Andrew Lloyd-Webber has produced his share of masterpieces (Jesus Christ Superstar, Evita, CATS, Phantom, Sunset Boulevard) and his share of disasters (the Jeeves musical, Starlight Express, Whistle Down the Wind, The Woman in White, Love Never Dies), but this is pretty much the only one of his shows to fall into both those categories at once.
You know how we all have certain books that mean so much to us personally that we forget that they don’t have much relevance to other people and aren’t, in any objective sense, particularly good books? Well, Andrew Lloyd-Webber decided to make a musical out of his…a mediocre romance novel from the Fifties by eccentric bon vivant David Garnett…and the result is a story that is just not good enough to justify the artistry he lavished on it.
The characters don’t lack for complexity, but with the exception of the show’s surprisingly three-dimensional ingénue, Jenny, they are all thoroughly unlikable, and it’s hard to see why we should care about them and their petty relationship mind games. The plot consists of little more than these unappealing characters hopping in and out of bed with each other, and it all builds to a thoroughly unsatisfying ending and a downright distasteful final message that is essentially the most hedonistic and self-absorbed delivery of the ‘Carpe Diem’ philosophy I’ve ever seen.
The reason this is all so heartbreaking is that the score is one of the best and most sophisticated things Webber ever wrote…it’s worth noting that even after writing much more successful classics like CATS and Phantom, he’s still said on more than one occasion that this is his favorite of his own scores. Interestingly enough, most of the melodies in the Phantom score were originally written for an earlier draft of the Aspects musical, but Webber realized that they were too soaring and openly emotional for this material, and instead wrote a subtler, more low-key score that quietly haunts rather than soars.
Even more impressive and unconventional is the score’s structure. There are several individual song highlights that have become staples of Webber “Best Of” collections, like the opening theme “Love Changes Everything”, the as-soaring-as-this-show-gets “Seeing Is Believing”, the light-as-Astaire dance duet “The First Man You Remember”, or the stunning, almost brutal final number, “Anything But Lonely”. But even these really only sound like self-contained songs when you hear them extracted from the show; within the show itself, they blend right into a free-flowing musical whole. Through-composed musicals (that is, musicals that are not only through-sung, but place less emphasis on set pieces or “numbers” than on unified sung drama) tend to be gimmicky and inaccessible (examples include Hello Again and Caroline or Change); Aspects actually makes the technique feel much more natural than those shows ever did.
Honestly, I can see why Webber thinks this is his best score—Phantom may have greater highlights, but no other Webber score can boast this many ravishing melodies, and it’s certainly his most seamless use of music to tell a story. Many people have claimed that the repetition of melodies in the work is essentially random and only a method of convenience, but there is actually a leitmotif system—it’s just much more subtle and complex than the one in, say, Jesus Christ Superstar, so many critics failed to pick up on it. For example, the theme that Jenny and George duet to when he’s trying to put her to bed (representing their father-daughter closeness) is then sung by George as he pleads with Rose to stop Alex from taking Jenny away from him (representing his fear of losing that closeness), and then becomes Jenny’s theme in two scenes where she expresses her love for Alex (confirming George’s fear by showing how Alex has taken his place in her life). The melodies function like this throughout, continually changing meaning as the characters themselves change, but in a perfectly logical, sequential way. Most leitmotif systems (e.g. the ones in Wagner’s operas) alter the music itself over the course of repetitions to show this, but Webber has managed to do it by using the exact same musical themes in gradually changing contexts.
The basic problem of all this beautiful music and expert construction being wasted on a weak story is still an extremely serious problem with the show, and it’s surprising, given the degree of effort Webber has put into revising the far less deserving By Jeeves, that he hasn’t shown the same interest in “fixing” his avowed favorite of his own shows. Then again, because of the way the score is so closely tailored to that story, the show is probably unfixable without being rewritten from the ground up, and perhaps Webber is wisest in letting it stand as it is. At any rate, for all its problems, this is still one of Lloyd-Webber’s greatest musical achievements, and if you want to call yourself a fan of his work, you’re pretty much required to work your way through this glorious mess of a show, and I think you’ll find that its strengths offer sufficient compensation for its flaws.
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