The Times February 13, 2010
– Ginny Dougary
As a sequel to the Phantom opens, he talks about his new ‘almost cool’ status, his father’s roving eye — and the joy of a dirty joke
Andrew Lloyd Webber has his kind face on and is looking straight into my eyes as I sing: “Your looks are laughable, unphoto-graphable, but you’re my favourite work of art . . .”
No, alas, I am not the new Dorothy and this attempt at My Funny Valentine, in the back of a black cab, is the closest I could get to being auditioned by His Lordship. “Mmmm,” he murmurs, tactfully, “it’s rather nice, actually.”
We have left behind a long queue of would-be Dorothys snaking around the block. Inside the building in London’s theatre district are hundreds more hopefuls sitting in rows behind a glass façade, and upstairs flanked against a wall are the girls who are about to be called up to sing for the cameras. Following on from his search for Maria, Joseph, and Nancy from Oliver!, Lloyd Webber’s next TV talent show is Over the Rainbow.
One of the wannabes has the number 7,402 on a label on her chest — by the time the series is ready to roll, there will have been 10,000 young women all over England singing Judy Garland’s classic tune.
There was a time when Lloyd Webber — in the wake of his divorce from his first wife, Sarah Hughill, and his marriage to Sarah Brightman, whom he refers to as Sarah 2 — was the nadir of naff. The success of his early musicals with Tim Rice — Jesus Christ Superstar, Evita, et al — eclipsed some of the later flops (The Beautiful Game, The Woman in White). But, quite apart from his portfolio of properties (Cap Ferrat, Belgravia, the country estate in Berkshire), the Pre-Raphaelite collection, the Canaletto and the Picasso, his air of haughtiness, masking a certain social awkwardness, did not endear him either to the press or the public. His puggish looks, which were mercilessly caricatured, also did not help.
But now, if he is not quite a national treasure, Lloyd Webber is certainly close to being the nation’s Funny Valentine. With his arch humour and genuine warmth for the kids on his popular television shows, it is possible that he is even in danger of becoming — amazingly — almost cool.
He is certainly keen to push the bad taste envelope as far as he can, once managing the feat of fazing his TV host, Jonathan Ross. Sarah Brightman had got the ball rolling, by enthusing about the enormity of her ex’s penis, on Graham Norton’s show. “I know, and I discuss it with Graham Norton frequently [Norton and Lloyd Webber, of course, do a double act on the BBC reality shows]. I thought it was very funny but as I said to Jonathan, ‘She always had a big mouth’ — which took the wind out of his sails a bit.” Then he adds: “What I do on television is exactly what I do in my private life. What I do all the time — and if I make naughty jokes I make naughty jokes. I’m sorry but it’s what I do.”
We had been introduced at various do’s before this meeting, and the overriding impression he conveyed was of slightly bibulous campness. I can’t be the first person to have made this observation because over lunch in Rules, London’s oldest (distinctly theatrical) restaurant, Lloyd Webber jokes: “Well, you never can tell, can you? I keep saying, ‘I’ve got five children and three wives and it’s a complete front!’ But if I were gay, I have to admit that in my current condition there’s nothing much I could do about it. I would be rather disappointing.”
This is a reference to his recently operated-on prostate gland, which he decided, against all advice from his minders, to make public. You’re fine now, are you? “Yah – ish,” he says. Are you frighened of dying?
“I don’t think that’s going to happen but I’m going to have to keep my eye on it. Be a bit careful. It was a little more complicated in my case but it hasn’t migrated so far.”
Aren’t you meant to be conserving your energy? “Well, yes, but I’ve thrown myself into the busiest schedule that I’ve ever thrown myself into. I have been told that I really should look after myself a bit and not do so much but . . .”
But … well, some chance, frankly. By the time we meet, I am pretty much Lloyd Webbered out. The night before, I attended a performance of The Phantom of the Opera, still packing them in a quarter of a century on, since our maestro is about to unleash its sequel, Love Never Dies. I can’t bring myself to tell him quite what a miserable time I had, although my enthusiasm for the new project — “It’s more psychological … less hammy, more modern” — must have conveyed something.
Why does he think people like Phantom so much? “I’ve often tried to put my finger on what it is. We know that people have been to see the show hundreds of times — insane in my view — and changed their names to Christine Daaé.
“I don’t know what it is. If you sat down and analysed the story of the original Phantom, it’s the biggest load of hokum that’s ever been written … but it’s a piece of really great popular theatre entertainment and, in all modesty, it’s got some good tunes.”
I tell him that I am not really a musicals person (although, oddly, I did attempt one myself) but I do recognise that apart from Lloyd Webber, 61, and Stephen Sondheim, 79, with their rather different audiences, there is no one else alive who has created a body of work in musical theatre at all.
Quite apart from the Phantom show itself, the experience of sitting in a narrow seat at Her Majesty’s, knees rammed hard against the man in front, who had a head the size of a pumpkin, was challenging. The staging, despite the gasp-inducing chandelier swinging over our heads, felt a bit creaky and tired. But the rest of the audience, filled with young people, was clearly enthralled, with endless applause and standing ovations. It is, apparently, the most successful single piece of entertainment of all time.
The next morning, I turned up at 10am at the office of Lloyd Webber’s Really Useful Group (RUG) to hear the new musical. It was rather eerie, sitting alone at a long dining table in an empty room, walls full of posters from Lloyd Webber’s oeuvre.
The setting has been changed from the Paris Opera House to the freak-show fairgrounds of Coney Island, New York, ten years on, where the Phantom has become the biggest and richest impresario. The original heroine, Christine, is now married to Raoul, who has turned into a bitter, gambling alcoholic, resentful of his wife’s singing talent and her status as the family breadwinner (rather a modern touch), supporting him and their ten-year-old son, Gustave. There are some creepy Mervyn Peake-like underlings, Fleck, Gangle and Squelch, as well as the forbidding Madame Giry, who organised the Phantom’s escape from the baying crowds in Paris and is busily promoting her daughter, Meg, the Ooh-La-La Bathing Beauty of Coney Island.
The music seems, to me, to be more beautiful and less showy — partly, perhaps, because the boy soprano’s voice is so affecting, as is his unfolding relationship with the Phantom. “A lot of people who’ve heard it think it’s a much more rounded piece,” Lloyd Webber says, “and what I think that Ben Elton [who wrote ‘the book’] did was to unlock the psychological area.
“The other thing for me is that the Coney Island setting is very exciting because it all burnt down and the last big park closed in about 1960. I find something very romantic about the decayed architecture of entertainment.
“The original idea was that the Phantom would be this Howard Hughes figure living in the first penthouse in America but Coney Island is much richer because, of course, he could have gone there with his deformed face and walked around the streets and people would have probably paid 25 cents to see him. So that’s the back story with Madame Giry organising the side show, and Meg as the little girl busker.”
Lloyd Webber’s own back story is pretty intriguing, too. He was brought up with his younger brother, the cellist Julian, in a rented top-floor flat in South Kensington, opposite the Tube station, paid for by his maternal grandmother, Molly, who lived with the family. The boys’ father, Billy, was the son of a plumber — “who’d won every scholarship known to mankind when he was young” — and ended up as a senior professor at the Royal College of Music and a director of what was then the London College of Music. He was also the organist at the Central Hall, Westminster.
“He clearly had this seriously academic musical talent but as a personality he was quite regimented in what he was and wasn’t prepared to do. He probably realised early on that he had a side to him that would have been much better suited to becoming, say, a Max [Gone with the Wind] Steiner and working in the film world but coming from that background, his family would have gone berserk,” he says. “The problem was that he was a composer writing out of his time, he was a High Romantic, really, and interested in musicals and what was going on in the pop and rock charts, to a surprising degree. If he had been encouraged, I think he could have been very successful.”
So how did their father feel about the success of his sons? “Well, I was going through a whole load of papers the other day, and I unearthed something I didn’t realise I had, which was my mother’s [Jean, a piano teacher] autobiography, and there was quite a long chapter about my father and his reaction to both me and, of course, my brother.
“I think he was very proud of us but got very upset, according to my mother, with so many people saying, ‘You must be very proud of your sons’. I think therefore he probably always felt that as a composer he was never ever recognised.
“The one thing I’m sad about is that he never heard The Phantom.” Would he have liked it? “I think he would have loved it but whether he would have told me so is another matter. He also had a predilection for young sopranos and particularly for young sopranos if they sang Rachmaninov.
“And what I didn’t know about Sarah Brightman is that she did this series of Rachmaninov songs. I think probably what would have happened is that I would have introduced Sarah to my father and they would have got married,” Lloyd Webber says rather startlingly, “and that would have been the end of that.”
Really? “Yes, Sarah would have been spirited into his office by the sound of his music and he would have accompanied her on her Rachmaninov songs, and the story could have been very, very different. I often think that would have been the most intriguing meeting that never happened.”
More curious still, certainly in terms of its impact on the family dynamic, was his mother’s relationship with the classical pianist John Lill. Julian met him when they were both playing percussion in the junior department at the Royal College of Music. “My mother developed this great … well, enthusiasm is probably the word for it, for a guy called John Lill, who, as you probably know, won the International Tchaikovsky Competition [a music world equivalent of the Oscars; Lill was 26] and she took him into the house.”
Why do you say “enthusiasm” like that? Did they have some sort of thing? “No, no, no, they wouldn’t have done that — but she was very, very, very fond of him … she was just obsessed with him. They were obsessed with each other. It was difficult for Julian and I, but I was away [boarding as a scholar at Westminster], so it must have been far more difficult for Julian than me.
“And it was very difficult for my father, yes, because he never had the family on his own and also he was to a great degree … well, my grandmother was the person who rented the flat, you know, so he didn’t ever really feel fulfilled.”
What does he make of Julian’s observation that with their upbringing — variously described as chaotic or bohemian — it was surprising that neither of them had ended up as drug addicts. (Latterly, it seems, their father did develop something of a drink problem, which Andrew has also admitted to battling with in the past.) “I don’t agree with Julian about that at all because my grandmother was a very, very strong personality and a very interesting woman. She was the founding member of a particularly incongruous political party — the Christian Communist Party — which intrigued me and all my more politically Right friends at Westminster would come home and we would tease her and come up with ever more irritating political solutions.
“But she loved all that. She was just fascinated by all my Westminster friends — you know, the sort of school it is, my nephew is there, and it still has that slight tone of political incorrectness.”
Neither does he recognise Julian’s description of himself as a lonely child. Their parents may have been rather remote figures, absorbed in their own private passions, but as well as his indomitable grandmother, Andrew adored his Aunt Vi and spent most of his holidays with her: “When I didn’t fit into the musical cubbyhole that my mother had seen for me, well … I was so well placed in musical theatre because my Aunt Vi was really my surrogate mum and she knew all these impossibly glamorous theatre names and they were exactly the sort of people I wanted to meet.
“And that was another reason that I couldn’t be lonely because I was in my own world and I knew when I was very small that I wanted to be involved with musical theatre. I adored musicals, they were my life. And anyone who knew me at school knew that I was obsessed with the damn things.”
No change there, then. He says that because of the very nature of its success, the prospect of working on a sequel to Phantom used to frighten him but now he considers it to be the most exciting moment of his career, “because we’ve taken everything on so much further, and I know in my heart of hearts that I’ve put everything I could possibly do into this new score, and I thought of nothing else when I was writing it”.
But, if anything, despite the richness of his life — he is still friends with his exes, as well as enjoying being married since 1991 to wife number three, Madeleine Gurdon, who is more interested in gee-gees than luvvies — there is a sense in which, musically at least, he remains more in his own little world than ever.
“I do often think how marvellous it would have been to have worked in the Fifties when you had Rogers and Hammerstein, Lerner and Loewe, the last days of Irving Berlin, and Cole Porter still going just about, Leonard Bernstein — can you imagine? All those great musicals going on.
“I can’t think of anything that I can compare Love Never Dies to … so I often feel like I’m working in this strange vacuum of a world in which there’s nobody who’s doing the sort of musical theatre I do. If there was a whole hothouse of young or, for that matter, old writers … but there’s nothing out there. The last really big hit around the world has been Wicked and it happens to have been written by somebody who’s a great friend of mine [Stephen Schwartz] but he wrote Godspell, you know. I mean, he’s older than me!”
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Love Never Dies previews at the Adelphi Theatre, London WC2, from February 22 (loveneverdies.com, 0844 4124651)