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Andrew Lloyd Webber, Hit Man : The Critics Howl, the Tickets Sell and the Maestro Just Keeps Going (and Going and Going).

January 02, 1994|Margy Rochlin. | Margy Rochlin is a contributing editor for the magazine. Her last story was a profile of MTV's Tabitha Soren.

DID YOU NOT KNOW ABOUT THE horse?" Anthony Pye-Jeary is inquiring excitedly. "His name is . . . is . . . Frank Rich ."

Frank Rich was, until recently, the New York Times' lead drama critic and the pundit who most bedeviled composer Andrew Lloyd Webber. Frank Rich is also a racehorse owned and christened by Lloyd Webber, a four-legged repository of his private revenge.

Pye-Jeary chuckles. He's an old friend of Lloyd Webber and so is in on the Frank Rich joke, one part of which is that Lloyd Webber's mount is a gelding , it has been--you know, ha ha-- desexed . The other part is that Frank Rich--the horse--had been running poorly until, as Pye-Jeary recounts, "They put a tongue strap on him. They tied the tongue down. So Frank Rich runs for the first time with a tongue strap. And wins ! Really, really ! This is true! It sounds like a joke! But he had his tongue strapped down and the horse won!"

Pye-Jeary's rising glee attests to just how satisfying pay-back can be. To fathom his joyful hysteria, one must consider this: From the perspective of Lloyd Webber's crowd, Frank Rich--the man--is a pen-wielding bully who has been using wittily phrased insights to beat up on their long-suffering chum for years. In 1988, for example, Rich wrote that "The Phantom of the Opera" was "a victory of dynamic stagecraft over musical kitsch." And just this past July, when Lloyd Webber's latest concoction, "Sunset Boulevard," had its world premiere in London, Rich complimented the composer on his "surprisingly dark, jazz-accented" music but suggested that Lloyd Webber and company go back to the drawing board on everything else: "Its creators have the time . . . to search for means other than hydraulics to make their show lift off."

And it's not as if Frank Rich has been alone in his scorn. Lloyd Webber is fair game for the Fourth Estate and, it seems, anyone else who cares to comment. Take "Cats," for example. This Lloyd Webber revenue mill has become an equal-opportunity gag-line. It's big, it's bourgeois and it won't go away. David Letterman can exploit it for yuks with the same ease that playwright Paul Rudnick did when he inserted a running goof on "Cats" in his off-Broadway hit "Jeffrey." "Have someone come out in a cat suit," Rudnick says, and the next thing you know, "there's this roar of laughter. This is very useful in a comedy." Of course, not all Lloyd Webber-bashing has such harmless intentions. Several years ago, Malcolm Williamson, the Master of the Queen's Music, explained to reporters how he assessed his countryman's mass appeal: Lloyd Webber's music is "everywhere," he said, "but then so is AIDS."

For his part, Lloyd Webber doesn't tell Frank Rich stories--not about the man and not about the horse. Indeed, with his accumulation of successes, he shouldn't have to care what any critic thinks. Lloyd Webber's 11 productions include best-sellers like his first hit, "Jesus Christ Superstar," in 1971, "Evita," "Cats" and "The Phantom of the Opera"--the last two alone have been worth $3.5 billion worldwide. Now comes "Sunset Boulevard," which set advance-sales records in London and has been selling out the Shubert Theatre in Century City since its American premiere there last month. Among his many believe-it-or-not career statistics is the fact that on this very night, tickets will be available for a sanctioned Lloyd Webber production at 37 different locations on our planet. In London's West End, six Lloyd Webber shows are running concurrently; on Broadway, three.

Nevertheless, today, sitting in the cool shade of the stone veranda at his rented Beverly Hills estate, Lloyd Webber is talking (and talking and talking) about his critical notices. "As an artist, I'll always pick up something if I feel it is constructive." Lloyd Webber's distinctive delivery combines plummy English diction with sentences that conclude in a mumble. "I mean, what you should be reading is, ' This is a really interesting direction. I wish there was more of it.' That's what criticism should be about." He utters this last statement as if he truly believes it's the job of reviewers everywhere to assist in the refinement of an Andrew Lloyd Webber production.

When he's relaxed, Lloyd Webber can be a self-deprecating charmer. When he's uncomfortable, he's a bundle of nervous tics, given to bouts of head-bobbing, foot waggling, stomach rubbing or hiccuping. On this afternoon, this is how his anxiety is expressing itself: Into his mouth goes the tip of his thumb, which is milky white, very clean and well-manicured. Later, he briefly licks his middle finger, his index finger, then his pinky. Nothing on Lloyd Webber's face indicates that he's aware of performing these small ablutions.

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