LONDON - For the composer of colossal musical hits like Cats and The Phantom of the Opera, any lesser success risks being construed as failure. After Andrew Lloyd Webber's last two shows fared poorly here, some London theater critics proclaimed that he had lost his touch. Now, as he prepares to open a new musical, The Woman in White, based on Wilkie Collins' mid-19th-century "sensation novel," he has a chance to prove them wrong.
Lloyd Webber, however, prefers to couch things differently. The Phantom of the Opera was "a one-off, an extraordinary piece of luck," he said, which he could never hope to repeat. Besides, instant show-biz judgments have often proved wrong: Some acclaimed shows have flopped; others have run for years after being savaged by critics. Because he has nothing left to prove, he said, he can enjoy the "luxury" of writing what he wants.
And yet, even after a remarkable career dating back to Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat in 1968, Lloyd Webber, at 56, still displays a trace of the nervousness that any creator feels before a new work is judged. The countdown ends Wednesday, when The Woman in White opens here at the Palace Theater.
"I know it's an extremely good score, but I can't tell if it's a commercial score," he said in the Soho office of his company, the Really Useful Group. "Whether something is actually any good is quite different from whether it is commercial. This time I have gone out as far along the operatic route as I have ever done, if not further. It's what I wanted to write at this particular point."
Still, after the first previews before sold-out audiences in the 1,200-seat Palace, which was long occupied by Les Miserables, Lloyd Webber sounded optimistic. "It's not going to need any rewriting as such," he said. "What often happens with a show at this stage is that you suddenly find a chunk of it is not working. We haven't found that, so touch wood."
The producer, Sonia Friedman, recruited the British playwright Charlotte Jones (Humble Boy) to adapt Collins' thriller for the stage. Lloyd Webber chose David Zippel, an American, to write the lyrics; a National Theater veteran, William Dudley, designed the production; and Trevor Nunn, who directed Cats, is again the director.
But with musicals no less than operas, it is primarily the composer's reputation that is on the line.
Given his love of Victoriana, it is not surprising that Lloyd Webber was drawn to one of Victorian England's most popular books.
First published in 1860, The Woman in White is not easy to stage, even when freely adapted. The novel was initially serialized in Dickens' weekly newspaper, All the Year Round, so each installment ended on a note of melodrama. Its plot, recounted in the first person by 10 characters, is immensely complex, driven by a terrible secret that causes havoc but is revealed only near the end. For the musical, Jones has eliminated some characters and digressions, but has kept close to the original story.
Stranded at a foggy railroad station, Walter Hartwright meets a frightened woman in white who proclaims she has a secret. He then heads for the Cumberland mansion where he is to teach drawing to the beautiful Laura Fairlie and her older and plainer half-sister, Marian Halcombe. Walter and Laura fall in love, but Marian stands between them: Laura is engaged to Sir Percival Glyde. The woman in white, Anne Catherick, warns against the marriage, but it still goes ahead.
Percival soon proves to be a cad, interested in only Laura's inheritance. In conspiring to seize it, he has an ally in Count Fosco, a charming fat rascal who keeps mice as pets and who takes a fancy to Marian. Seeing Percival abuse Laura, Marian calls on Walter to discover Anne's secret, which they hope will provide a key to freeing Laura. In the novel, the secret is that Percival forged his parents' marriage certificate to obtain his title. In the musical, it is far darker.
Among the cast is Michael Crawford, the popular British actor who had the title role in the first London production of The Phantom, as Count Fosco.
A complex score
One of the novelties of the production is that the scenery is provided by fast-moving video projections, one moment a dark railroad station, the next the courtyard of a vast mansion. As a result, physical props involve little more than a billiard table, a wheelchair, a couch, church benches and the cages containing Fosco's menagerie. Costumes are Victorian, but the through-composed music, Lloyd Webber insisted, is definitely not.
"There are bits that are pretty recognizably me," he said. "But it's a more complex score than probably anything I have attempted so far. My greatest worry is I think it's a piece that is difficult to absorb in one [hearing]. It probably repays a second. ... Funnily enough, some of my main melodies are becoming simpler, whereas the other music is becoming more harmonically challenging."
What perhaps most pleases Lloyd Webber, though, is that, with the West End already full of musicals and The Producers and Mary Poppins joining them before Christmas, he has come up with something original.
"I am very concerned that, apart from Jerry Springer: The Opera, every other musical coming on this year is either based on something done in a different form or is a compilation show," he said.
Part of the problem, he said, is that, while subsidized theaters like the National Theater can afford to put on new plays and even musicals, commercial theaters are unable or unwilling to take the financial risk. "Have we dumbed down to such a degree that producers are only prepared to put on very safe bets in musical theater?" he asked.
To put on this musical, it was Friedman's job as producer to raise $7.2 million, but it is no coincidence that it is being presented at the Palace, one of 13 West End theaters owned by the Really Useful Group.
Not that Lloyd Webber has financial worries. The Sunday Times of London has estimated his worth at $720 million. And The Phantom of the Opera, in its 17th year on Broadway and its 18th year in London, marches on. Joel Schumacher's screen version is expected to have its premiere in the Paris Opera in December. And a new $35 million production of Phantom is to open as a permanent show in the Venetian Resort Hotel Casino in Las Vegas in spring 2006.
With The Woman in White, though, comes an artistic risk. Will it join the likes of Cats, Joseph, Evita and Jesus Christ Superstar as well as Phantom in being performed on some stage around the world every night of the year? Or, like By Jeeves and Whistle Down the Wind, will it be quietly forgotten?
Even if he has nothing to prove, then, Lloyd Webber has taken up the challenge.
"I have to put my head on the block again," he said with a laugh.