Various Artists: Andrew Lloyd Webber: Gold - The Definitive Hits Collection
"So there He was on a waterbed / Drinking a cola of a mystery brand / Reading an airport novelette / Listening to Andrew Lloyd Webber's Requiem / He said, before it had really begun / 'I prefer the one about my son.'"
-- Elvis Costello, "God's Comic".
As a child of the '80s, it never once occurred to me whilst listening to the radio during that decade that Murray Head had done or would ever do anything in his career to equal the wonder that was "One Night in Bangkok". Little did I know that, quite a few years prior (in 1969, for those who need to know these sort of things), he had previously presented the pop charts with "Superstar", from the Andrew Lloyd Webber musical, Jesus Christ Superstar.
Sitting here, listening to "Superstar", which opens Andrew Lloyd Webber: Gold - The Definitive Hits Collection, I find to my surprise that, on the whole, I prefer "One Night in Bangkok".
Come to think of it, I suppose it's not really that surprising at all. After all, "One Night in Bangkok" was written by Benny Anderson and Bjorn Ulvaeous, the same songwriting duo that brought the world "Dancing Queen", "Knowing Me, Knowing You", and "Take a Chance on Me". "Superstar", meanwhile, was the work of lyricist Tim Rice and composer Andrew Lloyd Webber.
This isn't a bad thing, mind you . . . but, c'mon, surely even Rice and Webber would admit that they're not Abba, nor have they ever tried to be. They are, however, the closest thing to Rodgers & Hammerstein and Gilbert & Sullivan that the current generation of mainstream theatergoers has available to them . . . for better or worse. Webber may have teamed up with Don Black, Charles Hart, and even Jim "I wrote 'Bat out of Hell'" Steinman, but it's Rice who was there for Jesus Christ Superstar, Evita, and Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, and it's Rice who made Webber a household name.
There's an all-star cast to be found among this disc's track listing: Barbra Streisand, Sarah Brightman and Michael Crawford, Madonna, Donny Osmond, Betty Buckley, Charlotte Church, Tom Jones, and Mandy Patinkin are among the names appearing here. Yvonne Elliman's name is also there, but if we're to call her "all-star" simply because she sang "If I Can't Have You," on the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack, then the term begins to lose all meaning.
Based on the above names, it's clear why this disc is referred to as the Hits collection; after all, Babs may sing "As If We Never Said Goodbye" here, but it's not as if Streisand played the lead in Sunset Boulevard on Broadway. (That was Glenn Close, who, it should be noted, does appear here, duetting with Alan Campbell on "The Perfect Year".) It's less clear, however, what criteria went into determining the definition of "definitive". Patti Lupone's version of "Don't Cry For Me Argentina" appears here, even though it was a version by Julie Covington that topped the charts in the UK.
Madonna's inclusion on the disc, "You Must Love Me", is likely best known for the fact that it wasn't in the original musical version of Evita; it was the result of Webber and Rice reuniting to compose a new song for Alan Parker's film version.
The Phantom of the Opera is, arguably, Webber's greatest creation, and three of its signature tracks appear here: the title song (performed by Sarah Brightman and Michael Crawford), "The Music of the Night" (Crawford solo), and "All I Ask of You". The latter finds Brightman duetting not with Crawford but, rather, with the Peter Pan of pop, Cliff Richard. Brightman appears throughout the album, both in person and in spirit (while Charlotte Church performs "Pie Jesu", from Requiem, Bright originally performed the song). In addition to her work from Phantom, she also performs the title track from Whistle Down the Wind and duets with Jose Carreras on "Amigos Para Siempre (Friends for Life)", from Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat.
Andrew Lloyd Webber's music is the sort of thing that, at its very mention in conversation, inspires cooler-than-thou people everywhere to make the sign of the cross with their fingers and back away at a rapid pace. There's a certain camp that may claim that an Andrew Lloyd Webber musical can't fully be appreciated without the elaborate staging, and that music is, in some cases, secondary to the onstage events; as someone who saw Phantom in London and loved it, I can sort of buy that. Ultimately, however, when viewing the songs that have become chart hits and taken on a life outside of their productions . . . well, with the possible exception of "Superstar" and "The Phantom of the Opera", nothing within Webber's oeuvre has passed into the category of "kitschy fun".
No, it's pretty much stopped dead in its tracks at the line marked "schmaltz".
Not that there's anything wrong with that, mind you. If schmaltz is your cup of tea, then this is about as top-notch a collection of Webber's material as you'll find.
And just in case the 18 tracks of Andrew Lloyd Webber: Gold - The Definitive Hits Collection doesn't quell your jones, you can take comfort in knowing that there's a five-disc box set out there, entitled Now And Forever, that's got your name written all over it.
But that's your name. Not mine.