Regardless of the fact that some of his latest efforts (most notably, The Woman in White) are disappointing, there can be little doubt that Andrew Lloyd Webber is one of the greatest composers ever to work in the musical theatre. Ever since his "Jesus Christ Superstar" hit the stage in the early 70-is, it was clear that the conception and perception of musicals are never going to be the same again. Many of his songs became standards not only in the theatre history, but also as tops on the charts. Even though he's British, his influence on the shape of the modern musical theatre expanded over the West End boundaries long ago and has thus made an enormous impact on Broadway. Two of his shows ("Cats" and "The phantom of the opera") hold the record as two the longest running shows in the history of Broadway. He has also been the only composer to have three of his shows running at Broadway concurrently. Some of his awards include three Grammies, a Golden Globe, an Oscar and a bunch of Tony awards. But perhaps most of all, Lloyd Webber is responsible for bringing the musicals and the theatre appealing to the wide audiences, who in different circumstances would not consider seeing a musical. The secret of his success is probably the mixture of beautiful and catchy melodies, interesting subject matter (though some, like Starlight Express, are too thin) and grandiose staging.
And even though his shows have been staged all over the world, China has somehow been left out. Until 2001, that is, when the idea came about to put together a big concert of ALW's greatest hits for the people of Beijing. This over 2-hour DVD is the recording of that magical evening that took place in the Great hall of the people, the big conference hall in Beijing, specially re-worked to fit the big orchestra and the performers. The people familiar with ALW's recordings will most certainly draw a parallel with a similar concert DVD, The Royal Albert Hall Celebration, recorded in 1998, as a tribute to ALW's 50th birthday. Although some similarities with the repertoire do exist, there are many novelties here for us to enjoy.
First, the cast in this Beijing concert does not boast with so many big names, but this is not a drawback. The only real celebrity here is Elaine Paige, the one and only first lady of the British musical theatre, who starred in many ALW's shows (original West End Evita in 1978, original West End Grizabella in Cats in 1981, Sunset Boulevard's Norma Desmond both on Broadway and in the West End). Elaine gives a strong lead here. Her soprano is terrific in most of the songs, even though her Don't cry for me Argentina sounds too thin (after all, Elaine hasn't got the big voice of Patti LuPone). Her rendition of As if we never said goodbye from Sunset Boulevard is particularly worth mentioning, since it is much better than over-the-top/vocally weak performance Glenn Close gave on the Royal Albert Hall DVD.
The leading male stare is Kris Phillips (Fei Xiang), a Chinese-British star from lots of ALW's productions. Phillips has the right stage presence and a good singing voice, thus justifying the fact he is the most featured artist of the concert. He is exceptional in some parts (The Phantom of the opera, Joseph), while good at others (JC Superstar). The third male lead is the young and handsome Tony Vincent, who can be seen at the 2001 video recording of Superstar, playing Simon Zelotes. He gets to sing Superstar, The money kept rolling in from Evita and joins Paige and Phillips in Friends for life.
Some of the other songs are sung by the young and unknown singers, gathered by the process of auditioning. No problem with that, since they are all exceptional vocalists. The girl who sings Wishing you were somehow here again from The Phantom is thrilling, much better than Emmy Rossum in the movie version.
As for the repertoire, all the shows (minus By Jeeves and Starlight Express) ALW wrote until then are there. We are treated with some of the rarely performed stuff, such as Macavity: The mystery cat, The money kept rolling in and Take that look of your face from Song & Dance. Of course, the big tunes such as Memory, The Phantom songs, Love changes everything from Aspects of Love, together with a nice instrumental medley of the melodies from the latter show, are all there. The concert is nicely wrapped up with Friends for life-Amigos para siempre, a song ALW was asked to write for the 1992 Barcelona Olympic Games, here sung partly in Chinese.
If anything, this DVD proves another important fact. For a long time, ALW's detractors have been claiming he writes empty spectacles that heavily rely on big names and imposing stage sets. This DVD proves just the opposite. Take away all the sets, costumes and star names, assemble some talented singers and what you do get is outstanding melodies written by the man who managed to find the way to the modern musical theatre lovers like no other composer of modern times. Here the music is free to speak for itself. And it does so in a most convincing way.
If you love ALW's music, or simply are into modern musicals, be sure to check this out.