I sometimes wonder if theater critics actually listen to the music in Broadway musicals. Sure, they often quote lyrics, and maybe talk about how well or poorly the songs are integrated with the story. But the music itself — always hard to describe in words — is too often ignored. That’s the only explanation I have for the wall of critical resistance that greets nearly every new Broadway musical by Andrew Lloyd Webber.
His lush, pop-operatic scores have gone decidedly out of fashion — but not with me. The British composer may not be producing the breakthrough hits of his early collaborations with Tim Rice (Jesus Christ Superstar, Evita), but even his least successful shows of recent years, like The Woman in White or Whistle Down the Wind, had scores that were worth listening to.
He made something of a comeback with the atypical School of Rock in 2015. But his latest show, Bad Cinderella — which has just arrived Broadway, following a run in London’s West End — has received the usual drubbing from the New York critics. And I won’t try to defend the strained and haphazard book, a tongue-in-cheek updating of the classic fairy tale, recasting Cinderella as a punkish rebel in a kingdom that prizes beauty and beefcake above all else. Also, bad on whoever decided to add that new adjective to the title of a show that was called simply Cinderella in London. Talk about giving critics an easy lay-up.
But what about the music? To most of the show’s reviewers, it hardly seems to exist. Peter Marks, in the Washington Post, dismisses the score as “an all-too-predictable supply of power-ballads.” The music “goes in one ear and comes out the other,” writes Time Out’s Adam Feldman, “without troubling anything in between.” And New York Times critic Jesse Green’s withering advice to anyone attending the show: “Bring earplugs.”
May I respond? For one thing, Bad Cinderella has almost no power ballads — at least, not in the sense of operatic roof-raisers like “The Music of the Night,” from Phantom of the Opera, or “Just One Look” (Sunset Boulevard). Also, far from going in one ear and out the other, I found myself actually humming the music as I left the theater — and searching YouTube to hear it again when I got home. And if you were to bring earplugs to Bad Cinderella, you would miss what is easily the best new Broadway score of the season.
The fact is, no matter how un-cool Lloyd Webber has become, he’s still the best melody-maker on Broadway. Take “So Long,” the sprightly first-act duet between Cinderella and her childhood compatriot, Prince Sebastian. It manages to be both simple, almost generic, and surprising, with its abrupt shifts in tempo and key — not to mention more evocative of the vaguely Elizabethan-era setting than anything in & Juliet or Six, two other current (and critically lauded) Broadway musicals set in the same period. Another comic duet, “I Know You,” in which two dowagers, the Queen and Cinderella’s stepmother, exchange secrets about each other’s past, is a worthy counterpoint to Lerner & Loewe’s “I Remember It Well” from Gigi. And the show’s title number has the arena-rock grandeur (OK, maybe it’s one power ballad) of a Tony-evening theme song — if this much-derided show gets nominated for any Tony Awards at all.
Even musicals with good scores (like Jason Robert Brown’s Parade, which I reviewed last week) often fall short when it comes to the big love songs. Not this show, which serves up not one but two memorable ones: the plaintive and pretty “Only You, Lonely You,” and (even better) “Far Too Late,” Cinderella’s truly lovely 11 o’clock number; in another time and place, pop singers would be clamoring to cover it.
David Zippel’s lyrics are sometimes clumsy (rhyming “Cinderella” with “salmonella”), but most of the time inventive and fun. And the cast — headed by newcomer Linedy Genao as Cinderella, with Broadway vet Carolee Carmello as the evil stepmother — sounds better, on balance, than the singers on the London original cast album. All in all, Bad Cinderella is an object lesson in how music can transform and redeem even a trivial stage confection. If anyone is listening.
4 thoughts on “Bad Cinderella: Good Andrew Lloyd Webber”
I LOVE that you’re wiring so much more often now.
Still pretty spotty – but thanks.
And by “wiring,” of course, I meant “writing.” This is why you’re the professional and not I.
This is a minority opinion, to be sure, but I think “Aspects of Love” is one of Lloyd Webber’s most intricate and intriguing scores. Hell, even the garbage fire known as “Love Never Dies” has its rapturous title song.