Note: John had drafted this but not finalized it before he died. He loves Webber and Eliot.
With the announcement that Cats is finally being made into a movie, I’ve been thinking of different aspects of that process.
Because they started their careers together and had some huge successes at young ages, fans, critics and the collaborators themselves often express regret “Lloyd Webber and Rice” were more “Lennon and McCartney” than “Rodgers and Hammerstein.”
Objectively, Phantom of the Opera is Lloyd Webber’s most successful musical. Financially, it was the most financially successful stage show or movie of all time before being surpassed by The Lion King in 2012 (with of course lyrics by Rice), and is still the longest running musical in Broadway history.
“Memory” has been my favorite song since I was 6. It’s an oft-repeated (and variously misquoted) anecdote that when Andrew wrote the tune that became “Memory” (a tune that has often been accused of being plagiarized from Puccini, Ravel, and/or John and Michelle Phillips) he wrote it as a tribute to Puccini, for a planned musical about Puccini. He asked his musicologist, organist and composer father, William, “Does this sound like anything to you?” And his father replied, “It sounds like a million dollars!” Looking up a source to cite for the anecdote, I found this great article from 2007 that sums up, except a few quibbles, what I think of Lloyd Webber and most of the criticism against him. It is kind of ironically, actually, that what contemporary critics call “plagiarism” or “pastiche” is what Eliot himself did in his poetry, and what Eliot described in “Tradition and the Individual Talent.” Anyway, Bill Lloyd Webber was wrong: his son’s haunting and hauntingly familiar tune, combined with lyrics by Trevor Nunn based on T. S. Eliot (mainly “Preludes” and “Rhapsody on a Windy Night” but also themes from Four Quartets and some of Eliot’s other work) became an instant standard, one of the most successful songs of the 1980s. Elaine Paige released 2 singles, of the original lyric in 1982 and the revised lyric in 1998, both of which charted in the UK. Barbra Streisand’s “definitive” version peaked at #52 on the top 100 and #9 on the AC charts. Barry Manilow’s cover surpassed Streisand’s, charting at 39 and 8, respectively. I once read there was a point in the 80s where between those three and numerous other covers, “Memory” was always playing on the radio somewhere. Cats itself has grossed over a billion in worldwide ticket sales.
Lloyd Webber wanted a big aria/pop single for Cats and suggested his Puccini tribute but needed lyrics. Rice offered a lyric which was used in rehearsal but later rejected (often cited as the final breaking point in their collaboration). Richard Stilgoe, who wrote the prologue, “Jellicle Songs for Jellicle Cats,” based upon Eliot’s unpublished poem “Pollicle Dogs and Jellicle Cats,” submitted one. Director Trevor Nunn wrote the lyric that was used.
In a musical, there are three elements: the music, the lyrics, and the “book,” which is the story. So while Lloyd Webber is not a lyricist, he often actively participates in the story.
Part of the effectiveness of their two most successful collaborations was due to the differences in Rice and Lloyd Webber’s worldviews that made their long-term collaboration untenable. Rice is an atheist; Lloyd Webber has always at least respected Christianity though his own level of faith is unclear. Rice admired Eva Peron; Lloyd Webber saw her as despicable but decided she was tragic.
Stilgoe, who like Rice was known mainly for writing comic lyrics. His only full-fledged musical with ALW was Starlight Express. He wrote all the lyrics for Phantom of the Opera but then up-and-coming Charles Hart was hired to rewrite it to be more serious. Hart went onto contribute to Aspects of Love and Sunset Boulevard, both of which are arguably contain some of Lloyd Webber’s most beautiful melodies and a number of instant standards.
Don Black collaborated with Lloyd Webber on Tell Me On a Sunday/Song and Dance, and was part of the teams for Aspects and Sunset.