The closing of “The Phantom of the Opera” last spring left a chandelier-sized hole in New York. And as of this summer, for the first time in 44 years, there is no Andrew Lloyd Webber musical running on Broadway.
But now comes an unexpected new chapter in the career of one of musical theater’s most successful, if not always appreciated, composers: Several adventurous contemporary directors are declaring they love his work and want to put their stamp on it.
Ivo van Hove, the Belgian director known for his profuse use of video and viscous fluids, is tackling “Jesus Christ Superstar” in Amsterdam, while Jamie Lloyd, the British auteur with a penchant for Pinter and an aversion to scenery, is sharpening “Sunset Boulevard” in London. Meanwhile, in the United States, Sammi Cannold is putting a feminist stamp on “Evita,” while Bill Rauch and Zhailon Levingston are humanizing “Cats.”
The shows, and Lloyd Webber himself, occupy a paradoxical place in the theatrical canon.
Critics have sometimes dismissed his work as overwrought. This newspaper’s reviewers, in particular, have often been underwhelmed, initially declaring that “Jesus Christ Superstar” had “minimal artistic value,” and also deriding “Evita” (“like reading endless footnotes from which the text has disappeared”), “Cats” (“if you blink, you’ll miss the plot”) and “Sunset Boulevard” (“lurid”).
But “Evita,” “Cats” and “Sunset Boulevard” won best musical Tony Awards, and all four shows are widely staged and enormously popular. These new productions, reflecting contemporary trends, are emphasizing psychology and politics over spectacle and sentiment.
Lloyd Webber, 75, said in an interview that there is no grand strategy at work here — that the directors individually sought permission to stage the shows. But he also said he believes that it is healthy to allow others to explore older material in new ways.
“When we were approached, we just thought, ‘Well, great! Why not?’” he said. “You can’t just sit on these things.”
Even “Starlight Express,” one of his zanier musicals, which involves actors on roller skates pretending to be trains, is getting a reboot: Luke Sheppard, the “& Juliet” director, is reimagining it for a run scheduled to begin next summer in London.
The productions come after a rough patch for Lloyd Webber. His latest musical, “Bad Cinderella,” bombed on Broadway last spring, shortly after the “Phantom” closing. But he is undeterred: In August he signed with Creative Artists Agency, the powerhouse talent representatives, and in September he named a new chief executive for Really Useful Group, the company he owns that licenses and manages his shows.
“I really must concentrate, in the latter days of my composing life, on creating and writing,” Lloyd Webber said. “It’s exciting to me that there are so many directors now coming forward, who actually are the directors who everybody is going to at the moment. And it’s very interesting to me to hear new minds and see new ideas — some of them I’m going to like and some of them not. But why not? I can’t see any possible reason.”
Here is a look at four upcoming reinventions.
Forget the staircase and the turban. Jamie Lloyd is bringing an intense interest in psychological exploration to “Sunset Boulevard” — “putting the emphasis,” he says, “on people and their emotional journey.”
With that aim, he asked Lloyd Webber to rework some aspects of the score “to lean into the darkness and peculiarity of certain moments that are dreamlike or nightmarish.” And, to his surprise, Lloyd Webber agreed. “He’s been so open,” Lloyd said, “which is kind of crazy.”
The production, which is now running at London’s Savoy Theater, ends with a rush of blood and integrates live camera work in a nod to the Hollywood milieu of “Sunset Boulevard.” Lloyd called it “a hybrid between theater and cinema.”
Lloyd, 42, didn’t grow up seeing theater. But his father, a truck driver, liked listening to show tunes, and that’s how Lloyd first encountered Lloyd Webber’s songs.
The original Broadway production of “Sunset Boulevard,” which opened in 1994, starred Glenn Close, above with Andrew Lloyd Webber.Credit…Associated Press
Soon he had his own cassette of the composer’s greatest hits, and he would “force my cousins to do performances in the living room.”
“It was kind of the soundtrack of my youth,” he said.
Fast forward to the summer of 2019. Lloyd, by then an acclaimed experimental director, had moved on from his Lloyd Webber fixation, or at least so he thought. But when he was invited to stage a musical outdoors, in Regent’s Park, one show came to mind: “Evita.”
His sneakers-and-spray-paint production of that show was a hit, and he made a mental note of Lloyd Webber’s openness to “radical reappraisal.” Then, idled at home during the pandemic, he found himself imagining what he could do with “Sunset Boulevard.”
“The characters he chooses to write about are weird and otherworldly, often with tormented minds, and the scores take these big leaps which are good to explore,” Lloyd said. “They are like fever dreams, and they respond well to a more experimental, less traditional approach.”
Sammi Cannold has long been obsessed with “Evita.” At 29, she is 16 years younger than the musical, but she still remembers hearing the songs as a kid in New York, seeing the revival that starred Ricky Martin, and, as an aspiring director, proclaiming it her “dream project.”
She has been nothing if not determined: She directed a production while an undergrad at Stanford; she visited Argentina three times to do research; and then she pitched an “Evita” revival to New York City Center.
So in 2019, there was Cannold, directing a 12-day gala run of the Lloyd Webber classic. The production was eye-catching, starting with Evita’s iconic white ball gown hovering like a ghost over a flower-bedecked stage. This year, Cannold was able to develop it fully, staging it first at the American Repertory Theater in Cambridge, Mass., and now (through Oct. 15) at Shakespeare Theater Company in Washington, where the Washington Post theater critic Peter Marks called the show “gorgeously reinvigorated.”
Cannold’s take is informed by feminism — “I think she’s a victim and a survivor who learned to use her sexuality as armor,” she said of Perón — but also by the regime’s authoritarianism. “When I first started working on it, I was head over heels in love with Eva — I was so obsessed with her and her history, and I couldn’t really hear any of the criticism,” she said. “I’ve gone on a whole journey, and land in a different place.”
‘Jesus Christ Superstar’
Even in Belgium, where Ivo van Hove grew up, “Jesus Christ Superstar” was a big deal. The concept album was released in 1970, when van Hove was young, and the music has lived in his head ever since.
“At the time that I was an adolescent, this was huge — not the musical, but the album — the album was something that everybody bought,” said van Hove, who at 64 has never seen a stage production of the show. “Nobody could believe that ‘Jesus Christ Superstar’ could be a rock thing.”
Van Hove, whose production of “Dead Man Walking” is this season’s Metropolitan Opera opener, said he has wanted for years to direct “Jesus Christ Superstar.” “Some projects live in me for a long time,” he said.
Now he’s getting his chance, directing an English-language production that is set to begin performances in January at DeLaMar in Amsterdam.
“I can tell you what interests me,” he said. “First, it’s a story of a group of friends who became friends because they believed in one mission: to take care of the poor. Second, these friends become a threat to political and religious leaders. And third are the geopolitical tensions, in this case with Rome.”
“These things,” he added, “feel like very contemporary themes.”
How contemporary? Let’s just say that in van Hove’s production, the cast will begin the show wearing hoodies. And, he said, some members of the audience will be seated onstage, because he wants to create a “pressure-cooker” environment.
What is van Hove’s theory about why Lloyd Webber is drawing inventive directors now? “It’s not for nothing that these musicals became so important for so many people for such a long time,” he said. “There’s something very human there, even when it’s about cats.”
The production of “Cats” planned for next June at the new Perelman Performing Arts Center is, at least at first blush, the most outlandish of this latest round of Lloyd Webber productions. Whereas the original concerned a group of cats (obviously) and was set in a junkyard, the characters in this production will be human beings, and it will be set in the Ballroom scene, a dance subculture closely associated with Black and Latino drag queens.
“We are reimagining ‘Cats’ as a queer ball competition,” said Zhailon Levingston, one of the production’s two directors. Old Deuteronomy, an astute and admired character, will be head judge.
The idea was the brainchild of the Perelman Center’s artistic director, Bill Rauch, who, by his own description, has been “obsessed with reinventing classics my whole career,” and who had previously directed a “queer ‘Oklahoma’” at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. “Over the course of that process, I was thinking a lot about ‘Cats,’ and I just kept thinking about the song ‘Memory’ being done in a queer context,” Rauch said. “And I just found it very moving.”
Rauch, 61, saw the original Broadway production — albeit late in its long run, when he decided “it felt important to check that off on my cultural bucket list.” Levingston, 29, had a different point of entry: a direct-to-video film from 1998.
“I’d be at the day care center, watching ‘Barney,’ and they kept showing the trailer for ‘Cats,’ and I didn’t know what they were doing — people were dressed provocatively, and it seemed like maybe we shouldn’t be watching, and one day my mom and I were at Blockbuster, and I saw the black box with the yellow eyes, and said, ‘We have to get that,’” he recalled. “For two years of my life, I would just watch ‘Cats.’”
At one point, Levingston said, he even performed his own one-man (well, one-child) version of the show for his babysitters.
Now Rauch and Levingston have hired choreographers with a connection to the Ballroom scene, and a gender consultant to help them navigate the complexities of a gender-nonconforming cast.
“The more time we spend with the material,” Rauch said, “the deeper my respect grows for it.”