Practically speaking, Evita has probably slightly missed its moment anyway, and Cats is still doing so terribly well everywhere that I can’t imagine anyone allowing it to become a movie very quickly. One of the things that people may not realize is that when you enter into an agreement with a theater director or producer such as I have with the Shubert Organization in this country, they actually have the right to block a movie if a show is still selling out as a stage work.
Oddly enough, there was a tremendous interest in trying to detour me from going to the theater with Phantom of the Opera and to make it into a movie instead. But I managed successfully to dodge those telephone calls. I have no intention of abandoning the theater!
Most of your shows actually involve the live audience as part of the action of the play in a major way, and it is difficult to accept the ideas of that vital element disappearing as the audience members become passive spectators of shadows on a screen.
Yes, and besides, I rather enjoy going to the theater at the end of the day. If you go to a show you’ve composed, you have an entire company to talk to afterwards. If you go to see your own movie, who is there to talk to afterwards — the projectionist? I rather like going around and visiting my companies. I love coming to Chicago and getting to meet Alessandra Fern for the first time and saying, "I’m sorry, Miss Fern, but I’m an enormous fan!" I don’t want to go and just look at celluloid.
How fortunate you are that you are in a position zzzto determine in what way you wish to remain successful. What an unusual problem!
Yes, but believe me, I know how lucky I’ve been. Enormously lucky. After having launched the Phantom I have now composed seven full-length works in seven years’ time, which is simply too many. I think it’s time that I should quietly bow out for awhile. Oh well, I say that every year, don’t I?
I really had thought that with the Requiem, I had finally come up with the one project that I could proudly point to as a commercial failure. As it is, it seems that the clever prophecy that was made by my cynical former partner Tim Rice has actually come to pass. (The assumption, of course, is that we don’t speak to one another anymore, but of course we do tend to — he’s on the board of my company.) Tim told me, "Of course the problem for you with the Requiem, a piece which you think is so terribly serious and noncommercial and everything, is that it will become tremendously successful commercially and you will have therefore completely failed in what you have set out to do!"
Yet if the Requiem can call large numbers of people, regardless of their religious views, to consider just for a second the human condition and what people have inflicted on one another, then I am truly happy to have "failed."
Note: Since this article was written, Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber has been knighted by Queen Elizabeth II of England and has released a compact disc of music composed by his late father. Sir Andrew has also composed new music for a film version of Evita which, against his better judgment, starred Madonna in
the lead role, and has produced his own version of Jesus Christ Superstar on stage and home video that he feels finally, at long last, captures his true
vision of the piece.