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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.

The notices had also said the tunes were agreeably hummable, but where was a showstopper like "Memory" or "The Music of the Night" from "Cats" and "Phantom"? Lloyd Webber added a zotzy number "Every Movie's a Circus"--"for the younger people." John Napier's gilt-splashed set was dazzling, according to the papers, but inappropriately glitzy. In Los Angeles, Norma Desmond's shut-in environment became more claustrophobic.

Lloyd Webber indulged his own second-chance desires as well. He can barely contain himself when describing the incorporation of some of his trademark flash--a reproduction of an antique touring car--into the L.A. action. It was Billy Wilder's idea (Wilder has been serving as the Lloyd Webber team's unpaid oracle). "I mean, we physically couldn't (include the automobile) in London," says Lloyd Webber peppily, "but we've found a way (in Los Angeles) that we can . We're going to do it. It's going to happen ! The old car will be there !"

But most of Lloyd Webber's uncapped fix-it enthusiasm was devoted to the casting. In London, the press corps found the square-shouldered belter Patti LuPone too invincible to capture Norma Desmond's cracked fragility. So Lloyd Webber tapped five-time Academy Award-nominated actress Glenn Close as the pivotal female lead. She is a Serious Actress, so she fits into Lloyd Webber's time-honored formula of gilding fluff with substance. And she is also a movie star, which usually has sure-thing drawing power.

Weeks later, when the revamped "Sunset" opens, Lloyd Webber's new casting pays off. For the most part the critics coo over Close. "Stunning," says The Times' Sylvie Drake, and--miracle of miracles--the New York Times, in the form of Vincent Canby, raves: "Ms. Close's performance is ravishing" on its way to delivering a glowing thumbs-up. Time, USA Today and radio and TV also hand out mostly positive notices. Even so, there is plenty of Lloyd Webber blood drawn. "Grandiose camp, flashy but surprisingly dull," says David Ansen in Newsweek. "More confident . . . but no better," complains Daily Variety. "Wildly overblown," admits Drake.

And the disparaging rumbling never quite dies down. The word, at one point, is that Close, singing at the edge of her range, won't hold up to eight larnyx-punishing shows a week: Broadway trouper Betty Buckley, they say, has already been placed on 24-hour red alert. ("This absolutely isn't true," insists Lloyd Webber's media consultant, Peter Brown.) Tongue-waggers point out that the double-CD cast album has so far loitered drowsily on the racks. (An L.A. cast album may be in the offing.) Some even predict that "Sunset" will never make it to the Great White Way: New York audiences are notoriously picky, thus the risk-factor of staging such a pricey show is greater there.

Certainly all of this chit-chat might yet come true. On the other hand, it might just be more of the flop-lust that grows stronger with the birth of each new Andrew Lloyd Webber production. Back in 1974, he came out with an effort called "Jeeves," which even Lloyd Webber says was " a complete disaster" and "catastrophically received." But it didn't sidetrack his campaign toward world domination--the source of so much of what irritates the legions of Sir Andrew bashers. What they all seem to wish most for him is a huge bomb, the kind of failure that could bring the Lloyd Webber machine to a grinding halt.

IN ENGLAND, LLOYD WEBBER'S HEADQUARTERS IS A 10-BEDROOM, SIX-STORY townhouse in London's exclusive Belgravia district (not to be confused with his English country mansion, his villa in the south of France or his Trump Tower apartment in New York). When he is there, he can find no peace. The switchboard blinks constantly. Even in the upholstered depths of his chauffeur-driven, midnight blue Mercedes 600 SEL with the VCR, satellite-informed traffic monitor and fully stocked fridge, there is a back-seat car phone to distract him.

Life must have been simpler for Lloyd Webber when he was a newly minted phenomenon. Back then, he had his first partner, Tim Rice, in his corner, towering protectively over him, sharing the burdens. When the two aspiring songwriters met, in 1965, the 17-year-old Lloyd Webber was so sure of their future together that he dropped his history studies at Oxford and moved Rice into his family's South Kensington flat.

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