LONDON — It’s not every day you get to hear a composer singing along to a show he wrote nearly 40 years ago. But one of the unexpected pleasures of life in lockdown has been the availability, onscreen at least, of some people you might not expect to pop up in real time on YouTube.
That explained the cheerful, even touching presence online one recent Friday of Andrew Lloyd Webber, from whom we will soon be hearing plenty more, assuming his new musical, “Cinderella,” opens on the West End as planned in October.
The 72-year-old Lloyd Webber, who has given British musicals a global reach for more than 50 years, spent an hour or two commenting on a recorded performance of his seismically successful musical “Cats.” And near the end, waving an invisible baton, he broke spontaneously, if briefly, into song.
Earlier, he spoke movingly of the death a few days before of one of his actual cats, in poignant contrast to the continuing lives — more than nine, surely — of the felines of his imagination.
As he reflected on a highlight from his past while nodding toward the future — orchestrating “Cinderella” has kept him busy during the current pandemic, he said — you had to admire the creative drive of a theater figure who still clearly burns with passion for his chosen art form.
This “Cats” was not the much vilified big-screen version from December, although Lloyd Webber did lob a few brickbats at that iteration in his delightfully unguarded commentary. How nice it was on this occasion to see his 1981 musical shorn, he said, of “silly moments that stop the flow of the lyrics and music,” not to mention “unfunny interpolations I begged to be cut out.” He never mentioned the Tom Hooper movie specifically, but the reference was unmistakable, not least when he remarked how “un-Eliot” a recent version of his T.S. Eliot-inspired song cycle had been.
The “Cats” that Lloyd Webber was visibly savoring from a desk at his country estate west of London was an earlier version that took its cue directly from Trevor Nunn’s long-running stage production. Shot by David Mallet in 1997 at the Adelphi Theater in London, the production brought together performers from the original London and Broadway casts, Elaine Paige as a career-defining Grizabella among them, along with the company that was touring in “Cats” at the time.
Why that “Cats,” then? The event capped seven weeks of online broadcasts, titled “The Shows Must Go On,” in which Lloyd Webber’s company, the Really Useful Group, in conjunction with Universal, aired six titles from the composer’s back catalog, each adapted for the screen. A seventh was the gala celebration held at the Royal Albert Hall to mark his 50th birthday. Viewers could see one a week, free, albeit for only 24 or 48 hours, with a donation to charity encouraged.
The series was a rare chance to assess “The Phantom of the Opera” and its stage sequel, “Love Never Dies,” back to back: That’s a lot of swoony romanticism — though I remain convinced that the peculiarly plotted follow-up to “Phantom” nonetheless contains some of Lloyd Webber’s most intriguing and engaging music. (The minor-key “Beautiful,” a duet for a boy soprano and the Phantom, really is a beauty.)
And it was interesting to get a glimpse of “By Jeeves,” the composer’s “disaster musical,” which he wrote with Alan Ayckbourn; it flopped on the West End in 1975 and didn’t do a whole lot better when a revised version reached Broadway immediately after 9/11. The video version might have been more successful with an English cast fully at ease with the idiom of P.G. Wodehouse, on whose writing the show is based. Instead, a mostly American company buckles under the weight of too many phony accents and forced grins.
If I had to pick two favorites, I would point to the pairing of biblical musicals with which Lloyd Webber and his then-lyricist, Tim Rice, made their names many years ago. “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat” and “Jesus Christ Superstar,” seen in succession, recall the buoyancy of their collaboration.
“Superstar,” filmed during a 2012 tour of large-capacity arenas, has always worked best when it embraces its heavy metal roots and is staged as a full-throttle concert. That was the approach taken by a recent, and separate, London revival of the show, seen across two summers, and it fuels the mighty vocals of a touring cast on video that is dominated by the Australian composer Tim Minchin (of “Matilda” fame), here playing Judas and demonstrating ear-shattering chops as a performer. The director of this stadium “Superstar” was Laurence Connor, who is directing the new “Cinderella.”
“Joseph,” which premiered as Lloyd Webber was emerging from his teens, has a contrastingly poppy, easy-listening sound, suitable for the children for whom it was originally written. The entirely winning version for video casts Donny Osmond, at the time an ageless 41, as the loincloth-wearing Joseph in a production that couples cheekiness and camp with a touching sincerity, just as in last year’s terrific West End revival, which was scheduled for an encore this summer — before the virus struck. (“Evita,” a later collaboration with Tim Rice, was also due back on the London stage in an acclaimed revival from the director Jamie Lloyd that has been canceled.)
Well into Lloyd Webber’s “Cats” commentary, he let slip that his wife was yawning at him, off camera, as if to say enough is enough. But there was a lovely grace note in his signoff, from someone whose engagement with theater extends to his roles as impresario and owner of many a West End playhouse. “I hope you realize that theater is always going to be there,” he told viewers. “It will be back; you can’t get rid of me.”