Empire Falls: Frank Rich and Adam Moss on Riots in London, Meryl Streep’s Iron Lady, and the Downfall of Andrew Lloyd Webber

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Photo: The Weinstein Company

Adam: Hi, Frank. You're in London this week. And you were in London just a few months ago. A lot has happened in between. Riots, the Murdoch hacking scandal, a reeling Cameron government, a deteriorating European economy. You're not there to report, but do you detect any difference in the feel of the place? What can you tell by talking to the people you talk to, reading the papers? Life as usual, or some noticeable shift in mood?

Frank: Hi, Adam. When I was here in April, there was all this frenzied anticipation (not shared by me, I must say) about the royal wedding. Now what souvenirs**  remain of that celebration are being unloaded at rock-bottom prices, and the festive mood has entirely dissipated. Indeed, the aftermath of the riots and looting seems palpable — subtle tensions, beefy security guards conspicuous in some shopping areas, conversations about "what happens next?", a sense of fragility — that it could happen again at any moment. I can't tell you how much people of all types were thrown by it. Debates about the riots along with nearly daily revelations in the Murdoch scandals — as well as the implications of both for the Cameron government — dominate the papers and much of the conversation, along with the latest bulletins from Libya. What's most striking to me going around London is the conspicuous absence of Americans — tour groups, packs of college students, individual families — all usually a fixture here (as in much of Europe) in the summer. Londoners feel (perhaps rightly) that the riots caused a lot of cancellations. It's also another indication of just how much discretionary consumer spending is down among the recession-hit American middle class — and of the very diminished dollar. A one-way, off-peak, short-distance tube ticket is $6.60.

Adam: I don't think a lot is understood here about the riots. Talk more about the debates you're hearing. Do you hear much sympathy for the rioters, or is it mostly contempt? Do people tend to give them symbolic weight, as we did in a dialogue a couple of weeks ago, or are they seen in a more parochial context?

Frank: More contempt than sympathy, as far as I can tell in an unscientific sampling. And a lot of symbolic weight, because the riots raised questions about everything from immigration, race, and class to the state of the criminal justice system, education, and cultural values. And here, much as would be the case in America (and is the case among American pundits who've taken on the British riots), most everyone sees the riots through either a liberal or conservative partisan lens, with Tony Blair now squaring off against Cameron in debating whether Britain is in "moral collapse" or not. That said, there's an element of mystery to the identity of some of the rioters — not all of them were jobless, uneducated, minorities, etc., but were often sadistic (and not always poor) joy riders, Clockwork Orange** –style. What no one can stop talking about, either, is that in one stretch of looted shops, the only one left untouched by the thieves was a bookstore, Waterstone's, depressingly enough. Looters craved every conceivable object except books.

And Adam, am I missing anything in New York?

Adam: Well, no riots as yet. I'm not sure what it would take these days to get New Yorkers to take to the streets (readers, feel free to offer your own ideas). No, you're not missing much — some gorgeous weather, the first sounds of the 9/11 anniversary drumbeat, a fair share of agonizing over the economy, Rick Perry, Obama. I'm curious: How are the Murdoch–owned papers covering the hacking scandal? As delicately as they are in New York?

Frank: This was a week with a bombshell dominating many papers here — the release of a 2007 letter from the fired News of the World reporter Clive Goodman indicating that higher-ups were regularly apprised of his hacking. That's bad news for, among others, Les Hinton, a top Murdoch British newspaper executive at the time of this criminality, and whose most recent job (until he quit a month ago) was running The Wall Street Journal and Dow Jones in the U.S. So I bought Murdoch's Sunday Times to see what it would say about this big story — plowed through section after section — and found nothing. What I did find was a headline on the cover of the weekly "Review" section reading, "Why the Brits are Still Obsessed with Hitler," and, as if to prove the point, there were at least four other, unrelated articles dealing with Hitler, spread over three sections in the same paper — plus a Sunday magazine cover story on John Galliano, the designer fired for his Hitleresque anti-Semitic outbursts. I also enjoyed the front-section story "How Churchill Thanked the King's Cuckold" (don't ask!). This is Murdoch's up-market paper? It's the Mel Brooks school of journalism!

Adam: Seen any theater while you're there?

Frank: Yes. One Man, Two Guvnors, a new farce by Richard Bean (very loosely based on Goldoni's 1746 Servant of Two Masters, but now set in Brighton, 1963) and directed by Nicholas Hytner at the National Theater is by far the biggest hit in town, and with good reason. I haven't seen anything funnier at the theater since the original production of Michael Frayn's Noises Off here almost 30 years ago. Pure farce with no redeeming social value: mistaken identity, gender confusion, sex, gluttony, farting (and it goes downhill in taste from there). Rumored to come to New York next spring, but if they try to Americanize it or change the cast — so often the case with London transfers like this — it will die on Broadway. Let's hope someone has the guts to bring it in as is. For perverse reasons, I also saw an act of Andrew Lloyd Webber's epic bomb, Love Never Dies, his sequel to Phantom of the Opera that is closing in the West End next weekend, but surely you don't want to hear about that.

Adam: Well you're wrong about that. I do want to hear about it. More particularly, I wonder if you have a unifying theory about Lloyd Webber — what made him so popular when he was, and what went wrong?

Frank: He was the cultural embodiment (and, in England, mascot) of the Thatcher/Reagan eighties — the triumph of Vegas–style kitsch and easy listening "rock music" — commoditized, aspirational, entertainment mush for the whole (suburban) family. He crashed when that culture did and hasn't had a hit since. I got paid to review his shows when I was the Times drama critic back then and never went to another until this one, out of a morbid curiosity to see how the Lloyd Webber story, not the Phantom's, came out. I sat by choice in the last row of the top balcony. The guy at the box office at the Adelphi tried to sell me a more expensive seat on the grounds that I would have to climb "100 steps" to get there. I wasn't buying. The audience was sparse and seemingly dumbfounded. The tableaux passed by like floats in a very slow moving parade. Turns out the phantom took up residence in a Coney Island freak show, where he is reunited with a 10-year-old illegitimate son played by the most freakish child actor I've ever seen (and, alas, not in a mask). I felt sorry for the American director (Jack O'Brien) and choreographer (Jerry Mitchell) whose names are on it, but sorrier for myself and left at intermission. Counted the steps on the way out — 79. Even the box office is phony at a Lloyd Webber show.

Adam: Since this dialogue coincides with our fall preview issue, what are you looking forward to this season — theater, movies, books?

Frank: A ton. In theater, David Henry Hwang's Chinglish, and the Ethan Coen–Elaine May–Woody Allen triple bill, for starters, in the fall. Movies: the new Almodovar, Cronenberg, and Alexander Payne films (all premiering at the New York Film Festival), again for starters. The new Michael Grandage production of Don Giovanni at the Met. And novels: Murakami's IQ84 (a thousand pages, but what the hell), The Stranger's Child by Alan Hollinghurst (his first since Line of Beauty; London odds favor it to win 2011 Man Booker) and Chad Harbach's first novel, The Art of Fielding, about which I've heard the same excited talk everyone else has. ... And what are you most looking forward to in the fall?

Adam: Almodovar, always. Our cover boys, Brad Pitt and Jonah Hill, in Moneyball — a "process" movie with Sorkin dialogue — just my thing. Ryan Gosling in Drive and The Ides of March — I'll see anything he's in (I even saw Crazy Stupid Love**  — and I even liked it). Interested in Martha Marcy May Marlene**  (love the title for starters) because of all the hype about Elizabeth Olsen (amazing how effective hype is). I'm looking forward to seeing Venus in Fur on Broadway because I missed it off-Broadway. What else? Watching the rest of that BBC series The Hour;**  I'm already hooked. Reading the Chad Harbach novel, definitely — also the Jeffrey Eugenides novel, with its David Foster Wallace-y character. I am in fact reading The Stranger's Child right now, which I'm not loving yet in spite of its early twentieth-century aristocratic British setting and schoolboy lovers, which I am embarrassed to say almost always works for me. But the cultural event I am most looking forward to — and not just because it brings this conversation full circle — is The Iron Lady with Meryl Streep playing Margaret Thatcher.**  Have you seen the pictures of Streep**  in Thatcher drag? The hairdo alone is worth the price of admission.

Frank: I just caught the Iron Lady trailer**  online — this is surely going to be priceless. From Julia Child dropping food on the floor to the Iron Lady — well, no one but Streep can do this. Let us just pray there's not a score by Lloyd Webber.

Adam: Quickly, to steer us back to the news, Qaddafi appears to be history (well, he is; then he isn't; it's very hard to tell); Bashar al-Assad must be at least a little worried that he could be next. America is a minor player in both dramas — we gave support to the rebels but let NATO do all the work; Obama last week called for Bashar's fall but has also avoided being drawn in to the conflict. The fading of America’s role as The Decider in global matters has been going on for some time, but it seems especially pronounced these days. Do you have an opinion about whether America has played its hand well in Libya et al? Or let me ask a slightly broader question: Do you bemoan the diminishment of America as a superpower, or do you welcome it?

Frank: Obama hasn't been lucky in much lately but it looks like, knock on wood, he's been lucky in how he's played his hand in Libya and possibly Syria — threading the needle at almost every juncture, speaking softly, and carrying (at most) a medium-sized stick. As a one-size-fits-all policy for the entire region, it can't possibly work, and I don't know what would. I do not bemoan or welcome the diminishment of America as a superpower (and its president as The Decider), but have the classic wishy-washy position: Of course I want America to take a lead on human rights, and intervene in partnership with allies when genocide or something like it is taking place, or about to. But where does one draw the line as to the degree of action taken, and which of the many (infinite, it seems at times) crisis areas merit action and which don't? My thinking — like, seemingly, Obama's — is shaped by the disasters of Vietnam and Iraq, and so I thought the half-in, half-out approach to Qaddafi made at least theoretical sense (even if often ill-explained by the president) — and if it does turn out to have made practical sense as well, I confess to being both glad and surprised. But it may be a one-off. Are you as wishy-washy as I am about all this?

Adam: I suppose. Like many I drift from pragmatism to idealism and back again; can't exactly say I have a coherent worldview. But I asked the question about America’s fading as a superpower because even amidst the grudging praise Obama seems to be receiving this morning for his apparent success "leading from behind" in Libya, there seems to be an undercurrent of regret, perhaps, that the good old days of American muscle are behind us. And I am struck by all the anguish over the fall of the American empire, and I find myself often lately drifting to the position (naively, I'm sure) that that's not entirely a terrible thing. We have enough troubles. Maybe it will be a relief to future generations of Americans not to have to shoulder the world’s burdens (as it was, I'm sure — eventually — to the Brits). I guess it's a good thing I'm not running for president; that's not what you'd call a winning platform.

Frank: Yes, I'm not sure this platform could get you elected in even, say, Anthony Weiner's former district. I think the anguish over the fall of the American empire is premature — if an empire it remotely is at this point, after the diminishment of our prestige, power, and economic stability since the war in Iraq — but I'm with you. Time for America to address its own troubles, which are serious and stultifying, for if we don't do that, any grander aspirations, worthy or not, are moot anyway.

Adam: That's it for this week. We'll take a break next week and return after Labor Day. Until then, please send your questions to AskFrankRich@nymag.com. Thanks.