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Politics and the Reception of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s The Phantom of the Opera

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  13 October 2014


This article analyses the complicated and conflicted critical response to Andrew Lloyd Webber’s The Phantom of the Opera within the political, economic and cultural context of the Thatcher/Reagan era. British critics writing for Conservative-leaning broadsheets and tabloids took nationalist pride in Lloyd Webber’s commercial success, while others on both sides of the Atlantic claimed that Phantom was tasteless and crassly commercial, a musical manifestation of a new Gilded Age. Broader issues regarding the relationship between the government and ‘elite’ culture also affected the critical response. For some, Phantom forged a path for a new kind of populist opera that could survive and thrive without government subsidy, while less sympathetic critics heard Phantom’s ‘puerile’ operatics as sophomoric jibes against an art form they esteemed.

Research Article
© Cambridge University Press 2014 

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Versions of this article were presented at the North American British Music Studies Association Biennial Meeting (2010) and at Brigham Young University (2013). I thank NABMSA and BYU audience members, the editors of this journal and the anonymous readers for their insightful feedback.


1 As recounted in Billington, Michael, ‘Margaret Thatcher Casts a Long Shadow Over the Theatre and the Arts’, The Guardian (8 April 2013)Google Scholar, (accessed 15 December 2013). For other articles about Thatcher that invoked Lloyd Webber, see Ford, Andrew, ‘Margaret Thatcher and the Moral Neutrality of Art’, Inside Story: Current Affairs and Culture from Australia and Beyond (10 April 2013)Google Scholar, (accessed 15 December 2013); Kemp, Stuart, ‘Jeremy Clarkson and Andrew Lloyd Webber to Attend Margaret Thatcher Funeral’, The Hollywood Reporter (11 April 2013)Google Scholar, (accessed 15 December 2013); ‘Margaret Thatcher’s Theatrical Legacy: Five Shows The Iron Lady Inspired’, What’s On Stage (17 April 2013), (accessed 15 December 2013); The Phantom of the Opera is listed as one of those five shows. For a more extended consideration of Lloyd Webber and Thatcher, see Billington, Michael, State of the Nation: British Theatre since 1945 (London, 2007), 284294Google Scholar.

2 For a discussion of the aesthetics of the megamusical, see Sternfeld, Jessica, The Megamusical (Bloomington, 2006)Google Scholar; Siropoulos, Vagelis, Evita, the Society of the Spectacle and the Advent of the Megamusical’, Image & Narrative 11 (2010), 165176Google Scholar; Siropoulos, , Cats, Postdramatic Blockbuster Aesthetics and the Triumph of the Megamusical’, Image & Narrative 11 (2010), 128145Google Scholar; Prece, Paul and Everett, William A., ‘The Megamusical and Beyond: The Creation, Internationalisation and Impact of a Genre’, in The Cambridge Companion to the Musical, ed. William A. Everett and Paul R. Laird, 2nd edn (Cambridge, 2008), 250269CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

3 Wigg, David, ‘Chess Master Who Wants to be Crowned King’, Daily Express (15 February 1988)Google Scholar.

4 On national bias and the critical reception of Phantom, see Snelson, John, Andrew Lloyd Webber (New Haven, 2004), 4143Google Scholar; Walsh, Michael, Andrew Lloyd Webber, His Life and Works: A Critical Biography, 2nd edn (New York, 1997)Google Scholar, 208; Gottfried, Martin, More Broadway Musicals: Since 1980 (New York, 1991), 5354Google Scholar. For a more general consideration of the ‘British invasion’ and the critical backlash, see Lundskaer-Nielsen, Miranda, Directors and the New Musical Drama: British and American Musical Theatre in the 1980s and 90s (London, 2008), 4549CrossRefGoogle Scholar. Others have noted the relationship between Thatcherite values and Lloyd Webber’s musicals; see, for example, Lowerre, Kathryn, ‘Fallen Woman Redeemed: Eliot, Victorianism, and Opera in Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Cats, Journal of Musicological Research 23 (2004), 294297CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Wolf, Stacy, Changed for Good: A Feminist History of the Broadway Musical (Oxford, 2011), 130132CrossRefGoogle Scholar. Lowerre analyses Cats as a manifestation of Thatcher-era Victorian nostalgia, while Wolf views the treatment of Christine’s character in Phantom (she is ‘overwhelm[ed] by spectacle’) as part of the 1980s conservative backlash against feminism and the concurrent narrowing of women’s public role.

5 Larry O’Connor, ‘In Defense of Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber’, (accessed 17 April 2013).

6 Wigg, David, ‘Why I May Quit Britain for Good’, Daily Express (19 January 1988)Google Scholar.

7 The Conservative election broadcast can be viewed at Lloyd Webber’s music plays at 6:37. Lloyd Webber later revised Henry Purcell’s rondeau in D minor from Abdelazer for her successor John Major; a choice that aligned the Conservative Party leader (and Lloyd Webber) with the Orpheus Britannicus of yore (and with Benjamin Britten, who chose the same rondeau for his Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra). See Lawson, Mark, ‘Judge Me on My Record: Wherever Helmut Kohl Goes, Tina Turner Goes With Him; His Greatest Rival in the German Elections Won’t Move Without Elgar. The Soundbite has Acquired a Musical Soundtrack as Everywhere Politicians are Playing Our Tune’, The Independent (21 September 1994)Google Scholar. For a discussion of Lloyd Webber’s arrangement, see David Haigron, ‘“Caring” John Major: Portrait of a Thatcherite as a One-Nation Tory’, Observatoire de la société britannique, (accessed 2 December 2013), and Butler, David and Kavanagh, Dennis, The British General Election of 1992 (London, 1992)CrossRefGoogle Scholar, 175.

8 For further discussion of Reagan’s and Thatcher’s political philosophies, see Thompson, Graham, American Culture in the 1980s (Edinburgh, 2007), 610Google Scholar and Sandbrook, Dominic, ‘The Baptist and the Messiah: Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher’, in Ronald Reagan and the 1980s: Perceptions, Politics, Legacies, ed. Cheryl Hudson and Gareth Davies (New York, 2008), 175190CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

9 On Black Monday, see Mark Carlson, ‘A Brief History of the 1987 Stock Market Crash with a Discussion of the Federal Reserve Response’, Finance and Economics Discussion Series, Division of Research & Statistics and Monetary Affairs, Federal Reserve Board, Washington, DC, (accessed 14 June 2013).

10 Rich, Frank, ‘Phantom of the Opera’, New York Times (27 January 1988)Google Scholar.

11 Eaton, John, ‘Andrew Lloyd Webber: That “Cat’s Meow” is a Phantom Talent’, Washington Post (31 January 1988)Google Scholar.

12 Battiata, Mary, ‘Cutbacks Proposed in Arts Funding’, Washington Post (6 February 1986)Google Scholar.

13 Thompson, , American Culture, 147148Google Scholar. For a lucid summary of Reagan’s arts policy, see Wu, Chin-tao, Privatising Culture: Corporate Art Intervention Since the 1980s (London, 2002), 4953Google Scholar.

14 Holland, Bernard, ‘Score of “Phantom”: How Good Is It?’ New York Times (28 January 1988)Google Scholar.

15 Quoted in Sternfeld, Megamusical, 267. As Elizabeth L. Wollman has noted, the prevailing hyper-capitalist ethos meant that critics (such as Rich and others) had less power. A successful marketing campaign could undo the effects of negative or lukewarm reviews: ‘The Economic Development of the “New” Times Square and Its Impact on the Broadway Musical’, American Music 20 (2002), 445–65; here 454.

16 Richards, David, ‘Great Expectations; How Big Events Upstage Smaller Pleasures’, Washington Post (6 December 1987)Google Scholar.

17 Peacock, D. Keith, Thatcher’s Theatre: British Theatre and Drama in the Eighties (Westport, CT, 1999)Google Scholar, 1. The most radical elements of the plan – education vouchers, freezing welfare, and the dismantling of the NHS – were never ultimately implemented; see (accessed 19 July 2014).

18 Peacock, , Thatcher’s Theatre, 36Google Scholar. See also Wu’s discussion of Thatcher’s arts policy: Privatising Culture, 53–70.

19 Billington, , State of the Nation, 284Google Scholar.

20 Snelson makes a similar point (Lloyd Webber, 42–3), as does Walsh (Lloyd Webber, 208).

21 The Daily Mirror is a notable exception, as it has always supported Labour and its readership is predominantly working class: ‘The Politics of UK Newspapers’, (accessed 14 June 2013).

22 Gibbons, Sarah, ‘What Makes Rich Such a Bitch?’ Daily Express (29 January 1988)Google Scholar.

23 Wigg, David, ‘How the Brits Keep Broadway in Business’, Daily Express (27 January 1988)Google Scholar.

24 Tinker, Jack, ‘Stars, Spectacle, Score, and Story’, Daily Mail (10 October 1986)Google Scholar. Reproduced at (accessed 14 June 2013).

25 Wardle, Irving, ‘God’s Gift to Musical Theatre – Review of “The Phantom of the Opera” at Her Majesty’s’, The Times (10 October 1986)Google Scholar. The profile with the hyperbolic headline from the Sunday Times is available online at (accessed 31 December 2013).

26 Perry, George, ‘Spotlight on Lloyd Webber’s Greatest Coup: Phantomania! New York is Taken By Storm – A Musical That has Become an American Obsession’, Sunday Times (24 January 1988)Google Scholar.

27 Barber, John, ‘The Phantom of the Opera Opens in London’, Daily Telegraph (11 October 1986)Google Scholar.

28 The Really Useful Group was founded in 1977 by Andrew Lloyd Webber. His company is involved in various media, including theatre, film, television, video, concerts, merchandising, publishing and recording. On the public stock offering, see Walsh, , Lloyd Webber, 179Google Scholar.

29 Snoddy, Raymond, ‘Phantom Critic Raises Ghost of a Smile’, Financial Times (28 January 1988)Google Scholar.

30 Coveney, Michael, ‘The Phantom of the Opera/Her Majesty’s’, Financial Times (13 October 1986)Google Scholar.

31 The relationship of Phantom to opera has been thoroughly discussed by Walsh, , Lloyd Webber, 180202Google Scholar; Sternfeld, , Megamusical, 234263Google Scholar; Snelson, , Lloyd Webber, 105115Google Scholar; and Chandler, David, ‘“What Do We Mean By Opera, Anyway?”: Lloyd Webber’s Phantom of the Opera and “High-Pop” Theatre’, Journal of Popular Music Studies 21 (2009), 152169CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

32 This was particularly the case with the Militant Tendency, a revolutionary Trotskyist contingent that pursued an entryist strategy in the 1970s and 1980s. See Peacock, , Thatcher’s Theatre, 5Google Scholar and Whiteley, Paul, The Labour Party in Crisis (London, 1983), 89Google Scholar. For a broader perspective on the ideological divisions within the 1970s Labour Party, see Fry, Geoffrey K., The Politics of the Thatcher Revolution: An Interpretation of British Politics, 1979–1990 (Basingstoke, 2008), 612CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Shaw, Eric, Discipline and Discord in the Labour Party: The Politics of Managerial Control in the Labour Party, 1951–87 (Manchester, 1988), 218253Google Scholar.

33 On the increasing marginalisation of the hard left during the 1980s and the re-orientation towards a softer, more ‘realistic’ Marxism that paved the way for New Labour, see Pimlott, Herbert, ‘From “Old Left” to “New Labour”? Eric Hobsbawm and the Rhetoric of “Realistic Marxism”’, Labour/Le Travail 56 (2005), 175–197Google Scholar. For a brief history of the Labour Party’s transition from ‘Old Labour’ to ‘New Labour’, see Shaw, Eric, The Labour Party Since 1945, Old Labour: New Labour (Oxford, 1996), 162231Google Scholar, and Thorpe, Andrew, A History of the British Labour Party, 3rd edn (Basingstoke, 2008), 230283Google Scholar.

34 Jonathan Charteris-Black demonstrates how Thatcher deployed such rhetoric to vilify her political enemies, pitting British values against ‘the invading ideology of Communism and the Labour Party’: Politics and Rhetoric: The Persuasive Power of Metaphor (Basingstoke, 2011), 173–6.

35 For an analysis of Reagan’s populism and his deployment of ‘traditional social values’ to capture the votes of so-called Reagan Democrats (Northern, white, blue-collar voters), see Greenberg, Stanley B., Middle Class Dreams: The Politics and Power of the New American Majority, rev. edn (New Haven, 1996), 130143Google Scholar. On Reagan’s political rhetoric, see Charteris-Black, , Politics and Rhetoric, 138164Google Scholar.

36 On Reagan’s moral advocacy, see Thompson, , American Culture, 89Google Scholar. For Thatcher’s articulation of her Victorian ethos, see the transcript of her 1983 interview with Brian Walden, ‘TV Interview for London Weekend Television Weekend World (“Victorian Values”)’, (accessed 20 December 2013).

37 ‘Speech to the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland’ (21 May 1988), (accessed 20 December 2013).

38 See the analyses of Phantom’s score in Snelson, Lloyd Webber, and Sternfeld, Megamusical. See also Bucchianeri, E. A., ‘Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Phantom of the Opera: An Example of the “Musical Theatre Renaissance”’, in idem, A Compendium of Essays: Purcell, Hogarth and Handel, Beethoven, Liszt, Debussy and Lloyd Webber (Bloomington, 2002), 112169Google Scholar, and Citron, Stephen, Sondheim and Lloyd-Webber: The New Musical (Oxford, 2001), 332337Google Scholar.

39 Chandler, , ‘What Do We Mean By Opera’, 163166Google Scholar.

40 In contradistinction, Chandler reads a pedagogical purpose into Lloyd Webber’s pastiches; ‘Lloyd Webber never presumes too much on his audience’s desire for opera, and even offers his own little “crash course” in the art form from Mozart to Puccini’: ‘What Do We Mean By Opera’, 156.

41 John Storey describes how opera ‘was made unpopular’ in nineteenth- and twentieth-century America and Britain by ‘elite social groups determined to situate it as the crowning glory of their culture’: ‘“Expecting Rain?” Opera as Popular Culture’, in High Pop: Making Culture into Popular Entertainment, ed. Jim Collins (Malden, MA, 2002), 32–7.

42 Rowley, Tom, ‘Margaret Thatcher’s Surprise All-Stars’, The Telegraph (17 April 2013)Google Scholar, (accessed 26 December 2013).

43 Quoted in Peacock, , Thatcher’s Theatre, 50Google Scholar.

44 Peter Hall, Thatcher antagonist and former head of the National Theatre, laid out the dire effects of the Conservative arts policy upon the national companies in ‘Theater: Taking Stock of Creativity During the Thatcher Years’, New York Times (20 January 1991). He also discussed the precarious financial situation created by the American system of funding that Thatcher sought to emulate.

45 Peacock, , Thatcher’s Theatre, 2526Google Scholar; Kristol, Irving, Two Cheers for Capitalism (New York, 1978), 2728Google Scholar.

46 On 10 January 1988, the right-leaning Sunday Telegraph ran a story by Graham Turner, ‘Why Britain’s Eggheads Look Down on Mrs. Thatcher’. One reason given by Turner was that the government no longer respected the idealistic, liberal views of the ‘egghead’ class. Thatcher instead pointed to people such as Andrew Lloyd Webber who did not need government subsidy. See Peacock’s discussion, in Thatcher’s Theatre, 28–9. Similarly, many in the arts loathed Reagan and his policies; see Thompson’s discussion of the American ‘culture wars’, American Culture, 30–6.

47 Quoted in Sternfeld, , Megamusical, 235236Google Scholar.

48 Holland, ‘Score of “Phantom”’.

49 According to Steven Johnson, Bolcom’s mature musical idiom seeks to erase the boundary between popular and art music; Grove Music Online. Oxford Music Online, (accessed 30 December 2013).

50 Holland, ‘Score of “Phantom”’.

51 Holland, ‘Score of “Phantom”’.

52 On this democratisation, see Storey, ‘Expecting Rain?’, 32–55. See also Lundskaer-Nielsen, , Directors and the New Musical Drama, 5254Google Scholar. Classic FM was founded in 1992 with the mission to present classical music in a popular format. The station plays short works, single movements of symphonies, cross-over classical music, and other pieces identified by programmers as being sufficiently accessible and tuneful.

53 Kate Saunders in The Times mocked the elite resistance to the democratisation of opera (‘these are the types who chuck out their CDs of Turandot when they hear the plumber whistling Nessun Dorma’) in ‘Open Opera to the Oiks’, The Times (6 September 1992).

54 Rich, ‘Phantom of the Opera’.

55 Lee, M. Owen, The Phantom of the Opera. Andrew Lloyd Webber’, Opera Quarterly 6 (1988), 147151CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

56 Sunset Boulevard (1993) had a reasonably long run on the West End and Broadway, but failed to turn a profit. Whistle Down the Wind (1996), The Beautiful Game (2000) and The Woman in White (2004) did not enjoy substantial financial success.

57 On this changed landscape, see Coleman, Bud, ‘New Horizons: The Musical at the Dawn of the Twenty-First Century’, The Cambridge Companion to the Musical, 284301Google Scholar.

58 On the commercialisation of the theatre, see Thompson, , American Culture, 148150Google Scholar. For a more extended discussion of the corporate influence, see Wollman, ‘Economic Development’, 445465Google Scholar, and her book The Theater Will Rock: A History of the Rock Musical, from Hair to Hedwig (Ann Arbor, 2006), 142–57. Jonathan Burston describes how the Lloyd Webber/Mackintosh mode of production set a template for their successors in ‘Recombinant Broadway’, Continuum: Journal of Media & Cultural Studies 23 (2009), 159–69.

59 Wollman notes that costly productions bankrolled by Disney and entertainment conglomerates have raised the stakes, making it difficult for producers such as Mackintosh to compete; ‘Economic Development’, 455.

60 Spencer, Charles, ‘Love Never Dies at the Adelphi Theatre, Review’, The Telegraph (9 March 2010)Google Scholar, (accessed 1 June 2013). Vagelis Siropoulos reads Love Never Dies quite differently. For him, the reworking of the Phantom into a celebrity impresario mirrors the ascent of Lady Gaga, whose album The Fame ‘teaches you how to reinvent yourself as a celebrity in order to escape the anonymity of your drab everyday existence’ or even Andrew Lloyd Webber’s own reinvention as a reality TV celebrity; ‘Andrew Lloyd Webber and the Culture of Narcissism’, Studies in Musical Theatre 4 (2010), 286–7.

61 Brantley, Ben, ‘Same Phantom, Different Spirit’, New York Times (9 March 2010)Google Scholar, (accessed 31 December 2013). The budget for the West End production of Love Never Dies was $12 million, much less than the Broadway productions of The Lion King ($20 million) or the massively inflated costs of Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark (c. $65–$70 million).

62 Jury, Louise, ‘Andrew Lloyd Webber: Profumo Musical is Amazing. It’s My Best Work in Years’ (20 December 2013)Google Scholar, (accessed 31 December 2013).

63 The parodic title was created by London theatre-bloggers, ‘The West End Whingers’, (accessed 31 December 2013). For negative reviews that mentioned Paint Never Dries or the hostile ‘phan’ response, see Brantley, ‘Same Phantom, Different Spirit’; Michael Riedel, ‘“Phantom” menace: Sequel is Shaky’, New York Post (12 March 2010)Google Scholar, (accessed 31 December 2013); Nightingale, Benedict, ‘Without Menace, Without Danger, Phantom Becomes a Mere Shadow’, The Times (10 March 2010)Google Scholar; Shuttleworth, Ian, ‘Love Never Dies, Adelphi Theatre, London’, Adelphi Theatre, London’, Financial Times (12 March 2010)Google Scholar, (accessed 31 December 2013); Hitchings, Henry, ‘Love Never Dies … it just fades away’, Evening Standard (10 March 2010)Google Scholar, (accessed 31 December 2013); Hart, Christopher, ‘Time to Exorcise this Phantom, Andrew? Lloyd Webber’s Love Never Dies is a Car Crash of a Musical with Tin-Eared Lyrics’, Sunday Times (14 March 2010)Google Scholar.

64 Michael Billington, ‘Love Never Dies’, The Guardian (9 March 2010)Google Scholar, (accessed 31 December 2013).

65 Lloyd Webber clearly understands the economics of the blockbuster musical, as his entrepreneurial activities are still quite successful, particularly with regards to milking profit from his old shows. In 2006 he mounted a $75 million, 95-minute version of Phantom in Las Vegas in 2006 in a custom-built theatre designed to allow ‘special effects and enhancements made possibly today by modern technology’. This production closed in 2012. See (accessed 31 December 2013).

66 This discussion refers to the 2010 West End production of Love Never Dies. The show has gone through several subsequent revisions.

67 Letts viewed Lloyd Webber’s musical as a noble failure: ‘Stodgy Phantom Sequel Not Quite a Hit … But Lloyd Webber’s Operatic Music Lifts it to a Higher Plane’, Mail Online (10 March 2010), (accessed 1 June 2010).

68 Spencer, ‘Love Never Dies’.

69 ‘Exclusive! Love Never Dies Creators Andrew Lloyd Webber & Simon Phillips on Getting the Show to Broadway, Maybe With a New Ending!’ Broadway.Com (14 March 2014) (accessed 10 May 2014). In 2012 Lloyd Webber released a film of the Melbourne production on DVD and subsequent productions were mounted in Copenhagen and Toyko.

70 Cavendish, Dominic, ‘Can Andrew Lloyd Webber’s New Musical Stephen Ward Turn the Story of the Profumo Affair into a Hit?’ Daily Telegraph (29 November 2013)Google Scholar, (accessed 31 December 2013).

71 It is similar in some respects to Aspects of Love, Lloyd Webber’s follow-up to Phantom, which focused on the bohemian sexual exploits of a particularly dysfunctional family, or The Beautiful Game (2000), a musical about football and ‘The Troubles’ in Northern Ireland. Prece and Everett group Lloyd Webber’s musicals by type; both Aspects and Stephen Ward would correspond to their ‘Intimate Musicals’ grouping. Notably, none of these ‘Intimate Musicals’ have enjoyed success at the box office; see Everett, ‘The Megamusical and Beyond’, 257.

72 Some reviewers felt the creative team did not go far enough because of their own powerful political status, shying away from the obvious connections between the Profumo affair and the phone hacking scandal that recently plagued David Cameron’s government: ‘Of course Establishment insiders like Lord Andrew Lloyd Webber and [director] Sir Richard Eyre were hardly likely to attack Britain’s current ruling elite’. Dalton, Stephen, The Hollywood Reporter (19 December 2013)Google Scholar, (accessed 31 December 2013).

73 Lawless, Jill, ‘Lloyd Webber’s Sexy “Stephen Ward” Seduces Some’, Yahoo News (20 December 2013)Google Scholar, (accessed 31 December 2013).

74 Lawless, ‘Lloyd Webber’s Sexy “Stephen Ward”’.

75 See Lloyd Webber’s website for the musical: ‘Stephen Ward: The Music’, (accessed 31 December 2013). Lloyd Webber frequently collaborates on his orchestrations with David Cullen.

76 ‘Stephen Ward: The Music’.

77 Wollman, ‘Economic Development’, 450451Google Scholar.

78 McPhee, Rod, ‘Family of “Profumo Affair Pimp” Stephen Ward Hope New Andrew Lloyd Webber Musical will Clear His Name’, Daily Mirror (21 December 2013)Google Scholar, (accessed 31 December 2013).

79 Arditti, Michael, ‘Stephen Ward Review: Emergency for Ward’, Daily Express (29 December 2013)Google Scholar, (accessed 31 December 2013).

80 Jury, ‘Andrew Lloyd Webber’.

81 ‘Stephen Ward – Review’, The Guardian (19 December 2013), (accessed 31 December 2013).

82 Brantley, ‘Same Phantom, Different Spirit’.

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