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Behind the show tunes

by John F. Karr

Behind the show tunes

I do not come to bury Sir Andrew Lloyd Weber; nor do I come to marry him. I'm actually kinda indifferent to him. But I was intrigued by the idea of his autobiography, called "Unmasked: A Memoir" (Harper, $28.99). So I read it, and I'm glad I did. Learned all sorts of stuff about ALW, both craft- and gossip-related.

At first sight you'll marvel at this tome. It's 500 pages long, and only makes it to the opening night of Phantom of the Opera in 1986! There are eight more shows, of which only Sunset Blvd. (1993) and School of Rock (2015) can be counted as successful. If ALW hadn't blabbed on at quite such length about his orchestrations, there might have been room to cover those two hits.

But a second volume for those other six shows? "Oh, yeah, let me tell you about the two decades I spent writing flops."

But for a while there, he did write hits. And he orchestrated them himself. Jason Robert Brown and Kurt Weill orchestrated all their shows, and Leonard Bernstein some of his. So I can see how describing his orchestrations at length shows ALW's skills as composer and musician. It's also heartening to hear him cop to his faults. He puts us up close to his three marriages, and only a little less candidly, to his tantrums. The dear boy is so high-strung. And he knows it, describing himself as "wound up," "hyper," and "tense." He even tries to describe his dislike for his most-of-the-time lyricist, Tim Rice, even though he ultimately cops out with the lame excuse, "What happened is beyond the scope of this volume." On Rice's part, the lyricist called ALW "a hot-headed perfectionist who can be extremely obnoxious," as well as pointing out "his undermining and occasionally deceitful ways." On ALW's part, when he alone was presented with an honor, he gloated, "What made it particularly satisfying was Rice was furious."

And what's going on with the numerous times the heterosexual ALW drops gay items? Particularly this stunner. In 1979 (mind the year), wife Sara Brightman's father, whose job remains a mystery, called ALW for a tête à tête. After a couple drinks, he confided, "There's going to be a plague, and it is going to kill a lot of people. It is mainly transmitted either through sex or infected fluids. It will grow out of control in Africa [and] will spread to the West probably via the homosexual community. There is no known cure." Just mind-boggling.

ALW considers himself, above all, a melodist. And that may be why his favorite theatre composer is Richard Rodgers, a king of melody. Which brings us to a second newly published book, "Something Wonderful - Rodgers and Hammerstein's Broadway Revolution" by Todd S. Purdum (Henry Holt, 400 pp., $32).

Both Broadway know-it-alls as well as neophytes will find a book that is now arguably the definitive account of the R&H career. I found a lot I didn't know, and appreciated new aspects of what I already knew, in a book that covers its subject from beginning to end, taking in their other collaborators, each of their shows, and making enjoyable side-trips to related subjects. Purdum summarizes quite well the political and social forces that shaped the team and encouraged their vast popularity. And if he only touches on a couple stories, like the unmitigated warfare among the three gay collaborators the homophobic Rodgers fought with during the creation of Do I Hear a Waltz?, well, those stories have been well-covered elsewhere.

Pre-Rodgers, Hammerstein had written escapist operettas that had wonderful songs (The Desert Song, The New Moon, Rose-Marie) but stories that were pap (excepting that preview of the future, Show Boat). He always envisioned, and now with Rodgers, turned to serious, socially-oriented plots, and made standard practice producer Theresa Helburn's vision of "a play in which the music and dancing would be aids and adjuncts of the plot itself." Ranging over the team's entire career, Purdum makes clear the progressive nature of their work, and just how they wrought their revolution.

When Stephen Sondheim described the team, he said Hammerstein was a man of limited talent but infinite soul, and Rodgers was a man of infinite talent but limited soul. Purdum delineates Rodgers' neuroticism. He was unfriendly, miserly, paranoid, homophobic, and as a lifelong womanizer, unfaithful to his wife. Directly the opposite, Hammerstein was devoted to his wife, didn't smoke, drank little, rose early, and went to bed equally early.

Yes, they were middlebrow, and of a frequently earnest mien. But they were sincere. Hammerstein gave forth some gentle sentimentality. And Rodgers gave forth melody after melody after melody. You could love a guy like that.

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