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Non-fiction reviews


Jonathan Mantle - Fanfare: The Unauthorised Biography of Andrew Lloyd Webber

13 November 1988

Fanfare: The Unauthorised Biography of Andrew Lloyd Webber
by Jonathan Mantle
Michael Joseph

Published in The Australian

Having dedicated a whole book to the worst novelist in the English language (In For a Penny: The Unauthorised Biography of Jeffrey Archer), Jonathan Mantle has turned his critical gaze upon a composer who, although hugely successful and wildly rich, most sensible people feel at best ambivalent about. This book does not alter one's ambivalence about Andrew Lloyd Webber, but merely fleshes it out a little.

The titillating, titular "Unauthorised" is a modern euphemism for sex and sordidness of the worst kind - or, failing that, for devastating psychological insight. However all we get, in this extended CV, are career facts.

Andrew Lloyd Webber's life seems to have been singularly uneventful, unless you count endless ringing choruses of glitz, and cash registers. Even his compositional "brilliance" seems more than a little derivative - chiefly of Puccini and contemporary pop. Though steeped in the classics - well, up to his waist perhaps - Lloyd Webber admires Abba, and similar drivel, with an unsettling enthusiasm. He got some lucky breaks early in his career, bunged on a little production called Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat at just the right time (the advent of hippie spirituality), and became a household name. If nothing else he seems obsessively hard-working, shrewd with money, and moderately talented: probably the ideal combination for success in today's musical climate.

To cut a long story short, the problem with this book is the problem with its subject: he's dead boring.

To make matters worse, Jonathan Mantle does no more than piece together information: this is not what biography is all about. His information comes from newspaper files, from the Companies Office (Webber probably owns more companies than ties), and from the occasional old friend. None of the old friends seems to have any deep understanding of the man, if there is any to be had.

Those closest to Lloyd Webber - his wife and ex-wife, his former lyricist Tim Rice, and his brother Julian (a famous cellist) - all seem not to have co-operated with the biographer. Neither has Lloyd Webber himself, of course, which means Mantle has had to fill the pages with interminable lists of people who occupied seats on the boards of his companies, of aeroplanes caught, of directors and producers of his works, and with second-hand accounts of conversations with the composer. (And there aren't even many of the latter.)

Mantle is a humorless chap, so there are not even any good jokes. Unless you count the reaction of Webber's partner Robert Stigwood, and his cohorts, to pirate performances of Jesus Christ Superstar:

The wrath of Stigwood now descended on all and sundry. Sensing his percentages - and his out-of-town audiences - slip away, he instituted a series of swingeing court actions against the pirate producers... In Sydney, Australia [sic], Stigwood's home territory, they even thwarted an unlicensed performance produced by an order of nuns in aid of charity.

Stigwood's official licensee and representative on earth, Harry M. Miller, elected to speak on his behalf.

"Like all Christians, these nuns believe Jesus Christ is theirs," he explained. "What they are forgetting is that there is such a thing as copyright."

I wonder if the M stands for "malleable" or "merciful"?

Stigwood demonstrated his own empathy with Christ's message by staging a first night party in New York where "transvestites nibbled at hams decorated to look like Indonesian masks and topless models danced to live rock music into the small hours". He failed to collect a percentage on the Jesus Christ jocks and Jesus Christ bikinis on sale outside performances, however, as they were unauthorised. Life can be cruel, even to the righteous.

Though Jonathan Mantle, or his editor, can spell, neither of them can punctuate. And the book is littered with non sequiturs:

Andrew remembered what else [the producer Hal] Prince had said after the failure of Jeeves: the English could be "over-nice" to each other when they put on musicals. This was not why Jeeves had failed, of course, but Andrew was not going to have another musical fail on those grounds.

Jeeves was Webber's idea. Evita - the story of a right-wing, power-crazed South American whore - was Tim Rice's. In spite of his admiration for Margaret Thatcher, it took Webber several years to warm to it.

And in spite of the wealth and fame of its subject, this is a plodding, repetitious and colorless book, which left me - the only person outside Romania never to have seen one of his musicals - with no idea if there is anything more to Andrew Lloyd Webber than the exchange, with an ever-credulous public, of vast amounts of sentimental muck with vast amounts of money.

So, for the moment, perhaps the final word should go to Tim Rice: "I think Andrew's greatest musical idiosyncrasy," he said, "is that he writes a jolly good melody."

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