For those who haven’t heard of it, this is an Andrew Lloyd-Webber road-closer with a London cast album. Of all Webber’s late-career failures, this one came the closest to actually working.
The book, by famed British television writer Ben Elton, tells a gut-wrenchingly tragic story in a suitably harsh and heartfelt way. In reality, the show’s biggest problem isn’t an artistic flaw, but simply the fact that this sparely-staged real-life drama isn’t what people expect when they attend an Andrew Lloyd-Webber musical. Granted, in America the show also had to contend with its parochial UK-themed subject matter, but even in London the show was a disappointment by Webber standards, and this may have been part of the reason why.
That said, the show does have one large artistic shortcoming: the score is wildly uneven. When it sticks to wistful Irish balladry, it’s often ravishing. “God’s Own Country”, “Let Us Love In Peace”, “If This Is What We’re Fighting For”, “All the Love I Have”, and “Our Kind of Love” (later re-used as the title tune of Love Never Dies) all rank among Webber’s greatest melodies, and the harrowing “Dead Zone” is one of his most terrifying musical sequences.
But about half of the score is devoted to rock, and while Webber is certainly capable of writing good rock, the particular rock sound used here is oddly ugly and unappealing. The title-song is fairly strong, with a certain visceral appeal to its roughness, but the rest of the rock material is just unpleasant, particularly in the haphazard, rowdy-tavern-song vocal arrangements the show favored.
Also, Ben Elton should not have been allowed to write the lyrics himself. Even the good songs tend to wallow in cliché and easy rhymes, and the show features two of the worst songs in any Webber show—the inanely juvenile flirtation number “Don’t Like You”, and the disgustingly graphic wedding-night duet “The First Time”.
The show might have gotten by with a good book and half a good score if it had been more congenial to audience expectations, and had it been a flawless composition, its artistic merits might have won out, but the combination seems to have done it in.
Oddly, though, I get the feeling that on some level, Webber kind of expected this. Certainly, this is the only show Webber has ever done that seems to scream ‘for the art’, and I suspect that a man as savvy as Webber knew perfectly well that it would be disadvantaged as a commercial project from the beginning due to the aforementioned audience expectations issues. Due partly to his Irish heritage, Webber had always felt a certain affinity and sympathy for the religious struggles of Northern Ireland, and I get the feeling that he just wanted to tell this story, and knew that with his track record and financial empire, he was in a position to do a project that would be less of a commercial success purely for artistic and personal reasons. In any case, this show, for all its flaws, does provide a very effective “shut up” argument to those who imply that Webber is merely a calculating merchant with no real concern for art, so I’m certainly glad it exists.