Andrew Lloyd Webber brings the music of the night back to 'Phantom'

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Andrew Lloyd Webber brings the music of the night back to 'Phantom'
The harpist during a rehearsal of “Phantom of the Opera,” Oct. 21, 2021, which is about to reopen after a long pandemic pause, at the Majestic Theater in New York. Composer Andrew Lloyd Webber was on hand, and hands-on, to “shake up the cobwebs” before the reopening of the longest-running show in Broadway history. Mark Sommerfeld/The New York Times.

by Joshua Barone

NEW YORK, NY.- Andrew Lloyd Webber looked pleased.

He was standing over the large orchestra pit of his musical “The Phantom of the Opera” at the Majestic Theater on Broadway, hearing the instrumental “Entr’Acte” from the top after a half-hour of detail work — more emphatic delivery here, more passionate lyricism there. He held his hands at his hips, a contented smile on his face.

“That’s great, much better,” he said after the ensemble finished. “It just needs to be played like it’s on the edge, all the time.”

Lloyd Webber, composer of some of the most famous musicals of the past five decades — in a wide stylistic range from the radio-ready rock of “Jesus Christ Superstar” to the maddening tunefulness of “Cats” and the lush romanticism of “Phantom” — was in town from Britain to prepare for the reopening on Friday of the longest-running show in Broadway history.

Visits from composers are rarely afforded to musicals as settled in as “Phantom,” which opened at the Majestic in 1988. But because the pandemic kept it shuttered for over a year and a half, its return is more like a revival; the production’s tech has been spruced up during the pause, and the cast and orchestra were rehearsing the material as if it were new.

And that’s exactly how Lloyd Webber wanted it to sound, he told the musicians during rehearsal Thursday, by way of some personal history.

“I remember when I was a boy I managed to get a ticket to the Zeffirelli production of ‘Tosca’ at the Royal Opera House,” Lloyd Webber said, recalling how he had always heard that Puccini’s melodrama was a potboiler not worth the price of admission. Yet Franco Zeffirelli, the Italian director with an extravagantly cinematic sensibility, “decided that he would shake up the cobwebs.”

“What I just remember is, Tito Gobbi and Maria Callas that night, in the second act, made an impression on me that I’ll never forget,” he continued. “It was just extraordinary, because the critics were saying, ‘Oh, my gosh, this is actually the greatest score.’ I’m not trying to say this is the same thing, but it’s just that we have to approach everything now as if it’s the very, very, very first time.”

“Phantom” may not be Puccini, but its score — thick and lavishly orchestrated — shares more with opera than most Broadway musicals. It calls for an unusually large ensemble of nearly 30 players, about one-third of whom have been with the show since 1988. “Today I don’t think we would be able to do that,” Lloyd Webber said during an interview between rehearsals. “I think everybody’s forgotten what a real orchestra can sound like.”

Given that size, Lloyd Webber was particular about amplification Thursday, preferring to let the instruments sound as acoustic as possible. But the orchestra needed to give more to make it work; virtually all of his notes to the conductor, the associate musical supervisor Kristen Blodgette, were about adding emphasis to a score that is already brazenly emphatic.

“You can make a little more of that phrase,” he said at one point; at others: “We want the audience in our grip,” “It’s just a little undernourished” and “I think that can really come up a bit, I would treat it as appassionata.”

He was joined by David Caddick, the production musical supervisor, who wanted for more of the same, asking the strings to “play into the shape of the melody” during a section of the “Entr’Acte” based on the soaring duet “All I Ask of You,” and reminding them to “make every melody sing out.”

When some of the cast later came onstage — to rehearse the operatic set piece “Prima Donna” and “All I Ask of You” — Lloyd Webber at times seemed to be channeling Hal Prince, the show’s legendary director, who died in 2019, guiding the singers in their understanding and delivery of lyrics on a level as small as single words. “I’m one of the only ones left who was here on the ground floor,” Lloyd Webber later said. (The choreographer, Gillian Lynne, died in 2018.) “But I was very close to Hal on this.”

In the scene leading up to “Prima Donna,” for example, he welcomed more joy and comedy. He told Craig Bennett, who plays Monsieur Firmin: “It’s great fun if you can say ‘To hell with Gluck and Handel, have a scandal’ — it’s the inner rhyme, isn’t it? That’s the game, savoring every moment because there are some good lines there.”

And to Meghan Picerno and John Riddle, the show’s current Christine and Raoul, he said while running through “All I Ask of You”: “I think that what we’re perhaps not getting is that they’re like teenagers in love. It needs to be more earnest. Say ‘One love, one lifetime’ as if you really mean it. Just run with it. The more of that there is here, the more of an antidote it will be to what comes in the second act.”

Again, this is uncommon; such attention from a composer is more likely to be given to a new show, such as Lloyd Webber’s latest, “Cinderella,” which opened in London this summer after a series of pandemic delays. During that time — and throughout the shutdown — he was one of theater’s fiercest and most outspokenly frustrated advocates. And when “Cinderella” at last debuted in the West End, its opening night was also a milestone for being that musical’s first performance for a full-capacity audience.

It’s an ordeal that could make for a chapter of the awaited sequel to his memoir, “Unmasked,” which follows his life and work only until “Phantom.” “Oh, I’m not writing that,” he said in the interview between rehearsals, adding with a puckish grin: “There’s too much I know. I’d rather write another show, and get ‘Cinderella’ here.”

But first, he had “Phantom” to open the next day. And a rehearsal to return to. As he stood up from a lobby chair to walk back into the house, he said, “I do always love to hear it.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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