SOUND OFF: Andrew Lloyd Webber's Kinky & Kooky STEPHEN WARD Is Orgiastic
"I invented a new way of life / Some may call it unconventional," the wax figure of society osteopath Stephen Ward, who has just come to life before our eyes, croons dramatically at the start of Andrew Lloyd Webber's newest musical, the historically-informed UK-set period piece STEPHEN WARD, and, from the man who made a mint on dancing cats, operatic phantoms and larger-than-life divas (Eva, Mary Magdalene and Norma Desmond included), such a surprising theatrical flourish is damn near expected at this stage of the game. Undoubtedly, though, STEPHEN WARD shows solid proof that the man who made many of the most popular and ubiquitous musicals of all time still has some spectacular scores left in him - and, without any doubt whatsoever, STEPHEN WARD is one of them.
As represented on the new original cast recording, it is a distinct pleasure to first and foremost report that STEPHEN WARD is overflowing with melody, uniquely highlighted by many moments allowing Lloyd Webber to explore musical genres and song styles heretofore unexamined - which is really saying something when discussing the man who has written everything from a rock opera on the life of Jesus Christ to a requiem mass, and, just recently, the chart-topping Diamond Jubilee song (co-written with Gary Barlow), among his copious accomplishments over the course of his unparalleled career. Nevertheless, STEPHEN WARD presents a ripe and rich opportunity for Lloyd Webber to turn to the musical styles of his teenage years, that is: the early-to-mid 1960s, and in the process he reveals a crystal clear understanding of the countless possibilities available to theatrically exploit in that musically diverse and volatile period in music, society and world history, especially as experienced here in the US and in the UK.
Indeed, the combustible and outright unseemly nature of much of the material implicit in the story of STEPHEN WARD sonically informs the undercurrents of many musical sequences, whereas the encroaching tension and eventual downfall of the title character is reflected in the at-turns whimsical, romantic, riveting, electric and sophisticated score. Surely, this is on the level of THE BEAUTIFUL GAME and EVITA insofar as its bracing, brash uniqueness in the Lord's canon, bringing a British sensibility to the proceedings in much the same way that Irish and Latin styles were so evocatively absorbed into those aforementioned shows and their respective scores. More to that point, the specific homages to particular song styles brings to mind the witty and delightful 1950s rock n roll winks throughout the stupendous and criminally underrated Jim Steinman collaboration WHISTLE DOWN THE WIND, as well. Yet, no Lloyd Webber score would be entirely complete without a big anthem or three, as well as The Song - there always is one of those - and STEPHEN WARD unabashedly and liberally showcases its barn-burners throughout the score, sometimes when least expected.
"This Side Of The Sky" affords Ward and Christine Keeler (Charlotte Spencer) with their big duet, and, while a winner, The Song in STEPHEN WARD actually belongs to a relatively minor character, Valerie Hobson. More on that in a moment. Insofar as how STEPHEN WARD relates to Lloyd Webber's other scores, "Manipulation" is one example, showing a nod to "The Art Of The Possible" from EVITA in its waltzing insinuations, while the ironic depiction of society backbiting and bitchery in "You've Never Had It So Good" expertly evokes the hilarious "Peron's Latest Flame" from the same score - which itself was a South American parody of MY FAIR LADY's legendary Ascot Gavotte sequence, no doubt - but turns it all on its head, setting the snooty sounds of the song at an upper-class S&M orgy. Really. Yes, oh, yes - if nothing else, STEPHEN WARD is proof that Andrew Lloyd Webber is still fully capable of shocking us like he did with his raucous rock Bible extravaganza more than forty years ago via the game-changing, boundary-breaking JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR. After all, Lloyd Webber is the rock star of musical theatre - he is the most successful composer of musicals in history, who first broke on the scene with an actual rock opera, lest we forget - and STEPHEN WARD gives him the rare chance to show off that fact; literally, figuratively and musically. On the topic of rock n roll legends, for the very first time Webber offers us a Beatles tribute byway of the STEPHEN WARD Act One closer, "1963", as well. Yeah? Yeah! And some "Ooohs" and "Ahs," too - all well-earned. And, the confections available to devour in the veritable candy story of a score for STEPHEN WARD don't end there - no, no; not by a long shot!
Surfer song? Check. Reggae? Done. The Beatles? Been there. "Super Duper Hula Hooper" is precisely the sort of song you would expect from something titled as such - that is, a Hawaiian surfer song with a ferocious hook and danceable beat - and lyricist Don Black definitely makes it land, and stick. Sticky, too, are the instant-earworm charms of "Black-Hearted Woman", which is jammin' in Bob Marley mode - and such delectable ear candy as to almost make one want to hear and entire tropical-influenced score from the Lord someday. Russia, too, gets its due here, thanks to the appropriately named "Mother Russia", which conjures up the DOCTOR ZHIVAGO-esque mise en scene of the snowy setting (and a tiny tinge of Eva's "Lament", too) despite actually occurring on somewhat sunnier shores. Alexander Hanson excels in dialogue-driven musical moments - witness his masterpiece of a Pontius Pilate in the recent SUPERSTAR arena tour - and Lloyd Webber showcases him brilliantly with the recitative sequences such as this wintry exchange with Yevgeny Ivanov (Ian Conningham). So, too, is "Manipulation" a propulsive leitmotif woven well into the colorful and astonishingly varied tapestry of a score crafted by Lloyd Webber for this striking, albeit odd passion project. More to that point, "Give Us Something Juicy" and the final few sequences in Act Two are invaluably enhanced by the prior establishment of many memorable themes first introduced earlier on in the score revealed in a new context, as is often Lloyd Webber's wont. Some may say it is too much repetition, but STEPHEN WARD offers enough variance and viability in its surprising originality elsewhere to allow for an extra reprise or two and never does any melody overstay its welcome - much to the contrary. Of note, Lloyd Webber himself crafted the aptly evocative, dense and lively orchestrations - and his remarkable attention to detail is amply apparent.
It also should be noted that "Love Nest" gives a lovely lilt to a romantic and altogether quite adorable scene - a moment which would turn out to be the real-life turning point and now the dramatic crux of STEPHEN WARD, as well, as it would happen, ensnaring John Profumo (Daniel Flynn) into the fold. Also, the leading ladies of the musical are strongly represented with the Christine Keeler/MAndy Rice-Davies (Charlotte Blackledge) duet "He Sees Something In Me" as well as the fun frivolity and unexpected final dramatic moments in "1963". "When You Get To Know Me" and "You're So Very Clever To Have Found This" complete the alluring trio of Ward/Keeler exchanges and when removed from the show as seen onstage function as their own intriguing mini-musical in and of themselves when sequenced together. Plus, Ward's final reprise of "This Side Of The Sky" leading into the spine-tingling, luxuriously grand and emotionally expansive final song, "Too Close To The Flame", is a moment befitting of Christ's crucifixion in SUPERSTAR itself. Epic - and, unabashedly, so very theatrically so. Wondrous. Which brings us to the moment we have all been waiting for: The Song.
STEPHEN WARD is highlighted by two tremendous solo songs, with Alexander Hanson bringing great gravitas to his lengthy, ominous and fact-packed opener "Human Sacrifice - effortlessly listing off the dense and complex dialogue and lyrics crafted by Don Black and Christopher Hampton, who co-composed the book and lyrics - and notable West End headliner Joanna Riding provided with The Song. "I'm Hopeless When It Comes To You" is part "Anything But Lonely" from ASPECTS OF LOVE, part LOVE NEVER DIES title tune, a dash of TELL ME ON A SUNDAY and a sprinkling of Mary Magdelene's best material - that is; a female showstopper as only Andrew Lloyd Webber can do. This is unquestionably his forte above all others; the gigantic diva anthem - "I Don't Know How To Love Him", "Don't Cry For Me Argentina", "Memory", Norma's four SUNSET BOULEVARD stunners, not to mention his recent WIZARD OF OZ addition for the Wicked Witch, "Red Shoes Blues", to name but a few of the most memorable of all. Riding infuses STEPHEN WARD's The Song with the actorly commitment one expects from such a powerful performer (and two-time Olivier Award-winner) and dramatically matches the extravagantly enjoyable musical heights achieved by the standout tune by its stirring conclusion. Definitely the most repeat-worthy entry in this score - well, perhaps besides the handful of simply fantastic pop songs, that is. Although, is it really necessary? All told, this is a minor character given a huge eleven o'clock number, if we're being totally honest about it, no? Who knows - but, heck, now that it exists, it is elemental to the score anyway. Honestly, if Lloyd Webber hadn't just created a score as masterful as his PHANTOM-equal (I would even say successor) LOVE NEVER DIES one could almost say this is his finest work this decade, if not this century so far. STEPHEN WARD is risky, rewarding and quite surprisingly superb. Something different, for sure - but something worthwhile, as well.
"Limitless delights... all the amazing nights," Hanson passionately sings as Ward in his opening number, and so go the glories to be unearthed and examined in STEPHEN WARD - and, one more reason to be thankful for Andrew Lloyd Webber's unmatched gift for melody. And daringness.