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Howard Sherman: Andrew Lloyd Webber is riding high on Broadway all over again

Alex Brightman and Jenn Gambatese in School of Rock on Broadway. Photo: Matthew Murphy
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It’s not as though he ever said goodbye. But it’s hard not to look at his re-emergence in the US as something of a renaissance.

Others have pointed out that Lloyd Webber is the first composer since Rodgers and Hammerstein to have four shows on Broadway at once, which is a considerable feat. Phantom of the Opera is closing in on the 30-year mark, Cats is having the second of its nine lives, School of Rock has proven a family-friendly draw and the limited-run Sunset Boulevard has even added performances. Last week, Lloyd Webber’s Broadway shows were responsible for $4 million in gross sales, amounting to 15% of the total Broadway box office.

Some affiliated with the composer might bridle at my use of words that hint at comeback, considering there has not been a day since September 10, 1979 (when Evita began previews) without at least one Lloyd Webber show on Broadway. Yet the record-setting runs of Cats and Phantom did yield something of a Lloyd Webber fatigue. While as well-known as any musical theatre composer alive, by the 1990s, his name alone wasn’t enough to power a sustained run. New shows such as The Woman in White, Aspects of Love and By Jeeves each ran for less than a year. Whistle Down the Wind played an out-of-town try-out in Washington DC and never reached New York. The Beautiful Game (aka The Boys in the Photograph), Love Never Dies and Stephen Ward haven’t yet received major commercial productions in the US.

In some ways, Lloyd Webber was, for a time, like Edward Albee, the great playwright who after a string of failed productions in the early 1980s, fell into semi-eclipse. Just as Albee had the perennial Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? in particular, Lloyd Webber’s early hits remained hits. But the new work wasn’t breaking through or getting done. Of course, with Phantom and Cats ringing the world with multiple companies and licensed productions, Lloyd Webber had hardly vanished, but at a certain point, long-running shows and their creators don’t stay top of mind as newer works succeed them in the awareness of the industry and the public. One could say they get taken for granted.

With the current resurgence, Lloyd Webber has been busy in both business and philanthropy. He has established a new venture, the Musical Company, co-owned by his Really Useful Group, to represent theatrical licensing, handle musical publishing and cast album recording, of his own work and that of others. The company’s first cast album will be Come from Away, the new Canada-originated musical opening on Broadway in March. Working with the American Theatre Wing (where was I was once executive director), Lloyd Webber has just funded the first round of grants (from a three-year, $1.3 million commitment) to underserved schools to enhance their performing arts programmes. And, at long last, casting is underway for a national tour of Love Never Dies, so the Phantom will make it to Coney Island (on stage at least) in the US after all.

Having had some personal exposure to Lloyd Webber during the American journey of By Jeeves, my experience with him was not what I had expected. In the 1990s, from afar he seemed a larger-than-life wunderkind impresario, who was regularly featured in the press living it up in both his productions and personal life. During his time with Jeeves at the Goodspeed Opera House, he was cordial, collaborative and inquisitive, clearly in love with and highly knowledgeable of musical theatre, and not at all the imperious celebrity. Though I’ve not had occasion to see him since, and doubt he’d remember me, we spoke many times over that run, about musicals and about his children, as he and his wife Madeleine had their youngest ones in tow much of the time. In this new phase of his theatre life, his public persona seems to align much more closely with the man who sojourned in Connecticut in 1996 for one of his most intimate shows, less showman and more enthusiastic citizen of the theatre.

I don’t know that I’ll ever have the occasion again to stroll down a country road and discuss theatre with Lloyd Webber as I did almost 21 summers ago. But with Broadway a veritable Lloyd Webber festival, he has a showcase in New York with perhaps less hoopla around the composer and more focus on the shows themselves, a more varied lot than many might remember. I certainly hope he’s having a good time with all of these new ventures. I suspect there are many more to come in his burgeoning American second act.

This week in US theatre

Penelope Skinner’s Linda makes its American debut on February 28 at Manhattan Theatre Club’s City Center space Off-Broadway, under the direction of the company’s longtime artistic director, Lynne Meadow. The title role is played Janie Dee in a rare New York appearance, and I’m eager to see her in it, as she’s been a particular favourite of mine since I first saw her in Alan Ayckbourn’s Comic Potential in Scarborough – then again in the West End and again for MTC.

The ‘pie shop’ Sweeney Todd has reached New York, where it has set up, well, shop at the Barrow Street Theatre which has been reportedly fitted out to mimic its original London setting. Jeremy Secomb and Siobhan MacCarthy reprise their roles under Bill Buckhurst’s direction, opening on March 1, but their run is truly brief – they’ll be succeeded by Norm Lewis and Carolee Carmello from April 11. Given the advance word and intimate seating, it’s a (piping) hot ticket.

Joshua Harmon’s Significant Other was well received at Roundabout Theatre’s Off-Broadway venue when it debuted in the summer of 2015 and now it moves to Broadway with its original cast, led by Gideon Glick, intact. The story of a gay man looking for love as his female BFFs find it for themselves is directed by Trip Cullman and opens on March 2.

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