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Prepare for yet another very Andrew Lloyd Webber summer

Mark Shenton
Mark Shenton

In 2017, Andrew Lloyd Webber became the first composer since Richard Rodgers in 1953 to have four musicals simultaneously running on Broadway, when The Phantom of the Opera (the longest-running musical of all-time there) and his most recent show School of Rock were joined by revivals of Cats and Sunset Boulevard.

And this week sees the start of a run of major revivals of his first three musical hits in London that by August will see a total of five of his titles playing here simultaneously: the original London production of The Phantom of the Opera (still going strong at Her Majesty's, and a new UK and Ireland tour to open in Leicester next February), and School of Rock (running at the Gillian Lynne Theatre to 5th January) which are to to be joined in turn by Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat (from tomorrow at the London Palladium), Jesus Christ Superstar (at the Barbican from 4th July) and Evita (at Regent's Park Open Air from 2nd August), each handily opening in the same chronology in which they originally appeared in London.

Meanwhile, a new live-action film version of Cats, his other smash hit besides Phantom which set its own record for the longest running musical in the West End during its 21-year-run at the New London, is set to be rebased in December.

Joseph rehearsals
Jac Yarrow and Sheridan Smith in rehearsals for Joseph

He also has a brand-new musical Cinderella waiting in the wings that I attended an invited sing-through of at The Other Palace in May. As I reported here at the time: "Although I wasn't on reviewing duty - certainly not at this early stage of its public airing - it was exciting to see such a confident, funny, fresh and sassy contemporary take on such a classic tale. A million miles from a panto, but with some thrilling new Lloyd Webber showstoppers delivered by quite one of the starriest ensemble casts I've ever seen assembled for a three-night run."

That cast featured Carrie Hope Fletcher in the title role, with Tyrone Huntley as her suitor, Victoria Hamilton-Barritt as her stepmother, Sophie Isaacs and Rebecca Trehearn as her stepsisters, and Ruthie Henshall as the Queen.

So the creative life of Lloyd Webber, now 71 years old, is still unstoppable. As is his bank balance: this year's Sunday Times Rich list assessed his value as £820m, up £80m on the previous year. (The listing also erroneously suggested he'd sold the Theatre Royal Haymarket to Sir Len Blavatnik for £45m; it was never a theatre he actually owned, though his theatre holding company - now called LW Theatres - owns seven others, including such crown jewels as the London Palladium, and the Theatre Royal Drury Lane which is currently undergoing a $45m refurbishment before it reopens next year to host the London premiere of Disney's Frozen). But for all his wealth accumulation, which also enabled him to become a prolific private collector of Victorian art, he once called himself a "very, very bad businessman" in an interview.

Lloyd Webber has long been an outspoken commentator on the arts, and even once enjoyed a five-year tenure as a food and wine critic on the Daily Telegraph. He is now also a restaurateur, with the addition of the Naughty Piglet to The Other Palace. Its success has led Lloyd Webber to joke: "The critics seem to like it more than some of the shows."

But it also shows Lloyd Webber's ability to be a theatrical innovator, offstage as well as on: as he said after it was included in the Good Food Guide in 2017, "I've always thought it would be a nice thing to have decent food in a theatre and this has come together rather happily."

He also sat in the House of Lords for twenty years, though he only actually voted 42 times during that period, including a controversial vote supporting the government's motion for cuts to Universal Credit. He formally withdrew from the Lords in 2017, citing his workload; in his resignation letter, he wrote: "I have a work schedule stretching ahead of me that is the busiest of my career to date. This means it would be impossible for me to regularly vote or properly consider the vitally important issues that the House of Lords will face as a consequence of Brexit."

It's just as well, given both the current state of Brexit and his own work commitments. In the process, he has returned to his first love: composing. As he said in one interview, "I'm a composer for the joy of it. It's what I do, and it's what makes me tick, really. I always have melody in my head."

And many of those have become standards. In the next few weeks, as we hear songs like "Close Every Door" at the London Palladium, "Gethsemane" at the Barbican and "Don't Cry for Me, Argentina" at the Open Air Theatre, we'll be reminded yet again of what a supreme melodist Lloyd Webber is. And as one of his great arias from The Phantom of the Opera has it in Charles Hart's lyrics: "Softly, deftly music shall caress you/ hear it, feel it secretly possess you."

There, in a nutshell, is what Lloyd Webber feels about music - and what audiences respond to.

 

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