The music of Andrew Lloyd Webber -- Jeff Jarvis talks about his new-found distaste for Broadway tunes

I didn’t always despise Andrew Lloyd Webber. I liked Evita. And Jesus Christ, Superstar was a quaint cultural milestone. But then I saw Cats: $40 for bad seats, twinkie costumes, and a bozo audience that would applaud anything (a hydraulic lift raising a giant tire into cat heaven sent them into a collective tizzy). Worse, there were only 15 good notes in the whole show, repeated again and again and again. Sure, Lloyd Webber has hits. Every show he writes has one Streisand-ready ditty. But I couldn’t bear Cats, nor could I stand the hyperhype that met his next shows, Starlight Express and The Phantom of the Opera.

Now he has a new production, Aspects of Love, about to reach Broadway from Britain. So I gritted my teeth and bought the London cast album. I didn’t stop there. Two new American musicals are getting raves from the PBS-watching, NPR-listening, Manhattanite snoot crowd, so I bought those albums, too. And even a year before it opens, New York is buzzing about Miss Saigon. When it comes to Broadway from London next year, a seat will cost up to $100. The album costs a lot less, so I bought that as well. Fans of the musical theater — and the critic who will review these recordings later — will hold these shows to different standards; they like musicals. I fear musicals, thanks to Cats. So when I listen to a show, I have a narrow mind and a demanding ear. I’m looking for one thing, nothing less: a great score.

Webber’s Aspects of Love isn’t great. But at least it isn’t as awful as Cats. It’s filled with the usual greeting-card sentiments (”Love changes everything ”) and faux-operatic chit-chat sung as lyrics: ”Shall I order an espresso? Or cappuccino?” But it has more than one decent melody — four or five, in fact. It is almost worth the price of the two-CD set (no, that costs as much as a theater seat used to). It is worth the price of the two- cassette set.

So Webber isn’t my musical devil anymore. But I’m glad to say that there is a new Broadway darling to take Cats‘ place in my spleen. It’s City of Angels, an attempted comedy set in the ’40s. Friends tell me that I really should see the play to hear Larry Gelbart’s gag-packed script, but I couldn’t imagine suffering even once more through the songs by Cy Coleman and David Zippel; they are cutesy throwbacks to a terribly twitty time in the musical theater. The score is filled with the sort of music you expect to hear during production numbers on the Oscars, plus doo-wop scat and inane rhyming lyrics (”The Tennis Song” ends: ”But time is running short/Darling let’s don’t dilly dally/Ready for a rousing rally/Shall we say the ball is in your court”). This score will sit on my shelf, not heard again, for eternity.

Closer Than Ever by David Shire and Richard Maltby Jr. sounds an awful lot like the team’s 1977 mini-hit, Starting Here, Starting Now. Both shows are about work and relationships and little problems, but now the problems are more grown-up: ”I didn’t know I had a prostate.” It is thirtysomething set to music. But at least the music is pleasant and so are the voices; when accompanied by a piano, whining doesn’t sound so bad.

Then there is Miss Saigon, a modern Madama Butterfly, from Alain Boubil and Claude-Michel Schonberg, the creators of Les Misérables. At first, the songs in Saigon sound custom-made for Star Search, perfect for belting AS LOUD AS YOU CAN! They’re about love instead of war, which disappoints me. I was hoping for songs we could have sung on the barricades back in the ’60s; chanting ”Ho, Ho, Ho Chi Minh” was about as boring as an Andrew Lloyd Webber melody. Still, Saigon does have lots of lovely tunes and performances. But it’s no Les Miz; none of these new shows is.

Les Miz is about something — yes, it’s about love, but it’s really about courage, morality, and a struggle for freedom. It is inspiring. That’s what makes a great score. A good score makes you hum. A great score is stirring. Les Miz stirs with its principles. Chess stirs with its inventive mix of styles. Stephen Sondheim’s Sunday in the Park With George stirs with both its creativity and what it has to say about creativity. A great score stands on its own, without sets and costumes and overpriced Milk Duds. And thanks to cast albums, a great show never has to close.