Andrew Lloyd Webber: ‘I’m back – and I want another hit’
Next year Andrew Lloyd Webber’s The Phantom of the Opera will celebrate its 30th birthday in the West End. Meanwhile, on Broadway, where it opened 16 months after London, it is also still running and holds the record for the longest-running musical in Broadway history. He has twice accomplished the feat of having three of his musicals running simultaneously in both the West End and on Broadway, in 1983 and again in 1988. But, though he’d be forgiven for wanting to relax a bit now that he’s 67, there’s no resting on those particular laurels.
Nor is he one to stand on ceremony. He’s currently busily preparing to premiere a brand new musical in New York, opening officially in December – his first to receive its stage premiere on Broadway since Jesus Christ Superstar was produced there back in 1971 ahead of its West End debut the following year – and when I meet him at his New York apartment in the Trump Tower on Central Park West, he answers the door himself, casually attired and wearing an open-necked shirt.
There’s neither a press agent nor a PA in attendance. He offers me coffee and makes it himself, then pours us orange juice as well, and sits down, more at ease with himself than I’ve ever seen before, though still with an unquenchably restless spirit that’s forever pushing new boundaries and taking on new challenges.
His vigour today is partly due to his restored health. He tells me: “Well, I’m back. I’ve had five missing years, basically, without any question.”
When Love Never Dies premiered in the West End in 2010, Lloyd Webber was dealing with the diagnosis and treatment he’d recently had for prostate cancer. As he told me at the time: “I thought I was going to be able to control the show far more than I did, but whatever anybody may say, you do take a while to recover from these things. So I was not on peak form throughout.”
His health problems didn’t stop there. He went on to suffer issues diagnosed as being related to his back (wrongly, it turns out). “A couple of back operations didn’t cure anything, but instead things got worse and worse and worse. I was on so much morphine and painkillers – and frankly I was drinking too much – that I honestly thought it was all over, I really did, and that it was best to shut everything down.”
He started tying up his business affairs and put his creative life on hold. He had, he tells me now, 18 general anaesthetics in one year (2013) alone. “Then I met a chiropractor and I’ve never looked back. I saw him every day for about eight weeks. And three months later I thought it was time we did Cats again.”
The original London production, which closed on its 21st birthday at the New London Theatre in 2002, held the record for the longest-running West End musical up to then; it reopened at the London Palladium last Christmas and was an instant sell-out hit, first with Nicole Scherzinger and then Kerry Ellis, and is now returning there again in October with Beverley Knight starring, while Jane McDonald has just opened a summer season of the show in Blackpool.
It’s the latest of many of the more than nine lives that Cats is having, after a famously inauspicious start that saw its original star Judi Dench withdraw during rehearsals when she seriously damaged an Achilles tendon. Even the writing of it threw down the gauntlet of unpredictability that has been Lloyd Webber’s hallmark throughout his career: “Everyone thought I was crazy because I was doing it without Tim Rice and with a dead poet instead, and without Robert Stigwood producing.”
Yet it became Britain’s first global mega-musical, endlessly replicated across the globe from Broadway to Budapest, Madrid to Mexico City and Manila.
He attributes its latest London return, and subsequent success, to the luck of timing. “Cameron [Mackintosh, the show’s original co-producer with Lloyd Webber’s Really Useful Company] had wanted to do a completely new production in Regent’s Park, but I was uneasy – the original team was very close, and we were all on an adventure together. So if it ever reared its head again, I wanted to talk to them. Then I happened to be having lunch with Trevor [Nunn, the show’s original director] and John [Napier, its designer] and it coincided with I Can’t Sing! folding at the London Palladium. We went around after lunch, and I took them on to that stage to look out at that theatre. It’s a place that wants you to perform.”
Now plans are being made to take it back to Broadway as well, with Scherzinger, he says, “very keen to do it there; she’d taken a bit of persuading when we first did it, as she was still thinking of her pop career, but she’s converted to musical theatre now.”
For the first Palladium run, he tinkered with the original score a bit, changing Rum Tum Tugger into a rapping street cat. And he confesses to an embarrassing oversight he only just discovered days before our meeting when he was packing to leave for New York.
“One thing that Cameron had said to me was that I should think about adding a little aria in Growltiger’s Last Stand, and I said I’d write it. But then I was clearing out my briefcase to come to New York, and I found that I had written it but hadn’t given it to anyone! Nobody seems to have noticed or minded in Blackpool, but I’ll put it into London.”
Over the past few years, he’s similarly reinvestigated and revived his past catalogue, including major revivals of Jesus Christ Superstar (for an arena touring production whose leading title character was found by the last of the reality TV casting shows that Lloyd Webber participated in) and Evita.
Today he talks to me about possible plans for Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat and Sunset Boulevard, too. “There’s something creeping up,” he says, and then quips, “like steamed fish, as PG Wodehouse said!”
Referring to his long-ago original writing partner Tim Rice, he says, “T Rice and I realised in May this year that it was 50 years since we met, so that means that Joseph, too, is nearly 50 years old. So we’re wondering if we should be doing something about it — it’s the most performed work of mine in America.” There are ongoing talks with a major London theatre about a new production.
There’s also, he says, “a very strong probability” of Sunset Boulevard being produced at the London Coliseum as part of English National Opera’s new partnership, launched with Sweeney Todd earlier this year, with producers Grade-Linnit to stage musicals there.
“Glenn [Close] wants to do it, and I said to her that if she really wants to, we should get on with it. We’ve got to find a very good Joe Gillis, but I’d love to hear it with that orchestra.” Sunset Boulevard, he notes ruefully, was the last show of his that he could consider to have been a hit. Both Lloyd Webber and Mackintosh have struck lucky in musical theatre more than once, of course, but Lloyd Webber adds: “In both our cases, [our last successes] were a while ago. And one of the reasons I want to keep myself in good health is that I’d love one more hit.”
Could it be School of Rock? “It’s a small show with quite a large heart,” he replies, of a show that was first pitched to him by his wife Madeleine. “She’d seen the film and showed it to me.” The 2003 comedy that starred Jack Black is shot through with snippets of heavy metal, and Lloyd Webber originally thought that a musical could be built out of old rock songs. “But the more I got into it, the more I discovered it really needed a completely new score, with three key moments from the film’s score. It’s been a lot of fun for me – I regard it as somewhere between Joseph and Jesus Christ Superstar, and it has taken me back to where I came from. That kind of rock music is rather wonderfully unfashionable at the moment, but it’s been great fun.”
He’s shepherding its progress to the stage carefully. “We had a meeting in New York about five months ago, and everybody was saying, ‘You should go out of town with this’. But I thought, ‘Why? Why would you go to Seattle or Chicago, and then lumber yourself with designs that you find that in the end you don’t need or want, based on material we haven’t tried?’ So I came up instead with the idea of doing four weeks of rehearsals in New York, then taking a space and inviting people to come to performances as and when we wanted, which, thanks to the internet now, you can do.”
Earlier this summer, they duly rented the Gramercy, an Off-Broadway theatre near the Flatiron building, and put it on. “It proved to be fantastic. We learned a lot about the material and a lot from the audience. When you want to make changes, you don’t have eight people telling you you can’t do it because of automation and the computers all needing to be reprogrammed. One of the major changes we were able to do at the Gramercy was to alter the order of the first four scenes entirely, so one and two became three and four, and three and four became one and two. It solved an enormous structural problem. But if we’d done that on Broadway, it would have needed two days of tech and we’d have lost two days of previews and all around the world it would be broadcast that the show was in trouble.”
Instead, in the laboratory conditions of the Gramercy, they were able to work quickly and without public scrutiny, unless and until they wanted it. He then offers an interesting historical perspective: “I wonder what would have happened if automation and computers had existed when Oklahoma! was having its out-of-town try-out, and three days before closing in Boston, when it was still called Away We Go, they added a new song called Oklahoma!. I don’t think that could happen today. It’s almost impossible to change musicals on the go now.”
Musicals, in short, take time to get right, and he comments of this year’s most hyped new indigenous musical on Broadway: “It’s interesting that the wondrous Hamilton, which I could not be more ecstatic about, has taken a long time to perfect to bring it to Broadway. And it wouldn’t have been possible if it was developed in the commercial theatre from the get-go,” he says of the show that was developed at the downtown New York Public Theatre. “No producer has the resources to develop a show over such a long period of time. Hamilton had a four-year gestation at the Public. And it’s no accident that of the British shows that are represented on Broadway at the moment, five began at the National or the RSC,” he adds, emphasising the fact that they can afford to properly develop and nurture work.
There’s also a pragmatic reason for premiering School of Rock on Broadway, and that’s because schools of rock actually exist in the US – and they produce the sort of kids required who can actually perform in the show. “If it ever goes to London, it’s going to be a lot harder to cast. There’s a very different culture with the kids here [in the US], where they can go to these schools to learn to play the guitar or whatever at the age of nine or 10. And what’s amazing is that they’re playing British rock from my time when Superstar was being recorded next door to Led Zeppelin at the Olympic studio. Whereas nowadays in Britain the kids are sitting at home with their computers and generating songs that way.”
The live onstage band, in which no one is more than 12 years old, includes a nine-year-old bass player “whose bass is taller than she is”, he tells me. All of this, of course, also strikes an uncanny nerve with another project he has lately become intimately involved in through his charitable Andrew Lloyd Webber Foundation: namely, music education in schools.
Lloyd Webber has been particularly excited to see how transformative putting music at the centre of the curriculum can be, and has actively funded projects to do just that.
“You cannot help but notice that schools that take music seriously tend to be more academically successful. I saw for myself how Highbury Grove school in north London, which was a sink school, changed when a new headmistress gave every child a free violin at the age of 11, and for the first week they were taught nothing but violin. Seven years later, it was one of the most desirable schools in the area to get your child into; and three years ago, it secured its first Oxford admission. I went to a concert there recently and all the children were listening intently to a Poulenc clarinet sonata. So my foundation is now helping to roll it out to four other schools. We want to be able to show the government what music can do.”
Lloyd Webber, of course, is himself a part-time parliamentarian, and says: “I took part in a recent debate in the House of Lords about the importance of the creative industries. And one consensus was that government should stop regarding money put into the arts, particularly on an educational level, as some sort of subsidy, but rather that the word ‘investment’ should be used. Because that’s exactly what it is – the creative industries now account for an enormous amount of GDP.”
And, he adds: “Any cuts to the arts in schools, like school theatre visits, is losing out on an enormous potential for investment. It’s not about turning out the next Nicola Benedetti, but about music empowering kids to have a fuller life, and as a consequence of their education being more rounded, achieving things in areas that are nothing to do with music or theatre or the arts. And that’s why I was so attracted to the story of School of Rock, too: music empowers these kids and liberates them.”
Lloyd Webber’s day job, of course, is his music, but he adds: “I am different from other theatre people because of my love of architecture.” This collided with his theatrical interests when he became a theatre owner, first of the Palace Theatre (which he has since passed on to Nimax Theatres), and then of the theatres that originally comprised the Stoll Moss chain.
He has spoken up regularly in the House of Lords about the state of the theatres and the need for some public accountability for them beside the private ownership in which they are held, and especially the restrictions on structural and usage changes that are imposed on them. “I always use any opportunity there to remind people that, as John Betjeman put it: ‘The architecture of entertainment is by definition impermanent’.”
The authorities, he says, “need to take a more relaxed view about how we look after these precious buildings but allow them to be adapted for modern use.” He is embarking on a major plan to overhaul the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, where the front of house areas have already been handsomely refurbished. “The [grand saloon Dress Circle] bar and rotunda and staircase are as great as any Regency architecture anywhere in Britain, if not actually the finest of its period,” he says. But the 1923 auditorium, he adds, is “of no architectural consequence”, so he’s talking to Historic England (formerly English Heritage) about remodelling it, much as the Royal Shakespeare Theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon was granted similar permission.
He reduced his theatre holdings a few years ago by selling his interests in several of them to Nica Burns and Max Weitzenhoffer’s Nimax Theatres – “I wanted to reduce the debt we had” – including the Palace Theatre, which is a building that typifies the tensions between maintaining the theatre historically but also making it fit for contemporary purposes. “It’s a wonderful old theatre architecturally, but there are whole areas of it that are very difficult to deal with, like the outside terracotta surfaces that need a lot of money to maintain properly.”
The theatre has a huge potential hit lined up with the new stage incarnation of Harry Potter opening there next year, and he says: “The building is Hogwarts. But one day, in 2050 or whenever the show closes, which it probably never will, it needs to be rebuilt as a 1,500-seater theatre.” And that’s easier to campaign for, he says, now that he doesn’t own it.
“My feeling is genuinely that for the sake of the building it might be easier to talk to, say, Historic England, about the building if I haven’t got what is perceived to be a commercial interest in it, but I know it well as I’ve owned it and understand it myself.”
He talks more generally about the landscape of theatre ownership in London, and says: “We’re lucky in London that of the major theatre groups, Nica and Max are both passionate theatre people, Cameron adores his theatres and I do, too – I never take a penny from them but every penny I make goes back into them. But for the first few years when I got involved with the theatres, I co-owned them with venture capitalists, and one of the things you can be absolutely sure of is that they do not understand theatre. Others may disagree, but I can tell you from my own experience that they don’t understand that theatres are rarely full 100% of the time, and that there’s room for financial growth by ramping up the bar profits. There are different imperatives from a venture capitalist than there are from me or Cameron.”
Finally, I can’t resist asking him about the plans of his second wife Sarah Brightman to join a Russian space mission, and sing one of his songs while up there. “She wanted to do it and went through all the training, and I wrote a song with Leslie Bricusse for her to perform when she got there. The thing that really intrigued me was that no one has really worked out what or whether you can sing in space – a voice is a muscle, and given that you’re weightless, I’m not as convinced as I’d like to be that you can actually sing.”
But for now, Brightman’s space plans are on hold anyway, “so there’s a song by myself and Leslie that has so far not found an appropriate outlet”. But Lloyd Webber has many other outlets, from the West End to Broadway, currently commanding his attention instead.