Andrew Lloyd Webber wants back into the spotlight before it’s too late
After some musical misses in recent years, the award-winning composer has earned a Tony nomination for his pop score for School of Rock
You hear it in the rat-a-tat manner in which his thoughts spill out, the way his memories rapidly trigger other memories, his insights fire up other insights: Andrew Lloyd Webber is in a race for posterity and against time.
“I’m acutely aware that I’m 68,” the former and current Tony nominee says, sitting in his Upper West Side pied-a-terre, the treetops of New York’s Central Park outside his living room window forming a massive, verdant front yard. The race not only involves keeping track of his myriad projects, of shows he wants to write and others he wants to rewrite, and of still others that are in various stages of birth and rebirth. It’s also a mad dash back from the regrets and serious health issues surrounding some of the work he’s done over the past decade, a series of lacklustre musicals starting with The Woman in White and ending with Stephen Ward that he now feels were ill-conceived or poorly staged – or even misguidedly created while he was on, gulp, morphine.
“I don’t know how I even got to the opening night of Stephen Ward,” Lloyd Webber says, referring to his roundly panned 2013 London musical about the notorious Profumo affair, a sex scandal that rocked the British government a half-century ago. “That’s a show I really ought to look at, because I think I should look at it when I’m not drugged up to my eyeballs.”
Lloyd Webber was medicated for a severe back condition, an affliction that followed his treatment for prostate cancer. “I’ve had effectively four missing years with the cancer and the back pain,” he says; the cancer occurred during the development of 2010’s Love Never Dies, his eagerly anticipated sequel to The Phantom of the Opera. The show, which starred Ramin Karimloo and Sierra Boggess, was so tepidly received in London that after the notices appeared, the composer interrupted the run to try to fix the show.
That this fall-off in quality weighs heavily on Lloyd Webber is reflected in the fact that he is willing to raise the issue, and analyse it, without having to be asked. Perhaps the effort to offer a possible explanation for some lesser work is an attempt to help frame the consideration of his remarkable career as a musical-theatre composer, one that through such enduring hits as Cats, Phantom, Evita and Jesus Christ Superstar is far and away the most commercially successful of our time.
It may be, too, that better health – he says he’s fully recovered – and the heady array of big projects on his agenda motivate him to look back with candour.
Cats, for instance, is returning to Broadway this summer, in a version to be choreographed by Andy Blankenbuehler, who worked on Hamilton. Sunset Boulevard, Lloyd Webber’s 1990s Tony winner, was a hit this spring at the English National Opera in London, and is perhaps on its way to New York, with Glenn Close again as the freakish Hollywood relic Norma Desmond. Love Never Dies, meanwhile, has been restaged in Melbourne, Australia, in a version he likes much better, and that is now being talked about, he says, for a US debut at the Kennedy Center.
And then there is School of Rock, the new musical version of the Jack Black film that opened to mostly positive reviews on Broadway last fall and has earned Lloyd Webber a level of industry recognition that he hasn’t received in years. The show has garnered four Tony nominations, including one for Lloyd Webber’s enjoyable pop score. It’s been 10 years since Lloyd Webber secured a Tony nomination and twice as long as that since he last won, for his score of Sunset. (He previously won Tonys for the music of Evita and Cats.)
Winning a trophy during the Tony ceremonies on June 12 at the Beacon Theatre, a few blocks from the apartment he shares with his wife, Madeleine, is an extreme long shot if your musical this year isn’t about a certain Founding Father of the United States and your name isn’t Lin-Manuel Miranda. Lloyd Webber, whose own company, the Really Useful Group, has often produced his musicals, professes admiration for Hamilton. Engaging Blankenbuehler to gently reinterpret Gillian Lynne’s original dances for the money-minting Cats (18 years, 7,485 Broadway performances) is a shrewd decision. He senses how advantageous it is at this moment to be in business with members of Hamilton composer Miranda’s team.
“I think the design is really clever,” he says, of the Hamilton production, directed by Thomas Kail. “And really, the use of the [turntable] and everything is masterful. It serves that piece. I don’t think it’s possible to overemphasise how important getting that, the look of a show, is.”
Seated at a table, sipping coffee, the donnish Lloyd Webber launches into an entertaining, free-ranging monologue that encompasses everything from his recollections of his own hits and misses to his associations with other major figures of theatre. He speaks a lot on this morning about Harold Prince, the esteemed Broadway producer-director who staged two of Lloyd Webber’s most durable successes, Phantom and Evita, and who, it appears, remains anchored in the composer’s thoughts when he’s considering how great musicals get made.
Mentioning the minimalist mise-en-scene of Hamilton reminds Lloyd Webber of Prince’s work on his shows and of how deeply the director’s vision has influenced his own. Prince, he says, had wanted to work with Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice, Webber’s lyricist at that time, in the 1970s on Jesus Christ Superstar, which was conceived and released as an album before ever making its way to the stage.
“Hal wanted to direct and produce Superstar,” Lloyd Webber recalls, and the director said so in a telegram to the composer. Unfortunately, he sent it to the wrong address. “I think it got sent to my father’s college of music, and it didn’t get to me until we had already been committed to [producer] Robert Stigwood. And I often wonder, would my career have changed completely, had Hal done it?”
Lloyd Webber loathed what he describes as the “vulgar” spectacle that Stigwood and director Tom O’Horgan made of Superstar on Broadway. “It was the worst night of my life,” the composer says now about sitting through the garish version O’Horgan devised, complete with King Herod in drag. “Can you imagine, you’re 23 years old, your dream is to have a musical on Broadway, the show premieres, and you hate the production?”
He and Prince stayed in touch and, during the run of a short-lived 1975 London show of Lloyd Webber’s Jeeves – later retitled By Jeeves – they met. And the young man devoted to theatre music absorbed the words of the experienced Broadway director, who gave him a primer on musical theatre success, including how the visuals of the stage affect everything. (The set for Jeeves, Lloyd Webber remembers, was “hideous”.)
“I went round to meet him at the Savoy Hotel, where he was staying, and where Hal gave me a piece of advice that has stayed with me forever. Which is, you can’t listen to a musical if you can’t look at it. When you think of Hal’s best productions, you understand what’s behind that.”
He thinks that with the Phantom sequel Love Never Dies, set in New York city, the clarifying design work by Australian director Simon Phillips’ team, for the show’s 2011 restaging in Melbourne, has set the musical on its proper path.
“Going back to Hal Prince’s point, the Australian production sort of got it, and that’s the one that’s just been in Hamburg [in Germany], and I’ve also done some revisions to it that have been tried out in Hamburg. And that is the production that comes to America. But I can’t do any more to it; I’ve done what I feel I can to it, and I think one has to say: ‘That’s it. That’s the piece.’”
There’s still more to come from Lloyd Webber; he says that he’s considering a pitch made by NBC for him to write an original musical for television that would be broadcast live, the way Rodgers and Hammerstein once did, with Cinderella.
Among the projects not at the top of his list: a memoir. “The trouble with autobiographies is, if you write what you know, nobody will ever speak to you again. And I know an awful lot.”