Magazine article The Spectator

Its Life in Your Hands

Magazine article The Spectator

Its Life in Your Hands

Article excerpt

Just what is it about the British and musicals? To be more specific, just what is it about London drama critics and Andrew Lloyd Webber? By my reckoning, his Whistle Down the Wind has thus far had three or four good reviews and another eight or nine of such breathtaking hostility that you begin to wonder whether quite soon writing a musical in this country will become an offence punishable by a short prison sentence, or perhaps just a sizeable fine. Moreover, of the good reviews, at least two had writers who acknowledged a connection: one has a relative employed by the show as a music director, and another is writing a biography of the composer. So, present company excepted, we are now down to about one review that could claim to be wholly disinterested and wholly favourable.

One out of a dozen. Is Whistle Down the Wind really that terrible? No, it's not; it may not be perfect, but it does represent a major attempt by its composer to move forward, or at the very least to tackle the ageold complaint that he might be very rich but he still isn't Sondheim. This is a dark, thoughtful, intelligent show about religious obsession; its roots are in an extremely good and successful 1961 novel-into-film by Mary Hayley Bell. For those who believe that all good musicals can be summarised in a single sentence, this one is about a trio of lost children who come upon an escaped killer in a barn and, because he curses `Jesus Christ' upon discovery, mistakenly assume that he is simply giving them his name.

But where, nowadays, do you find kids that dumb? The problem is that you don't, so Lloyd Webber and his quite brilliant lyricist Jim Steinman have gone back to 1959 Louisiana, and a backwoods community where religion is still to do with snakes, and trains don't even stop at the local station. So this is not another Bible-belter in the old Webber tradition of Joseph or Superstar; its debts are instead to Elmer Gantry and John Steinbeck and The Grapes of Wrath and maybe even the film Deliverance, which dealt with a barking mad, longinbred community of latterday savages in that same district.

I have now seen Whistle three times in three years; once in a kind of workshop concert (with some of the present cast) at Lloyd Webber's home, once in a lavish but again critically disastrous staging in Washington by Hal Prince, and now in its London premiere by Gale Edwards, the Australian director who did a wonderful salvage job on another hugely underrated Lloyd Webber score, Aspects of Love. Each time, Whistle has changed radically, and we now, I believe, have it about as good as it will ever get. Yes, there indeed remain some problems; the set is still causing performances to be cancelled, and I am less in love than the composer with the idea, also tried in Sunset Boulevard, that you have two levels on a gigantic kind of hinge so that the upper level can fold down into the lower. Not only does this clearly cause mechanical troubles backstage, but it also plays hell with sightlines for rather too many rows of stalls and circle.

Then again, we now have rather too many children; not just the original trio, but a whole army of their friends whose anthems drift dangerously close to Annie or even Oliver. This new concept of kiddie power plays hell with the original idea, especially when they sing choruses about how life will be when they rule the world; with one bound we are back to Harry Secombe and a whole area of ghastly British 1950s musical mistakes, whereas the real tragedy of Whistle as originally conceived is that these children don't rule anything, and are hostages to their parents' ill fortunes. …

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