40 years of musical hits in one night

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 17 May, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 17 May, 2011, 12:00am


Even if you don't know the name, you'll know the music. From massive hit musicals on Broadway and London's West End, to karaoke night staples and mobile phone ring tones, Andrew Lloyd Webber is the king of catchy tunes.

For more than 40 years, from the first production of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat in London in 1968 to his current hit, The Phantom of the Opera sequel Love Never Dies, his 14 musicals have captivated audiences around the world.

'He has this happy ability to create tunes that goes straight to the heart,' says Sydney-based musical theatre director Stuart Maunder.

Actor and singer Michael Cormick, who has had the lead in several Andrew Lloyd Webber shows and appeared in London in Royal Command performances of The Phantom of the Opera, agrees. 'He lights on a subject that everybody can relate to and he has found some kind of magical musical chord there that just hits the hearts of people.'

But what happens when you take away elaborate sets, special effects, costumes and props? 'The music stands and falls on its own merits. I think it does,' says Maunder.

Hong Kong audiences will be able to judge for themselves next month when The Music of Andrew Lloyd Webber, a concert-style showcase for his songs which premiered in Melbourne in March and is touring Australia, New Zealand and Asia, arrives for 15 shows.

The two-act show, directed by Maunder and featuring eight singers, has been put together by the Asia-Pacific arm of Lloyd Webber's Really Useful Group and two other producers, Lunchbox and David Atkins.

For Maunder and the lead singers, Sydney-based Cormick and New Zealand-based Delia Hannah, all invited to take part because of previous successful involvement with Lloyd Webber shows - Hong Kong audiences will remember Hannah as Grizabella in Cats in 2009 - presenting these much-loved songs in concert, out of context and away from all the trappings was a challenge. Their solution: to try to give audience members a sense of the journey on which each musical would take them, rather than jumping from hit to hit.

'Normally, you would be in that character and psych yourself up and stay there,' says Cormick, who prefers to describe the task as challenging rather than difficult. 'It is very exposing I think, this type of work, without the emotional journey that has already set the audience up.'

Hannah, who has specialised in Lloyd Webber's music, agreed. 'You have to really jump in and just be in that character's moment. It is quite difficult to do Norma Desmond (from Sunset Boulevard) in four minutes but I have to; that is my job and that is where my experience comes in and I just have to put the audience in that moment,' she said. 'You jump around a lot and don't really settle.'

To offer the audience some continuity and context, Maunder's solution was to use six video screens, two giant screens on either side of the stage, with smaller ones at an angle above them. Each screen is bordered by rows of small lights, reminiscent of a dressing room mirror. As each song is sung, some as solos, some by the full company, footage screens behind the costumed singers.

In some cases it is wonderfully evocative - notably, footage and cuttings of Eva Peron as Hannah belts out Don't Cry for me Argentina (from Evita), the finale of a medley of four songs from the show that sees her dressed onstage by other cast members, making a seamless transition to a big, white meringue of a dress.

Maunder says this evokes 'the idea of her being created from nothing'. And for the Cats numbers, the words of poet T.S. Eliot, from whose whimsical collection Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats the show derived, appear on screen.

What they were thinking, says Maunder was that the audience would get 'some context', some feel for each of the shows from which the songs derive. So, too, with the choreography and costumes. So, with the Evita numbers for example, 'it is about the thrill of the audience she sang to, these poor people looking for some sort of hope in their lives.'

Maunder, who has been directing musical theatre for 25 years, says technology has made this touring production possible; for instance, although the music is live, it is no longer necessary to take a full symphony orchestra. But the fact that the show was touring had no impact on the choice of songs, which he believes have universal appeal. 'I think it will work just as well in Hong Kong as Beijing or Buenos Aires.'

With so many songs to choose from, he opted to give audiences what he knew they would want, supplemented with lesser-knowns.

So, the songs every one would expect from shows such as Cats, Jesus Christ Superstar and Starlight Express are there, but so, too, are songs from the lesser-known Whistle Down the Wind and Requiem. And stripped of distractions such as sets and story, what is striking is the similarities.

'There is a general thread to the music,' says Cormick. 'The styles are really different, but he is writing from his place.'

Auckland-based Hannah, who is taking husband, Ross and daughter Grace, eight, with her on the three-month Asian tour, has sung most of her hits from this concert in previous shows. 'They are really tense and there are key theatrical moments too, so you have to focus and there is a certain sound that has to come out,' she says of singing Lloyd Webber's 'popular, and accessible' music.

'I like it because it is dramatic, he writes for strong characters with powerful voices. I get to sing fabulous notes and go on a journey. I also love the process of taking the audience on a journey.'

The show, with more than 30 songs, is a challenge for its cast, which also includes Shaun Rennie, who appeared in Hong Kong as Munkustrap in the 2009 production of Cats.

'The songs have got nothing to prove, that's the joy of it,' Maunder says. 'They are all premium product; even the lesser-known ones.

'Great music is great music and it works in context or out of context.'

The Music of Andrew Lloyd Webber is at the Lyric Theatre, the Hong Kong Academy for Performing Arts, from June 8 to 19. Tickets $350-$950. HK Ticketing: 3128 8288