What’s next for the theater’s billion-dollar man?
For more than half a century, Andrew Lloyd Webber has built his global musical theater empire by being fashionable, pursuing his vision and happily ignoring whatever the trend of the day.
Despite inevitable misfires along the way, he amassed with that idiosyncratic determination a string of hit shows, including Jesus Christ Superstar, Cats, Avoided and The Phantom of the Opera.
It seems perfectly appropriate then that the composer arrives for lunch – bang on time – dressed in jeans and a polo shirt, looking more like a suburban grandfather than a realm peer with a net worth. , if the Sunday time Rich List is to be believed, which hovers around $1 billion.
He’s visiting Sydney to catch a glimpse of the new production directed by Opera Australia’s Simon Phillips Phantom. Lunch is at Il Pontile, on the quay at Woolloomooloo, and Sydney has lit up one of those classic twinkle days we’ve almost forgotten this summer. Across the bay and just out of sight, Opera Australia employees, keeping their fingers crossed for clear skies on Friday opening night, put the finishing touches to the water stage on which Phantom will play.
As we settle down to a light meal (rigatoni alla Genovese and salad), I wonder if watching a fresh production of Phantom causes the least butterflies. On the contrary.
“It’s completely out of my control,” he says. “I have absolutely nothing to do with it. At my old age, I actually think the productions that I have nothing to do with seem kind of better than the ones that I do. So I kind of look forward to to be there.
Lloyd Webber was born in London on March 22, 1948 – making our lunch date his birthday, a fact he ignores, saying that at his age it’s hardly cause for celebration.
His father William was a composer and organist, his mother Jean a pianist and his younger brother Julian a famous solo cellist. In his 2018 autobiography Unmasked (“Autobiographies are by definition selfish and mine is no exception”), he describes a bohemian upbringing populated by an endless parade of eccentric parents and family friends.
Lloyd Webber was an unusual child whose earliest memories are dominated by his fascination with architecture – especially old-fashioned Victorian architecture – and equally old-fashioned musical theatre. Exactly where these twin obsessions originated he struggles to pinpoint.
“I can’t explain where theater comes from,” he says. “It’s very difficult. If only I knew. The theatrics of things and performance go back as far as I can remember.
Most records have no melody at all now. It’s all about rhythm and rap. You don’t find that young people are so passionate about melody.
Andrew Lloyd Webber
Much of his childhood was spent mounting his own musical productions in an intricately detailed toy theater nicknamed the Harrington Pavilion after the family home at 10 Harrington Court, South Kensington. The origins of his fascination with architecture, which resulted in numerous family vacations driven by his early desire to check off such a church or such a large house, remain just as opaque. This passion still burns just as strong. Although he had only been in Sydney for a few days, he had already found time to soak up the neo-Gothic charms of St. Mary’s Cathedral.
Largely because of this passion, he ended up at Magdalen College in Oxford to study history. With a head full of drama, he was a less than diligent scholar, however, when the opportunity arose to switch to the study of music instead, his father wisely advised against it, claiming that the instruction formal would only “educate him in music”.
He left Oxford after meeting Tim Rice, who would become his frequent lyricist collaborator, and the pair were on their way to their first Broadway show, infused revolutionary rock. Jesus Christ Superstar. He’s had a non-stop Broadway show since 1979 and Phantomwhich opened its doors there in 1988, is its oldest production.
At the heart of all these productions hides a succession of killer melodies. Even if you’ve never seen a Lloyd Webber show, you definitely know Memory (Cats), Any dream will do (Joseph and the Incredible Technicolor Dream Coat), don’t cry for me argentina (Avoided) Where The music of the night (The Phantom of the Opera).
So where do they come from?
“I would like to know,” he said. “Sometimes I just play the piano and find a phrase that I find good or strong. Sometimes they come when you don’t think. I don’t find there to be a rhyme or reason at all. Sometimes I wake up with a melody in my head, then sometimes I have an idea and I go to work on it and work on it.
In his book he tells the story of walking down Fulham Road in London when the signature theme of Jesus Christ Superstar popped into his head, prompting him to dive into a restaurant to jot down the melody on a napkin before it returned to the ether.
Fifty years later and Lloyd Webber’s last show, an update Cinderella now playing successfully in London’s West End and set to tour Broadway later in the year, has all those same melodic characteristics, part of his stubborn insistence that a good tune is still a good tune despite musical trends current.
“The majority of records don’t have a melody at all now,” he says. “It’s all about rhythm and rap. You don’t find that young people are so passionate about melody.
But melody alone is not enough – the other pillar on which Lloyd Webber has built his most successful shows is plot.
“I think it would be fair to say that a great story can carry a pretty average musical score, while even a great musical score can’t carry a not-so-good plot.”
However, not even Lloyd Webber has the Midas touch for everything. For every Avoided Where Phantom There is a Jeeves Where Stephen Ward.
He remains philosophical about the productions which, in comparison, have not exploded.
“Musicals are such an incredibly collaborative thing that ultimately any ingredient, especially the look of the show, can bring the show down,” he says. “It’s not going to be as simple as saying the story was wrong or the screenplay was wrong or the book was wrong or the music was wrong. It’s going to be more complicated than that. But generally speaking, you you have to remember that if a show doesn’t work, it’s because the audience didn’t really like it.
And then there are the projects he has no input into, including the much-maligned 2019 film adaptation of his massive hit, Cats.
At the time, he said Variety that was “completely untrue”. A lifelong cat lover, the trauma of seeing the film was so great that he was driven to buy his first dog, a much-loved Havanese called Mojito who “couldn’t be more real”.
Even at 74, there are no signs of Lloyd Webber slowing down. He has just been in Madrid talking to Antonio Banderas about translating some shows into Spanish and is constantly searching for the story that will inspire and drive his next show.
“I’m very restless right now because I can’t find a topic,” he says. He publicly launched the idea of a musical about the global refugee crisis, following a gala Cinderella fundraiser for Malala Yousafzai’s charity. But the idea has yet to crystallize.
“I must have a story,” he said. “There is no point in saying that I want to write a musical about refugees. I have to have a specific scenario that is good. And so far, I haven’t read anything that says “Wow, I can do that”.
But until that story happens, he’ll continue to run his global empire, but mostly tinker around on the piano, search for that elusive melody, and keep pursuing his other passion.
“I’m definitely happiest looking at buildings,” he says, before walking off with two young assistants, barely catching the eye of the lunchtime crowd.
A cultural guide to go out and love your city. Sign up for our Culture Fix newsletter here.
To know more about Spectrumvisit our page here.