“…a wrinkle within that time…”

Adam Gopnik wrote in The New Yorker of 5.3.18:

“…Given his reputation as the guy who dragged the Broadway musical from its vitality and idiomatic urgency back to its melodramatic roots in European operetta—while also degrading rock music to a mere rhythm track—is it possible that, as his memoir indicates, his work might be more varied and interesting than we had known? Could we, terrible thought, have been unfair to Andrew Lloyd Webber? The answer turns out, on inspection, to be a complicated and qualified Yes. Certainly, no artist as hugely successful as he has been can have struck a chord without owning a piece of his time.

Lloyd Webber, as his memoir, “Unmasked” (HarperCollins), reveals, was caught in a wrinkle within that time. Though his music may often sound as if it were written by a man locked in the basement of the Paris opera—hearing late-nineteenth-century music, muffled, from a couple of floors down—he turns out to be very much a boy of the Monty Python generation, his ears full of rock and British comedy…

Rising from the English upper crust—that school he shared with Peter and Gordon was Westminster, a famous London one—he absorbed many of its attitudes, although, the English crust having as many layers as a mille-feuille, one has the sense that he comes from somewhere in the more insecure upper middle, rather than from the very creamy top. He emerged with, among other things, a passion for P. G. Wodehouse (one of his rare flops was a Wodehouse musical). Indeed, his memoir is written in a sort of Bertie Wooster pastiche, a little disconcertingly given that its material is the very un-Woosterish one of drive and success. At one point, Lloyd Webber even recycles a Wodehouse joke in a way that may puzzle outsiders to the Wodehouse cult, calling people “gruntled.” (It’s from “The Code of the Woosters”: “If not actually disgruntled, he was far from being gruntled.”)

His father, perhaps most significant of all, was a composer of a distinctly English variety—happily obscure, making a living writing old-fashioned organ and choral music for amateur church choirs. He was one of a group of British composers for whom it was still possible to write straight, melodic music that wasn’t pop and somehow make a living. It was his parents who introduced him to Puccini, and then one day his father played “Some Enchanted Evening,” the ballad from Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “South Pacific,” saying, “If you ever write a tune half as good as this, I shall be very, very proud of you.” Ah! If only Dad had played “The Lady Is a Tramp” or “Where or When” or another angular and elegant Rodgers and Hart ballad, the history of musical theatre might have been different, and better. (To be fair, whenever Lloyd Webber does write at his best, he writes at Rodgers’s best; the influence flows in and then out, as in the genuinely beautiful “All I Ask of You,” from “The Phantom of the Opera.”)…”

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