Andrew Lloyd Webber offers real criticism, asks David Cook to imagine him as an underage girl

For a show that wants to produce pop stars who can sell records, American Idol‘s producers really have no idea what they’re doing when they select theme weeks. Last night was the music of Andrew Lloyd Webber, because showtunes are exactly what the show needs. As it turned out, the finalists predictably mangled most of the songs, but what was so unexpected was Andrew Lloyd Webber himself. I can’t remember ever seeing seen such skepticism and bitchiness from a mentor (they usually just sound like more coherent versions of Paula Abdul), and it was awesome.

First, though, Ryan Seacrest teased showtunes by saying that the songs represented the finalists’ “toughest test yet as we push them further than ever before. Who will rise to the challenge?” The challenge of singing songs the contestants are often told they should not sing? Really?

“Broadway” is often used pejoratively on the show, and Ryan Seacrest, to his credit, actually brought that up instead of ignoring it. “Simon, in the past you’ve said, ‘That was Broadway,’ and it has a negative connotation to it when you say it to the contestants,” he said. Simon Cowell responded by not really answering, but instead just said, “that’s a very good question for once,” and babbled about how they had to “sound memorable but also contemporary.”

Ultimately, though, the most memorable parts of the evening weren’t the songs–many of the contestants butchered them–but instead the segments with Andrew Lloyd Webber’s commentary. When Jason Castro met with him, ALW told us, “I never thought I’d ever see a man singing ‘Memory’ with dreadlocks … it was quite a little bit of jolt for this Brit.” Then he said, rather sarcastically, “He kind of understood it. I think.” But Jason didn’t understand the song, admitting that to us (“I didn’t know a cat was singing it”) and giving a performance that “was a little bit of a train wreck,” according to Randy Jackson.

That was just the beginning. When Brooke White showed up, Lord Webber said, “I don’t think that girl had a clue about what she was singing about.” He ended up being somewhat impressed with her, but retained his skepticism. “Is this girl going to be able to keep that up? I don’t know. But if she can, I think she’s got something there that perhaps hasn’t been seen before,” he said.

Alas, all we haven’t seen before is a singer ask the band to stop playing so she could start over again, live TV at its finest. And we also haven’t seen Paula Abdul offer actual criticism in years, but after a long pause, Paula scolded Brooke, saying, “You must never start and stop.” Hysterically, Simon Cowell disagreed with Paula’s critique, and told Brooke, “I would have done exactly what she did … I thought it was actually a very brave thing to do.”

When David Archuleta met with Andrew Lloyd Webber, he was instructed to open his eyes when he sings, finally. And the creator of Phantom of the Opera said David’s chosen song, ‘Think of Me,” was “written for a diva, written for a girl. I couldn’t wait to hear how he was going to sing it, because I simply could not imagine how a boy could sing that song.” That answer was not too badly.

David Cook chose another Phantom song, “The Music of the Night,” and Webber told him, “‘The Music of the Night’ is actually, probably the most sensual, the most sexy song I’ve ever written. You’re supposed to be singing to the most gorgeous woman that you’ve ever seen in your life, and regrettably, I am not that person.” Then it got weird as ALW told David Cook to imagine him as an underage girl–over David’s protests that he was, in fact, 25. “But you have to imagine that I am–don’t laugh! This is supposed to be a serious lesson here. I am a gorgeous 17 year old girl — I’m from the Chorus Line, all right?”

Ultimately, the two Davids and Syesha Mercado pulled off memorable performances, but it was really Andrew Lloyd Webber who stole the show. Bring him back next week, too.

about the writer

Andy Dehnart is a journalist who has covered reality television for more than 15 years and created reality blurred in 2000. A member of the Television Critics Association, his writing and criticism about television, culture, and media has appeared on NPR and in Playboy, Buzzfeed, and many other publications. Andy, 36, also directs the journalism program at Stetson University in Florida, where he teaches creative nonfiction and journalism. He has an M.F.A. in nonfiction writing and literature from Bennington College. More about reality blurred and Andy.