LONDON — WHEN I spoke with British composer Andrew Lloyd Webber in the early 1980s, while he was working on his now international stage hit, ``Starlight Express,'' he confided to having on the back burner a project that was particularly close to his heart. It would be, he believed, as strikingly unique a musical, in its own way, as his roller-skating extravaganza was designed to be. But, whereas ``Starlight Express'' would be ``loud, bright, and raunchy,'' he mused, the other project, would be intimate, emotionally intricate, and subtle. Based on an obscure novella by David Garnett, a writer from the fringes of Britain's prewar Bloomsbury set, it was called ``Aspects of Love.''
The essential ingredient of this work, Mr. Lloyd Webber emphasized, is that it's about real people, in a way that musicals rarely, if ever, are. The story is one that deals with love, as he put it, ``in the most full-bodied, heterosexual manner; it's a long time since the musical theater has taken that on, with all of its implications.
``When, for example, Rodgers and Hammerstein were writing `Some Enchanted Evening,' [they] were never writing about sex.'' Expressing a personal view, he also asserted, ``Today, you simply couldn't write about love and not write about what sex means to a relationship.''
Six years later, the 41-year-old composer has taken a dramatic departure from musical theater as we know it - an unpredictable quality that makes any new work of his a major stage event. With two of his other shows - ``Cats'' and ``Phantom of the Opera'' - playing to packed houses on both sides of the Atlantic, not to mention in the many other parts of the world where these works have spawned productions, theatergoers now simply make a beeline for the box office the minute a new Lloyd Webber creation is announced.
In fact, before the first curtain of ``Aspects of Love'' went up recently at London's Prince of Wales Theatre, it was already sold out for a year - testimony to the enormous commercial appeal of the man who is generally regarded as today's most successful musical theater composer.
As for Lloyd Webber's reference to ``full-bodied love,'' there is, in fact, a great deal more to the musical than simply shifting physical affections. This latest offering is a complex, psychologically truthful tale about three generations of people who are bound up with each other through the multitextured strands of their mutual love. Set in the wine country of prewar southern France, a teen-age English boy, Alex, becomes infatuated with an ``older woman,'' a French actress in her 20s named Rose, and impulsively invites her to stay with him in his villa for two weeks while she is resting between productions.
The reality is that it's his uncle, Sir George, who owns the place. And when Sir George pops in unexpectedly, Rose drops Alex for this more sophisticated, sexagenarian suitor. Despite much pain, Alex finally accepts Rose and George's liaison. The latter marry and, much later, the m'enage `a trois is further complicated by their daughter Jenny, 14, who yearns to take up with Alex where Rose left off. Alex, in turn, has grown enchantingly devoted to the girl.
Sir George, through touching adoration of his daughter, becomes uncharacteristically jealous of Alex, so much so that it proves to be the death of him. Alex tearfully tears himself away from Rose and Jenny and flies to the arms of Guilietta, an exciting, free-spirited woman - one of George's amours of years past - whom he met at his uncle's heady wake of a funeral. Such are only some of the show's many aspects of love.
Unfolding almost entirely to music, this latest Lloyd Webber work, with its demanding story line, is more like opera than anything he has attempted before.
There are only three songs, as such, in the show, while the rest is dialogue, albeit poetic, put to music. Rhythms are irregular, and Lloyd Webber makes heavy use of minor chords. Orchestration is frequently minimal, forcing the audience to listen carefully to the thoughtfully constructed words. The only belted-out number - the composer's usual trademark - is a piece called ``Love Changes Everything,'' used as a leitmotif in various guises throughout.
All told, ``Aspects of Love'' is a piquantly curious production. Sensitively directed by former Royal Shakespeare Company chief Trevor Nunn (``Cats,'' ``Starlight Express,'' ``Les Mis'erables''), it slips through a dizzying 40-odd scene changes with masterly ease. Aided superbly by the ruggedly stoned, sepia-and-gray toned sets of Maria Bj"ornson (``Phantom of the Opera''), the show has breathtakingly atmospheric moments as it shifts to various French locations over nearly two decades.
All of the acting is first-rate - something rare in a musical. Michael Ball, for instance - much acclaimed as Marius in the London stage version of ``Les Mis'erables'' - confirms through his portrayal of Alex that he is indeed a major talent. Kevin Colson and Ann Crumb are also fine.
Certainly the show has its minor drawbacks, but the only area of major doubts concerns the music. In the past, British critics have frequently faulted Lloyd Webber for his supposed emphasis on overblown spectacle and commercially contrived songs. With ``Aspects of Love,'' the spectacle element has been admirably subdued. The music, however, while often highly effective, is, at certain points, low-key bordering on bland. There is nothing wrong with mundane parts of dialogue, such as placing an order in a caf'e, put to music, but a touch more memorably expressive melody amid the occasionally monotonous minor chords and tempo wouldn't have gone amiss.
That said, with ``Aspects of Love'' Lloyd Webber has created something which, if it falls short of perfection, is nevertheless, for the most part, a sophisticated and at times very moving work. Indeed, in his exploration of the intricacies of human emotion, he has, yet again, broken challenging new ground for musical theater.