Is it too late to put Aspects of Love on roller skates? Or crush it under a chandelier?
Andrew Lloyd Webber’s new musical, which opened on Broadway last week, is precisely the show the British composer intended to write at this stage of his career — an intimate story about love and other emotions, scaled to human size and set within a modest musical form. This time out, the wunderkind’s imagination has created no towering figures of good and evil (Jesus Christ Superstar, The Phantom of the Opera, Evita) and produced no pyrotechnical wonders to compare with those magical creatures in Cats or those frenzied speed-races in Starlight Express. Lloyd Webber now dismisses some of those early productions as roadshow spectacles, sternly reminding himself that it is time to stop having fun in the nursery and get on with the business of his serious musical career.
What he chose to write now is a musical piece he calls a ”chamber opera.” Like the delicate compositions written by Mozart and his lyricist Da Ponte, the style is intimate in scale but the form is sturdy enough to support such adult themes as mate-swapping, cradle-robbing, bisexuality, and overall loose living. In Aspects, these complicated entanglements are played out among a group of people who consider themselves friends and who are also artists traveling without a care in the bohemian circles of post-World War II France and Italy.
Lloyd Webber obviously chose these emotional gadabouts because he admires their style — and because he wants to write about human beings with human feelings. But these narcissists are far less sympathetic than Cats‘ Grizabella, and their puny lusts can’t match the torrential passions of Phantom. They have failed to inspire a single melody with the heartfelt schmaltz of ”Memory” or ”The Music of the Night.” The characters in Aspects of Love probably would not inspire anyone to write a truly swoony song.
Leading the cast — mostly holdovers from the London production and the original cast album — is Michael Ball, who has a big, beautiful voice. But he is banal as Alec, whom we meet as a 17-year-old youth, so smitten with a provincial French actress named Rose that he gets her to run away with him to his uncle’s villa. Enter Uncle George, a dashing libertine of 64 in Kevin Colson’s suave portrayal, who sweeps 22-year-old Rose off her pins. Not that it takes much persuasion. In Ann Crumb’s brassy performance, all juicy lipped and swivelly hipped, this enchantress looks like a cocktail waitress angling for a hitch out of town. Vocally, she bellows her songs like kitchen orders.
Following its source, an insipid 1955 novel (which Lloyd Webber has called ”a little jewel”) by David Garnett, a lesser member of England’s Bloomsbury set, the plot gets trickier as time passes. Alex and Uncle George seem to hold time-shares on Rose, as do Rose and Alex with Uncle George’s Italian mistress.
The crisis in this giddy roundelay occurs when Alex develops a letch for his cousin Jenny, the barely nubile daughter of Rose and Uncle George. By now, however, the audience may be in too much of a stupor to register any shock at the quasi-incestuous affair.
Although it’s hard to feel anything but impatience with these shallow people and their flighty games, the sexual tensions in tutor-pupil relationships and cross-generational romances can be pretty hot stuff on the stage. Musicals such as Gigi, My Fair Lady, and Fanny worked these themes with immense charm, and in A Little Night Music, Stephen Sondhiem draped them in sophisticated wit and sent them waltzing. For that matter, Lloyd Webber himself wrote ruefully and well, in The Phantom of the Opera, of the forbidden yearning of a Beast-like tutor for his unattainable Beauty. The musical intensity and lyric power in a line like ”Touch me, trust me, savour each sensation” still rattles my chandelier.
The rhymed lyrics in Aspects‘ love songs by Don Black and Charles Hart, however, muster nothing but platitudes. ”Seeing is believing/I saw her and I loved her” Alex babbles about Rose. Even Uncle George, who has the show’s two loveliest melodies (”A Memory of a Happy Moment” and ”The First Man You Remember”) as well as the most sophisticated line of chat, is reduced to such precious drivel as ”Life goes on/Love goes free.”
Because Lloyd Webber has a bee in his bonnet about recycling musical leitmotivs and lyric phrases, the same stingy chords and trite sentiments are repeated throughout the score like a jackhammer. And there is no relief between songs. Instead, the characters must vocalize inane bits of doggerel just to get a cup of coffee. Happily, such moments aren’t as unsettling on the cast album, which allows us to dream our own backgrounds for the songs — and block out the recitative.
Trevor Nunn (whose earth-moving proclivities were seen in Les Miserables, as well as in Cats and Starlight Express) has directed at ankle-breaking speed — unfortunately not fast enough to spare us lines like ”I hate to tear myself away/But I must go and change.” Such clunkers can be heard loud and clear, although due to the overpowering amplification system, not necessarily traced to the proper singer. Maria Bjornson, who conjured up the razzle-dazzle scenic effects in Phantom, has done her best to disguise the essential dullness of the characters by placing them in picturesque settings with moving parts that are constantly changing shape. Unfortunately, this bold scenic technique rebounds badly when the set opens up to become the jagged peaks of the Pyrenees and the performers look as if they will be devoured in its shifting jaws.
And speaking of jaws, the New York critics were not especially kind to Aspects of Love. WCBS-TV’s reviewer, Dennis Cunningham, called the show ”shocking” and declared that everyone involved in it had made ”fools” of themselves. On WNBC, Pia Lindstrom found the whole thing pretty dull. ”The characters are passive,” she sniffed. ”Where’s the drama?” Clive Barnes of the New York Post wrote a flat-out rave for Lloyd Webber’s ”deliciously sensual piece of music theater.” The national news weeklies were respectful. But the man with the last word, Frank Rich of The New York Times, wrote one of his legendary boot-wiping notices, calling the show ”an earnest but bizarre career decision.” After noting the musical’s theme of ”romance in many naughty guises,” he declared that ”it generates about as much heated passion as a visit to the bank.”
A chorus of critical sneers can’t bring down Lloyd Webber. The 42-year-old composer has become an entertainment juggernaut by personally controlling the production and marketing of his phenomenally successful shows. In London, Aspects has generated revenues of nearly $13 million; on Broadway, advance ticket sales are $11 million. By the latest reckoning, Lloyd Webber is worth about $240 million. Given that kind of power, he could write Armies of Love and stage it on any battlefield of his choice. C-