LONDON - Andrew Lloyd Webber's "Stephen Ward" which opened on Thursday in London is a musical with a mission: to clear the name of the high-society osteopath of the title, who was at the centre of the Profumo sex, spies and call girls scandal that brought down a British government in the 1960s.
The main characters, in real life and the show, are party girl Christine Keeler and her friend Mandy Rice-Davies as the women who cause all the trouble, a vodka-swilling Russian military attache who was one of Keeler's lovers, and John Profumo, Britain's Secretary of State for War, a married man and also one of Keeler's lovers.
When his affair with her came tumbling out, courtesy of the ever vigilant British tabloid press, it was suspected that Profumo in "pillow talk" may have leaked nuclear secrets to Keeler, through her to the Russians and from that stemmed the scandal that brought down the Conservative government.
The affable, Jaguar-driving Ward's role in all this? He was said to be the procurer and committed suicide with an overdose of sleeping pills after being forced to take the rap by the corrupt British political, judicial and police establishment of the time - or so the musical's book would have it.
From the opening number, "Human Sacrifice", in which Ward, played by veteran musical and stage performer Alexander Hanson, is shown in a wax museum display alongside historical villains like Hitler, this latest offering from the creator "Evita", "Cats" and "The Phantom of the Opera" makes it clear that the evening's entertainment comes with a moral lesson attached.
"Get up the nose of the establishment ... step across the line," Ward sings as he comes alive amid the display of wax dummies, and you, too, could become a "human sacrifice".
That may sound grim and "Sweeney Todd"-ish, but there need be no fear that Lloyd Webber has turned ghoulish and dark.
The next number is set in a popular London nightclub of the period, with showgirls performing a dance routine with hula hoops. It's there that Ward meets Keeler, played by Charlotte Spencer, and the seeds of a disastrous relationship are sewn.
Shortly afterwards, they attend a high-society dinner party in which, as apparently was the custom at the time, everyone strips down to their skivvies, which in the case of the women meant mostly black semi-fetish regalia, and has an orgy.
The orgy, while tame even by the standards of what can be seen on today's opera stages, provides one of the show's best tunes, "You've Never Had It So Good". It twists a famous quote from a Labour prime minister of the era, Harold Wilson, by adding: "You've never had it so often."
Another memorable number is sung by Profumo's shocked wife, the actress Valerie Hobson, played by Joanna Riding, when he confesses to the affair. She says that despite his lies she won't leave him because "I'm hopeless when it comes to you".
Richard Eyre directed, Don Black and Christopher Hampton wrote the books and lyrics, and costume designer Rob Howell has found some eye-catching 1960s fashions for Keeler and Rice-Davies, portrayed by Charlotte Blackledge.