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BWW Feature: THE BIRTHDAY MONTH / LLOYD WEBBER 1 - Five productions that we won't forget

London's repertoire of standout Lloyd Webber productions includes these five shows, and more

BWW Feature: THE BIRTHDAY MONTH / LLOYD WEBBER 1 - Five productions that we won't forget March is a festive time for musical theatre enthusiasts. As many will be aware, it's the month in which both Andrew Lloyd Webber and Stephen Sondheim celebrate their birthdays and on the same date (March 22), albeit 18 years apart. To mark the occasion, we are giving over four weeks to honour some of their finest moments on the London stage, taking each composer in turn to fete five memorable productions and then five outstanding performances. And so, below are five Lloyd Webber stagings that I shall long remember, several of which (COVID permitting) may be back amongst us in due course.

The Phantom of the Opera, Her Majesty's Theatre, 1986

A seismic success story the likes of which have long since entered record books, The Phantom of the Opera some while ago crossed over from just another show to qualify as a flat-out phenomenon. But back in October 1986, I can report the never-to-be-forgotten sense of occasion of being at that opening night in an era before the internet and showbiz chat rooms and industry scuttlebutt and spoilers about what lay in store. The result was a particularly overwhelming evening in which the now vaunted score conjoined with Hal Prince's immortal stagecraft and Michael Crawford's sinuous star turn to lend lustre to a staging which up until the coronavirus had continued uninterrupted on both sides of the Atlantic. The show has promised a newly minted return to Her Majesty's so as to further refresh a familiar title that just may well outlive us all.

Sunset Boulevard, Adelphi Theatre, 1993

So much ink has been spilled about the bad blood surrounding leading lady Patti LuPone's departure from this show that not enough is said about how electric that first performance was: not just LuPone's soaring, searing vocals as the rabid force of nature that is Norma Desmond but the major-league potency of Lloyd Webber's often minor-key score and a levitating set from John Napier which constituted a star attraction all its own. I still think the producers might have charged separately to invite audiences on stage and into the set during dark days for a show that has become a magnet for divas of all stripes. Surely, these women recognise in the story of Norma's struggle to survive something of their own attempts to stay afloat in an ever-merciless industry.

Jesus Christ Superstar, Open Air Theatre, Regent's Park, 2016

I doubt I'm alone in harboring a particular fondness for those early collaborations between Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice: his first lyricist and, many would argue, still his best. As it happens, their three decades-old signature collaborations have all been dramatically reconceived in recent years. First off was the director Timothy Sheader's (literally, one assumes) high-voltage production for his Open Air Theatre in Regent's Park which tapped directly into the rock opera roots of a show that doesn't need the directorial fuss and bother to which it has sometimes been subjected. This staging instead let the ferocity of the score do its thing, tethering it all the while to a muscular and propulsive whole that had the feel of a gig (and won an Olivier Award). Small wonder that this was amongst the few musicals that dared to reopen last summer (see video below) to newly socially distanced crowds: theatrical power this raw simply cannot be reined-in.

Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, London Palladium, 2019

Given its modest origins as a compact, 15-minute piece for children, Joseph has become a showbiz leviathan over time in direct contrast to its fundamentally unassuming, sweet-natured qualities. All credit then to director Laurence Connor, the composer's go-to stager of choice in recent years (he is taking the reins on Lloyd Webber's forthcoming Cinderella), for reminding us that this harbinger of sorts to School of Rock should first and foremost be fun. It didn't hurt that the production boasted in Jac Yarrow the first Joseph I've seen to really take and hold centre-stage throughout, alongside the cheekiest of narrators in Sheridan Smith, whose game-for-anything vibe was perfectly attuned to the material itself. A return engagement was planned and then stalled by COVID but hopefully for not too much longer: go, go, go Joseph!

Evita, Open Air Theatre, Regent's Park, 2019

You never know where the directorial maverick that is Jamie Lloyd will pop up next, whether directing star-studded Pinter (Tom Hiddleston in Betrayal on the West End and Broadway) or reinventing Pam Gems's Piaf to excoriating effect at the Donmar, with Elena Roger (herself a former Eva Peron) in the title role. Lloyd's alfresco Evita, starring Six alumna Samantha Pauly, was something else again: a commentary on hero worship and mob psychology that owed not a little to the presence in our midst of Donald Trump on the one hand and, dare one say it, Meghan Markle on the other. Displacing the visual iconography of the show well away from the signature touches of Hal Prince's stunning original, Lloyd released something timeless in a narrative that might by this point well seem beside the point, and Jon Clark's laser-beam lighting, coupled with choreographer Fabian Aloise's thrillingly well-drilled ensemble, maintained the sort of collective assault on the senses that made you want to return immediately to see the production again. Which I did.

Evita photo credit: Feast Creative

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