It’s an autumn twilight. The curtain is rising on The Phantom of the Opera at the Majestic Theatre in New York. As well as in Rochester. And Detroit, San Francisco, and a half dozen other cities worldwide.
Meanwhile, five divas across the globe primp for their close-ups in Sunset Boulevard. And at curtain time, seven litters of Cats are taking bows. If, incredibly, one of these ubiquitous musicals isn’t playing near you, don’t cry for Andrew Lloyd Webber: Madonna’s Evita opens around the country in January, and its first single, ”You Must Love Me,” is on Billboard charts and MTV.
Sir Andrew — England’s onetime theatrical enfant terrible who, with Tim Rice, crashed the American musical-theater party in 1971 with their then-controversial Jesus Christ Superstar — is obviously not just a composer. He’s a franchise. Indeed, with Webber’s old hits cornering markets everywhere, the mogul is now in the unenviable position of having to compete predominantly with himself.
And he’s become a nearly impossible act for himself to beat. ”How can one even think of topping Phantom? It’s a phenomenon,” says Davis Gaines, who at 1,937 performances has played the deformed maestro more than anyone. How, indeed? Phantom, Sir Andrew’s last monster hit, appeared 10 years ago; with no newly written smashes, Phantom and its spectre of success are beginning to haunt him, leading Broadway to wonder: Does the most powerful musical force since Rodgers and Hammerstein need to change the sound of his music?
Webber’s own answer, surprisingly, is yes. His newest project, Whistle Down the Wind, is at this moment preparing for a Dec. 6 unveiling in Washington, D.C., and a projected Broadway opening April 17. And with it, the erstwhile bad boy is snazzing up his ripe old image.
”I completed the first draft of Whistle at the beginning of this year,” Webber says by trunk call from England. ”It’s got to have my number one attention.” But that doesn’t mean it’ll be given megamusical treatment.
”Andrew’s very emphatic that this is a full turn away from that trend,” says Whistle lyricist Jim Steinman. ”He thinks it’s just reached a dead end.”
While Webber’s colossal productions are usually preceded by torrents of hype, the creators of the no-star, $10 million Whistle have been uncharacteristically tight-lipped. For the first time in his career, Webber is premiering a show in America without the cast album already on shelves. And for the first time he’s collaborating with an established rock personality: Steinman, the producer, lyricist, and composer (best known for writing Meat Loaf’s Bat out of Hell and Bat out of Hell II: Back Into Hell albums) whose Celine Dion tune ”It’s All Coming Back to Me Now” has been in Billboard’s top 10 for eight weeks.
If that surprises fans of easy listening favorites like ”Memory” and ”All I Ask of You,” don’t forget: This is the man who, at 23, created Superstar, the show that rocked Broadway — and mainstream consciousness. In the 25 years since, though, Webber has been consistently chided for his unrockerly razzmatazz, a critical refrain that’s dogged him.