Phantom

Some composers work with a quill pen, some with a computer. Andrew Lloyd Webber may not be the first composer to operate on a treadmill, but he is certainly the best paid.
We’ve heard it all before. From the beginning — or at least from “Jesus Christ, Superstar,” which came close to the beginning — you could be deaf and still recognize the emptiness in the music, the sweeping if faceless melodic gestures, the gambits picked up out of the pre-existing repertory as a street-cleaner impales bits of litter on a pointed stick. Other composers have operated on a, let’s say, eclectic level since the beginnings of time, or at least of the Broadway musical; Jerry Herman lost a famous court case to the composer Mack David over the provenance of the first nine notes of “Hello, Dolly!” and could have lost a few others to the likes of Tchaikovsky, Gounod and, for all I know, Max Reger if those gentlemen hadn’t already lapsed into public domain.
But Herman pulls his source material together with a practiced hand; perhaps he cribbed from Mack David’s “Sunflower,” but at least “Hello, Dolly” has its own kind of grandeur. With Lloyd Webber’s music, the stitchery sometimes shows more clearly than the material. One number  of “Dolly’s” stature would redeem the unredeemed depression of “The Phantom of the Opera’s” steady progression of bland, forgettable parlando that serves not to illuminate Charles Hart and Richard Stilgoe’s lyrics, but rather clings to them like seaweed to ancient hawsers. The play’s Phantom at least shows half a face; Andrew Lloyd Webber’s music shows none.
It’s as unfair, of course, to expect glorious, rolling showtunes in the grand old manner to surface from today’s musical theater as it would be to expect a latter-day Beethoven to emerge from the depths of Pierre Boulez’s IRCAM. The world is lucky if it can acquire a “Some Enchanted Evening” once in a century. A song like “I Get a Kick Out of You” happened only because there was an Ethel Merman to fling it skyward (without the aid of microphones, please remember). Even so, the greatness of a contemporary theatrical master lies in the way music can make words and dramatic situations into some kind of art. The springy athleticism of Stephen Sondheim’s songs are hardly Richard Rodgers redux, but they at least relate to happenings on stage; once in a while, furthermore — as in “Anyone can Whistle” or “Send in the Clowns” —  they can coalesce into something worthy of the theater’s lyrical pantheon.
But the drab, uninflected, formula-ridden vocal lines of Lloyd-Webber accomplish no such lyric miracles. The show is, at heart, a package of clever stage trickery; the music is merely disposable shiny wrapping. He donates generously, but from a pathetically small fund of inventiveness; the same jiggety-jog triplets of the opening scenes of “Phantom” had turned up in the hyped-to-the-bazooty Requiem, in large chunks of the Variations he wrote for his cellist brother Julian, and in almost every turn of page in the ghastly, second-rate score for “Cats.” Lloyd Webber does for 6/8 time what Lorne Green does for dog food.
You gotta admit, however, that your nerve-endings are well-tickled while the show is going on. It’s only when you’re halfway home that it suddenly hits that you’ve been tricked into thinking you’ve dined heartily on the arts, while you’ve actually been circumnavigating the smorgasbord with your hands tied. The trick here, I think, is in the casting. Hand your songs over to singers  adept at a certain kind of raw , sandpaper-textured throb that  seems to pass for high emotional singing in some circles — Mr. Crawford, as an implausible instance, or better yet, Patinkin and LuPone in “Evita” — and you can get away with a lot. You can, with Mr. Lloyd Webber’s gall and the smooth show-biz mechanism he commands, even pass phantoms off as opera.

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