The Lord of the Musical: Celebrating the career of Andrew Lloyd Webber

Mark Shenton
Mark Shenton

As Lord Andrew Lloyd Webber gears up to celebrate having four musicals running concurrently in the West End, Mark Shenton looks back on the career of the musical mogul, and his many successes both in London and on Broadway.

Andrew Lloyd Webber will turn 70 next March - on the same day, coincidentally, that the transatlantic giant of musicals Stephen Sondheim turns 88 - and seems, yet again, unstoppable. Earlier this year, he had four shows playing simultaneously on Broadway, where his 1986 musical The Phantom of the Opera is now the longest-running show of all-time there, and was joined by revivals of Cats and Sunset Boulevard as well as his latest hit School of Rock, which originated there in 2015. As such, he was the first composer since his idol Richard Rodgers to have four shows running simultaneously there since 1953.

But even if he is flying the flag high for the British musical on Broadway, he also noted at the time this record was set, "The thing we have to think about right now in Britain is that America has basically taken the lead again. There are 13 new musicals coming onto Broadway this year and there are only two new musicals in London." (Those were The Girls and Groundhog Day, the latter of which was a try-out en route to Broadway).

Answering his own question about why this might be so, he stated, "What's happened is that in America there are masses and masses of theatres where you can try things out and perfect material before they ever get near to Broadway. We don't have those spaces or places where people can try out work and get it wrong. We don't have a culture where that happens."

He has duly taken the lead here by acquiring the St James Theatre in Victoria and re-branding it The Other Palace, the UK's first dedicated home for the development and promotion of new musicals. When I spoke to him about it back in January, ahead of the theatre's relaunch, he told me of his ambitions for it: "It's our job to catch up with New York. We really want to make it a place where people can come and try things. I want it to be a place where everyone can come to for the development of new musicals." He stresses that it is not just a home for the development of his own shows: "It's a bit like my [charitable] foundation; I fund it, but I'm not a trustee."

It is inspiring that Lloyd Webber is putting his money where his mouth is, and actively taking steps to change the landscape. "Rome is not going to be built in a day, but it's a way of trying to start something in London where we can seed new shows. In the nearly fifty years since Tim [Rice] and I arrived on the scene, there have been few other British composers emerge."

He's already been on record as being a great admirer of the Broadway musical Hamilton that is heading to London later this year, and as he told me, "That's the first time I've seen a truly original new voice in musical theatre, and I stand by that." Back in April, during an public interview with its composer Lin-Manuel, and Lloyd Webber commented, "One of the things that Hamilton triumphantly shows us is that a great story is vital. I've come to the conclusion now that you can have a great score and a bad story and the great score can't necessarily carry it. But you can have a not terribly good score and a great story and it will work."

In another interview I conducted with Lloyd Webber in 2011, he spoke of the West End failure of Love Never Dies, his long-planned sequel to The Phantom of the Opera, and said that he saw a future life for it:  "It's a show I'm very confident about. I'm not remotely worried about it. Even though things have been slightly altered order wise, I've always thought that the score to it will outlive me easily. That's all one can really think about." An entirely new Australian production in 2011 went some way to solving the show's dramatic problems, and a new production is scheduled to launch a big US tour his October.

But closer to home, this summer sees Lloyd Webber again represented in the West End by four shows simultaneously - as well as the ongoing run of The Phantom of the Opera at Her Majesty's, which last year celebrated its 30th anniversary there, and School for Rock at the New London, there will be revivals of two of his Tim Rice collaborations:  Jesus Christ Superstar returns to Regent's Park Open Air Theatre (where it was a smash hit last summer), while Bill Kenwright's touring production of Evita, which has already previously played a West End season at the Dominion, now returns to play at the Phoenix, with Wicked star Emma Hatton now playing the title role.

The latter two, of course, dates from the 1970s, refiguring the rise of the British musical as a global force that was initiated when Lloyd Webber began working with producer Cameron Mackintosh, first on Cats and then on Phantom, with Song & Dance in-between. Lloyd Webber recently told the Observer's Vanessa Thorpe, "We had a great moment here in the 1980s, but whatever I started back then has not really got to where I hoped it would. I do also feel as if the thing that I do, and that's melody, has become a little subservient to other things in some new shows."

Yet Lloyd Webber also frankly admits that his own star waned in-between Sunset Boulevard (itself being revived for a UK tour) and School of Rock. "Even in the West End, frankly, there were 20 years where not a lot I did really took off," he told the Observer. "And I don't mind that. After all, I've done the one thing I really wanted to do with my life."

And he's been duly rewarded -- and awarded many awards -- as a result. Just last weekend, he received the Outstanding Achievement award at the South Bank Sky Arts Awards. As Glenn Close, who starred in the original Broadway production of Sunset Boulevard, remarked, "He has written tunes which will stay in people's hearts forever." And Cameron Mackintosh also publicly declared of him that he is "the biggest catalyst in the musical world in my lifetime," and that modern musical theatre would not be the same if he "hadn't been the force of nature that he is."

Part of that was turning musicals into modern operas, writing mostly through-sung shows. As he commented to me in a 2011 interview, "What I enjoy doing myself as a composer is through writing, because it means the music is in control of the evening. Construction, as you know, being everything in musical theatre, I find it great myself if I feel I can control the ingredients. I may not always get them right, but at least you know that if you're dealing with something for me that is entirely musical, I am able to really think and ask, 'is this right that this song is there?', and making sure we are using it in right place. Of course, with Rodgers and Hammerstein, a lot of their shows they use dialogue as if it is music anyway. I'm not against dialogue - sometimes there are moments where you do want it, because you need to stand back from music sometimes."

Or he would not have written Evita, I replied. "Exactly. Or Jesus Christ Superstar, which is a slight accident, because it was never really written for the stage, it was written for a recording because we couldn't get anybody to even dream of staging it."
He's also been busy re-working The Woman in White again, which is now rumoured to have a new production planned for the Charing Cross Theatre. One of the problems with the original production was the use of projections instead of sets, and as he told me, "I always remember Hal Prince saying something to me that has remained with me all my life. Long before I worked with him, he went to see By Jeeves at Her Majesty's in 1975, and he wrote me a note, telling me to bank the score. Underneath it he said, 'P.S. you can't listen to music if you can't look at it. I have to say that's absolutely the case!"

Of course the original production of By Jeeves suffered from its reception by the critics, but Love Never Dies has had to deal with something else: hostility in the blogosphere.

As Lloyd Webber he told me in 2011, "That was quite extraordinary. Obviously you can't stop people who've genuinely come to see a show and don't like it; that's fine. But as it was discovered in the end, a lot of the stuff posted on the net was completely fake - three months after it opened, we discovered most of those reviews that were put up couldn't possibly have been written by anybody who had actually seen the show. But it duped enough journalists, and it came down to a couple who lived in Toronto and were mental Phantom fans, and just did not want anything else to happen to the Phantom.  Somebody said to me that Love Never Dies is like Madame Butterfly - Puccini thought it was going to be the big one, but the opera claque booed it off the stage and it was taken off. He then re-wrote a bit of it, it was re-staged and brought back. And an organised opera clique is the net - it's a modern day version of it."

But musicals often have their own momentum and unique challenges.  "When you look at Cats, Phantom or Les Miserables - and let's face it those three are the big ones of the 80s - one throw of the dice slightly the wrong way and any one of those could have been derailed. For example, Les Miserables opened to awful reviews - anybody who thinks Love Never Dies had bad reviews should read the Les Miz ones - but if it hadn't been at the Barbican first and it had that advance which is inbuilt because it was the RSC, would it have ever moved to the Palace, which I'd just bought at the time? It's all about the throw of the dice - what if, for example, we'd done Phantom of the Opera with the Cats team? That could have happened; and if it had, would we even be talking about The Phantom of the Opera now? You simply never know - the funny thing about musicals, you look at Chicago, for instance, which opened in the same season as A Chorus Line, and I remember thinking I preferred it to A Chorus Line, but it was wiped out. And now it's a bigger hit than it ever was."

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