Monday, April 7, 2008
Jellicle Songs For Jellicle Cats
Over the weekend I went with some of my dearest relatives to see a production of Andrew Lloyd Webber's hit musical Cats at the California Performing Arts Center in San Bernardino. I admit that it has never been one of my favorite musicals, and in fact I have traditionally regarded it as my least favorite Andrew Lloyd Webber musical, but I typically won't pass up an opportunity to see live musical theater, whatever it may be. To my surprise, I ended up having a pretty amazing time, and seeing the show in person gave me a totally new appreciation for it. The choreography is some of the most difficult and complex I have ever seen, and the ending (I'm embarrassed to say) really made me pretty emotional. It sort of makes me want to seek out some of the other Webber musicals that I've been disappointed with (namely Sunset Boulevard and Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat) and give them a second chance as well.
I have often wondered how a show as bizarre and esoteric as Cats could be one of the longest running musicals on Broadway, but now I think I understand a little better. It also got me thinking about how musical theater buffs like myself will often overlook much of Webber's genius and focus more on composers like Stephen Sondheim (a genius in his own right) who make more of a conscious effort to create intellectual works of musical art. Webber deserves a lot of credit, though. Not only is he responsible for the two longest running shows in Broadway history (Phantom of the Opera and the aforementioned Cats), and birthed such timeless, epic shows as Evita and Jesus Christ Superstar, but he has also composed music for some of the most beautiful and memorable songs of the twentieth century, songs like Don't Cry For Me Argentina, I Don't Know How To Love Him, Phantom of the Opera, Music of the Night, Unexpected Song and of course Memory, which has been covered by artists ranging from Barbara Streisand to Barry Manilow. His shows have been translated into dozens of languages and performed worldwide. The fact that he could make an obscure show about cats in a junkyard one of the most popular shows in Broadway history is a testament to how much of a genius he truly is (not to mention a fearless risk taker).
And yet many musical elitists (I'm referring to the Frank Rich types, those individuals who snub their noses at any show that isn't related to either Stephen Sondheim or some composer who has been dead for forty years) not only fail to acknowledge Webber's immense contributions to musical theater, but even revile him as being a "pop" composer who appeals to the brainless masses far too intellectually inept to grasp the profundity of a "real" musical. In some circles, if you confess to being a fan of Cats or Phantom, you might as well just write 'moron' across your forehead, because that is how you will be immediately branded anyway. I generally make it a point to ignore the musical elitists, because there really is no point in arguing with them. They have convinced themselves of their superiority to such a degree that any attempts to challenge their infallible opinions will appear as a completely foreign language. And if you accuse them of being elitist, the common answer is something to the extent of, "I'm not an elitist; I just know what I'm talking about."
And while there is certainly no denying that Webber's musicals are typically geared toward a wide audience, does that make him any less of a genius? Let his record speak for itself. The immeasurable success that Webber has experienced, and the amount of people who have been impacted by his work, is not something that one can learn by taking a survey or arranging a focus group. That sort of thing comes from within, and if his growing legacy is any indication, then Andrew Lloyd Webber will undoubtedly go down in history alongside Cole Porter, Rodgers & Hammerstein and Leonard Bernstein.