At 70, the composer shows no signs of flagging, with multiple shows running on Broadway, in the West End and internationally. In a special Q&A, The Stage put questions to him from leading theatre figures about his working methods, the current state of the industry and the need to support young talent
“What comes first – the words or music – in how you work and how you think?”
ALW: One of the reasons I started setting TS Eliot’s poems [in Cats] to music is that I wanted to see whether I could do it with words that already existed, as up until that time, with Tim Rice, I had really been writing the melodies first.
The answer is that it’s slightly a case of horses for courses – there are times I have a melody in my head that I think is completely right for something. But once I had composed Cats, and as my career continued, I found I was happy to work both ways.
“Which composer’s music inspires you and makes you want to emulate it?”
ALW: Richard Rodgers, George Gershwin, Prokofiev and Shostakovich, I suppose. The great melodists of the 20th century were Prokofiev, Paul McCartney and Rodgers, and I find melody to be the thing I really relate to in music. There’s Puccini, obviously, but less so than the others as he didn’t write so much. I was fortunate to listen to a very wide variety of music growing up. My father was professor of composition at the Royal College of Music, so we had a pretty varied diet at home.
Richard Eyre directed Lloyd Webber musical Stephen Ward
“Which of your songs is closest to your heart and why?”
ALW: That’s an impossible question. It’s the same as asking you to choose your favourite child. So I will just answer by saying absolutely anything in By Jeeves [he gives a wry smile].
Arlene Phillips choreographed Starlight Express
“What inspires you to keep creating? Knowing you’ve had so many successes, what makes you wake up and think: ‘Right, I must write and work’?”
ALW: I have been working for the past 10 days on Unmasked – A Musical Memoir [at the Other Palace]. Suddenly I was back in the theatre again. That’s what it is. It isn’t necessarily the finished result, it’s the working and the creation – the bouncing off other people’s minds, the sheer joy of collaborating with really creative people. Once you’ve been bitten, you can’t find that anywhere else. I was bitten by theatre when I was only about seven or eight and it’s never changed. I can’t wait to get started with [writer and actor] Emerald Fennell on Cinderella with David Zippel, who is going to be the lyricist.
“Professionally, and on a personal level, what has been your most exciting moment?”
ALW: Gosh, it’s all very difficult, isn’t it? One of the most extraordinary moments was the American Theatre Wing gala this year, which they did for me. I was completely overwhelmed by the fact that, in a very packed room, everyone was a major player on Broadway. The young ones gave me a framed letter they sent to the Wing asking for me to get a lifetime Tony – signed by Lin-Manuel Miranda, Pasek and Paul, [Frozen writers] the Lopezes and others. The fact it was the young ones who nominated me meant more than anything.
Nica Burns is chief executive of Nimax Theatres, which has purchased five theatres from Lloyd Webber (four playhouses in 2005 and the Palace in 2012). Before running Nimax, she was production director for Lloyd Webber’s Really Useful Theatres
“Does Hamilton signify a renewal of musical theatre mixing with popular rock music culture, as you and Tim Rice managed, or is it the end of it?”
ALW: I don’t think it’s a renewal, I think it’s a continuation. The great thing about Hamilton is that Lin-Manuel has brought another style and genre, to musicals. He and I know each other reasonably well. We were talking about the fact you can cover an awful lot through rap and hip hop. What Lin-Manuel is doing is, in a way, quite similar – totally different in style by but similar in its result – to what Tim did in Joseph. Tim introduced a sort of vernacular, a colloquial style. His lyrics in Joseph do a very similar job to what Lin-Manuel’s do in Hamilton. Tim was straight down to business – “Way, way back many centuries ago, not long after the Bible began…” – and Lin-Manuel does the same in Hamilton. I would say he is a continuation of something.
There was a time when a whole generation of people wrote what they thought was the right thing to do, which wasn’t embracing contemporary music and rock and pop. I think there will be something new again. With the success of movie musicals, whether you like them or not, for the young there is a lot more interest in musical theatre than there has been, and I think that is because people have been much more open to allowing pop music in.
“Does a musical need great songs more than a great book?”
ALW: If I had to choose between having a great story and great songs, I would say it has to have a great story. A cast-iron story. Put it this way: Some Enchanted Evening [from South Pacific] is probably the best song ever written for a musical, but if it was in the wrong place, in the wrong show in the wrong time, we might not know it. Take something like Meadowlark by Stephen Schwartz. It’s a wonderful song, but The Baker’s Wife didn’t work as a show.
Michael Coveney is author of The Andrew Lloyd Webber Story
“If you could play any character in any musical, who would it be?”
ALW: I don’t think Eva Peron, somehow. If I could play any character… well I can’t dance, I can’t sing and I can’t act. So it would probably have to be Bertie in By Jeeves.
“The diversification of the musical theatre industry in the past 10 years has been immensely exciting. What developments do you think we will see in the industry over the next 10 years and why should musical theatre training organisations adapt to them?”
ALW: The arts do a fantastic job. A lot of the people I see and cast tend to be scholarship kids. Somehow, drama schools have got to become available to the real talent rather than the people who can afford to go to them.
One thing we really need for music in education is a government tsar to bring all the various strands and initiatives together. A lot of people are working on initiatives, but they are not all joined up – perhaps the money is not being spent as efficiently as it could be.
Like everything in life, and business in general, the art schools will have to make better use of diminishing resources. One of the things that is extraordinary, but very encouraging, is that somehow, with musicals becoming cool again, you’ll find there are kids experimenting, even if it’s not in the way I would. There’s a boy who has been doing a musical and busking it on the streets in Brighton. Now, because of YouTube, he’s getting audiences of hundreds where he may have only had three or four.
There are many more opportunities for your work to be seen and heard. We were lucky with Joseph that a Friday afternoon school concert led to it being performed again, and that led to a critic from the Sunday Times going to see it as he knew kids in the school. Then we got a review and it grew from there. Today, someone would have filmed that concert of Joseph, and the whole bloody thing would be on YouTube and producers would see it. Things will evolve that way. That has to be the future as the costs of putting a musical on are escalating all the time.
The other thing we will see is a lot more workshop productions with people trying to smooth out as many bumps as possible before taking the huge plunge of going on to Broadway – more musicals starting in a very small way, even if they are about big subjects. Then again, Tim and I were doing that by mistake when we made the record of Jesus Christ Superstar. We only did that because we couldn’t get it on stage. You can put a dam in front of a river and the water would still find its way around it.
Andrew Lloyd Webber is a benefactor of Arts Ed
Is there a song in your top drawer you regret cutting from any of your musicals?
No. I don’t have a song like Say a Prayer for Me Tonight, which was cut from My Fair Lady and then emerged almost exactly the same in Gigi. Most of the songs I’ve cut for a jolly good reason. I don’t think there is anything I hugely regret.
For through-written pieces – which are sung through with no dialogue – the construction is incredibly important and so melodies tend to be interwoven in a way that would make it very difficult to extract one completely and discard it. I have rarely been involved in a book musical – I through-write if I can and it would be rare to cut a single song. I don’t tend to keep a whole file of old things.
What song took you the longest to write? And which took the shortest?
It’s difficult to say which took the longest. Some melodies take a while to complete. As If We Never Said Goodbye from Sunset Boulevard took a long time as I had the melody and the idea for it, but finding the dramatic situation and getting the right lyric proved more difficult.
Because the words were there already, some of the settings of Cats had been revolving around in my head for a while. I worked on Old Deuteronomy for quite a while to make sure the setting of the poem was right. But melodies sometimes come very quickly. Once I decided what we needed, Don’t Cry for Me Argentina came very quickly to me. No Matter What [from Whistle Down the Wind] was another.
Very often I sit down in the morning and I just play the piano with whatever is vaguely in my head. Then I will stop and think: ‘That phrase is okay’, and go back over it again. Then, I am away.
There is never a moment when I don’t have something melodic in the back of my mind. It doesn’t have to be mine. I often wake up in the morning with the most obscure songs in my head. This morning I woke up with The Heart Is Quicker Than the Eye from Rodgers and Hart’s On Your Toes.
What is your favourite key and why?
I don’t have one. I like using D-flat for certain moments. Keys are funny things as they have a major impact on everything. They are critical. In the love section in Unmasked, in which I had to stitch a lot of my songs together, I spent a long time working out how I could move seamlessly from song to song, which meant adjusting the keys from where they were so it sounded seamless. It’s not actually how they were originally done.
Sonia Friedman produced Lloyd Webber’s The Woman in White
“Do you ever see a time when we won’t have to make a case for arts in our schools and society?”
ALW: I would love to think so. It’s a utopia that I fear probably doesn’t exist. But I think that there never has been a time when it’s been more important to make that case.
Nikolai Foster staged Sunset Boulevard at Leicester Curve in 2017
“What do you think about Ofsted chief inspector Amanda Spielman’s comment that arts courses promote unrealistic career prospects for young people?”
ALW: That’s true of any university course. You could argue that only a small proportion of people in higher education will go on to the professions they’ve studied for. The point about music in education isn’t to turn every child in the country into a professional musician but that music and the arts empower. I suppose she is trying to say some university courses are spinning out the time when people have to get into the real world. But I would say that is something that does not only apply to the arts.
David Grindrod has cast numerous Lloyd Webber shows
“You share a birthday with Stephen Sondheim (though not the same year). How you would describe your different approaches to musical theatre?”
ALW: Stephen comes from the time before me – and knew Oscar Hammerstein II. The real difference in approach is that he is a brilliant lyricist as well as a fine composer.
I have an enormous admiration for Sondheim – he’s a towering genius who influenced a whole generation. As a child of the late 1950s and 1960s, pop and rock were very much a part of my life. I don’t know to what extent they would have been in his. I did write the lyrics for one or two very early pop songs, but it was not a good idea. Sondheim does both music and lyrics. The closest I have been to anything like that would have been setting the Eliot words or the requiem text.
“You are investing heavily in refurbishing Drury Lane; do you think that theatre owners have a duty to reinvest profits in the upkeep of the venues, beyond the public contributions via the restoration charge?”
ALW: I have never taken a penny out of the buildings – every penny goes back into them. I am lucky, as I could not possibly do this if I didn’t have income from writing. But it’s my way of putting something back. You can’t say everyone has a moral duty to, but I certainly do. We should celebrate that in London we have Cameron [Mackintosh], myself, Max [Weitzenhoffer] and Nica [Burns] – all of us are theatre people, who love the theatre, the buildings and want them to work.
I can’t include ATG in that as it’s a private equity company and I worry about the state of some of the provincial theatres they have. I think that will be a stumbling block for them. Anybody who looks into what some of those theatres need is going to ask: “How much has been spent on them over the years?” Our theatres, in London in the main, are in the hands of people who look after them without any real public support
Is there a style or world of music you have not dived into yet?
There are hundreds. Because I’ve had so many different types of music around me since I was a child, I have never had any difficulty writing what is right for the moment. If I write Starlight Express then a requiem mass, people think I can’t be serious. But it’s just different sides of my personality.
But if I were writing a musical on an Indian subject, I couldn’t pretend to do what [Bombay Dreams composer] AR Rahman does as I am not from that culture. So whatever you do, you have to take on a patina of it, but you can never really write in a style that is other than your own. It is ridiculous to say I could write Chinese music or Japanese kabuki music – I couldn’t.
When I did The Beautiful Game, I had been to a concert in Dublin where one of the great Indian percussionists was performing with a Celtic band, and I found myself sitting next to David Bowie. He asked why I was there and I replied: “Probably here for the same reasons as you.” I was fascinated. We got into a long discussion about the similarities between Celtic and Indian music. In The Beautiful Game, I could take on the style up to a point but that is much closer to home. You can take on a certain amount but you can’t ever really alter what you are.
Is there a particular song you’ve written that you feel has never been given its due?
Sometimes melodies of mine have been forgotten because, to be frank, I don’t think the words were right. Off the top of my head, I’ve always liked the melody for Half a Moment in By Jeeves, but it hasn’t got a commercial lyric.
There are a few in odd shows. Don’t Cry for Me Argentina was nearly called It’s Only Your Lover Returning, and I often wonder what would have happened had it been. But practically every composer who’s written for musical theatre would say there are one or two melodies that in a different place or different time might have come out differently.
Does Andrew Lloyd Webber approve of Len Blavatnik’s purchase of the Theatre Royal Haymarket, what are his views on gender-swapping his most iconic creations and most importantly, what is he doing for Christmas? Matthew Hemley talks exclusively with composer behind some of the West End’s most enduring musicals
How do we financially support the next generation of musical theatre writers?
It’s not just writers, it’s creatives in general. That comes into the question about the huge costs of putting on shows – particularly in the US. Creative teams are being pushed into royalty pools, which means, effectively, their income is eroded, unless the hit is so enormous that they really hit the jackpot. If I were 30 today, I really couldn’t live off what the average show pays without doing other things. The creative teams are the easiest to squeeze as they are not there every night.
If I were 30 today, I couldn’t live off what the average show pays
It’s not just creative teams, but investors in shows are being squeezed. I think it’s more of an issue in the US than here, but one of the things writers and directors have to do is come together and say: “We are the people who put this on.”
This problem comes back to the idea of people coming into theatre, like private equity firms, who are only thinking of them as profit centres. It doesn’t mean there won’t be new writing or new musicals, but you may find they are on Netflix. I know a lot of younger writers who would go to Amazon, say, because they have to – a younger writer would find it very difficult now. But somehow it’s important that the creatives get back to a position where they can get paid something on the box office royalties, rather than nebulous royalty pools, that are basically profit pools – and there might never be any profits.
How do you think Len Blavatnik’s £45 million purchase of Theatre Royal Haymarket will affect the West End?
Extremely positively. People might not know Len’s record. Through his foundation, he was one of the nurturers of Hamilton, long before it got anywhere near the stage. Because he loved it, he turned around Warner Music when he bought it. He genuinely loves theatre, and he has money in School of Rock, and many Broadway shows. He has taken on Simon Thurley, the former boss of English Heritage – who has been advising us at the Theatre Royal Drury Lane – to help on the Haymarket.
The really crucial difference, which is something people don’t really understand, is that Len is not there to buy theatres for the same reasons as private equity firms. Everyone knows these companies, like Providence, are only there for one purpose: to strip as much out, build up the theatres, put as little investment back in to get as much profit as they can in order to sell them on. Len is there for the long haul, he is not a seller. I only know him a little bit, but I think it’s very good news for the theatre. Whether he overpaid for it is another matter.
Whatever you think about the fact he’s one of the richest men in the world, is it not good news that somebody with that sort of firepower can come in and help with these very difficult buildings? I am having to borrow £50 million to do up Drury Lane – that’s probably what Len makes in half an hour. He’s not there to float them. He likes the contact with people in the arts.
Andrew Lloyd Webber with cast members from his four shows on Broadway in 2017 – School of Rock, Cats, Sunset Boulevard and The Phantom of the Opera. Photo: Nathan Johnson
Is new technology a help or hindrance to theatre?
When it all works, technology can ultimately allow you to do things that you couldn’t do before. But I think in the creative process it’s a huge hindrance. That is why I did School of Rock in the Gramercy in New York without sets – and we were able to achieve what we were supposed to.
I often wonder what would have happened if it had been: ‘Well we can’t relight that and it will take us three days to programme that, so maybe we’ll get to it when we get to the venue.’
The days of changing a scene at that stage are almost impossible now. Anytime when I do my next show I will not do it anywhere until I know the material is right as much as possible. When we went into the Winter Garden with School of Rock we didn’t have to change much at all. We had the material as right as we possibly could have before we hit the inevitable ‘Well, we can’t change this or programme this, that and the other’. I would beg anybody doing anything now to get their material right before technology gets anywhere near it.
Today, you go into a technical rehearsal for a musical and you see 60 people all looking down at laptops. I remember going into one the other day, saying: “That’s the stage over there.”
How would you feel if someone took one of your musicals and gender-swapped it?
They have. There’s been a female Jesus Christ Superstar. But I write for certain voices. How could you take certain pieces of music that were composed for a male voice and put them on a female voice without completely deconstructing the piece? That might come back to the fact I write through-written pieces. You couldn’t do Don’t Cry for Me Argentina in a different key. If you did, you might not realise it, but everything around it would collapse like a pack of cards. So I think it would be much more difficult to do for my things than for something with a spoken book.
Do you have any superstitions around your own shows?
No, but there are lots of superstitions around The Master and Margarita. Someone should write a show about what happens to anyone who ever touches it. I never did it in the end as I could not work out how to, but there is something weird about that one. I know people involved with it – and all of them have had the most unfortunate things happen. That is the only thing.
Where will you be spending Christmas day?
I think I shall be in Barbados with the kids. I am going to spend it with the family as I have some writers coming to join me immediately after Christmas and that is where I will be.