His 1986 musical gave the world its darkest hero and broke every box office record going. Now, amid feverish anticipation, Andrew Lloyd Webber’s ‘Phantom’ is returning. But is his creator coping with the pressure?
There are two Andrew Lloyd Webbers, separated by a hyphen. There is Lord Lloyd-Webber, the mogul who owns seven London theatres, collects vintage burgundy, Pre-Raphaelite paintings, and wives (well, three of them anyway). He is a Tory. A man of refined taste. Establishment to his bones.
And then there is Andrew Lloyd Webber without a hyphen. He was so precocious as a child he could compose almost before he could walk. He won a scholarship to Westminster School and an exhibition to read history at Magdalene College, Oxford, only to drop out after one term in order to pursue his dream of writing musicals.
This must have seemed like an act of rebellion bordering on patricide, given that his father was a professor of classical composition at the Royal College of Music. (And come to think of it, even Lloyd Webber’s Tory tendencies have a rebellious cast to them, given that his domineering mother, a piano teacher, was a socialist.)
Lloyd Webber without a hyphen seems to have been impulsive, driven, contrary and perhaps a little socially awkward and gauche, but a man with keen populist instincts and no qualms about pandering to the sort of middle-brow tastes that might have made his father shudder.
So there’s the paradox, then. Not only is he a nonconformist Establishment figure, he is also a slightly vulgar aesthete. And the two identities are separated by a hyphen that was added in 1997 to avoid confusion when he became Baron Lloyd-Webber of Sydmonton. As he might put it, Lloyd ain’t his first name.
In terms of his vocabulary, by the way, he does have a tendency to strain for the colloquial, perhaps in compensation for his received pronunciation – as well as saying ‘ain’t’, he will refer to a ‘beaker’ of wine, or his ‘PR honchos’, or his ‘grey matter’. Anyway, I think it is the Andrew Lloyd Webber without the hyphen that I meet in a rehearsal studio near Waterloo.
At 62, he looks trim and healthy. He is wearing jeans and a pale blue shirt. His hands are small, his grip light and, contrary to reputation, his eye contact steady. His manner is polite but impatient and distracted, and a habit to talk over the top of people gives him the air of a busy man, one who really shouldn’t have had that second cup of coffee.
Prior to this meeting I have spent a long morning at his office in Covent Garden listening, under armed guard it seemed, to a recording of the much-anticipated ‘continuation’ – not sequel – of The Phantom of the Opera. Called Love Never Dies, it takes up the phantom’s story 10 years on, when he has left his lair under the Paris Opera in order to haunt the fairgrounds of Coney Island, Brooklyn.
The musical, which begins previewing at the Adelphi Theatre next week, is to my ears more vaudevillian than operatic, with recurring background hints of a fairground barrel organ. But the overall mood seems similar to Phantom, a mixture of soaring ballads and tender love songs.
Predictably enough, ticket sales have been more than healthy. There are a lot of Phantom fans out there, you see. A lot. In terms of revenue, it is the most successful entertainment of all time, way ahead of the combined world tours of the Rolling Stones, even ahead of Star Wars, Titanic and , so far, Avatar. It has taken nearly £2?billion.
Lloyd Webber began planning what would become Love Never Dies back in 1997. Dozens of ideas were chewed over. At one point even Frederick Forsyth and Ben Elton were called in to give it a go, though not together.
The problem was not the music; Lloyd Webber writes quickly. ‘I often think of random melodies,’ he tells me. ‘And I pretty much hear in my head what I want to do with the orchestra as I’m writing on the piano. But the most important thing with musical theatre is the story. That is where you have to start. With the exception of Cats, which is an oddball, it is always the story that is the most important aspect and when they haven’t worked, as with Woman in White, it was because the story wasn’t right.’
His breakthrough came when he worked out the only place the Phantom could hide in 1907 without people staring at his face. ‘The answer was Coney Island, where freaks can walk around without being noticed. Freud gave the best quote about the place: ‘The only reason to go to the United States is to go to Coney Island.’ So this made the story about vaudeville instead of opera.
Like the original Phantom, Love Never Dies reflects Lloyd Webber’s highly romantic sensibility. ‘This one has taken romance as far as it will go,’ he says. ‘This felt like coming back to my own turf. When it was finally unlocked for me after 20 years of attempts I felt I was coming back to a character I knew well.
‘If you looked at the logic of the original, the whole thing falls apart. I remember Hal Prince saying we have to start one scene before the last has ended and let the music overlap – and then just go for it. We don’t need to explain all this because the audience will get it. The story of the Phantom is one of rock masquerading as opera. The passions in Love Never Dies are rock passions.’
To what does Lloyd Webber attribute the enduring appeal of Phantom? ‘It’s to do with sexuality and, well, I remember 20 years ago going to a charity event Elton was giving in a restaurant and I found myself, to my great joy, sitting among five of the world’s most beautiful supermodels and they were all talking about Phantom because it had just opened.
‘I think it was Elle Macpherson who said: “If you ask X she is worried about her nose and if you ask Y she is worried she isn’t tall enough and Z thinks she is too skinny. We are all of us insecure about our looks.” And I think that’s it. That is why people identify with the Phantom. Everyone has something about themselves they would like to change.’
To say there is anticipation for the new show is to understate. Is he nervous that Love Never Dies might not live up to expectation? ‘There is pressure. I can’t tell you whether Love Never Dies is of its time, because it ain’t Legally Blonde or Hairspray. All I can say is that I think the story is strong and the lyrics are the best I’ve had since Tim, if you take TS Eliot out of the equation.’
His musical Cats, it should be explained, the one that was a fixture in the West End for 21 years, was based on words by TS Eliot. And the Tim he refers to is Sir Tim Rice.
Rice was the reason the 17-year-old Lloyd Webber dropped out of Oxford. It was a life-changing encounter. Sir Tim was five years older, taller, longer haired, more urbane and socially confident. He also had an ability to write wry and catchy lyrics that electrified the young Andrew.
When these were combined with Lloyd Webber’s instantly memorable and charming melodies, a chemical combustion took place. The obvious comparison of a librettist meeting his perfect composer is when Gilbert met Sullivan, but a better one might be Bernie Taupin and Elton John.
Either way, Rice and Lloyd Webber clicked and within a few years they had produced three of the most successful musicals of all time: Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, Jesus Christ Superstar and Evita. Then, at the height of their creative powers, they fell out.
As Lloyd Webber is the richest person in the British music industry, ahead even of Sir Paul McCartney, it is safe to assume he is not just doing Love Never Dies for the money. He can’t still be hungry can he? I mean, if he still needs the sense of affirmation that comes with success, after all these years of it, isn’t that a form of failure?
‘Why am I still hungry? I think it is just that I love the collaborative element. You depend on each other in a project like this. It is a shared adventure between the cast, director, designer, costume maker, lighting engineer, choreographer. One ingredient could be wrong and a great piece of work will disappear.’
The comment is a reminder that, for all his success, Lloyd Webber has known failure. In fact, he hasn’t had a new hit for a while, and by his standards Woman in White, The Beautiful Game and Whistle Down the Wind constitute flops.
Could it be that his recent brush with mortality, last autumn he was diagnosed with prostate cancer, has focused his mind? To paraphrase a certain mid-market tabloid, Love never dies – but he nearly did.
‘Yes and I did nearly die when I saw that headline because the point about my illness was that I didn’t nearly die, because we caught it in time. I kept having to get up to pee in the night and so I went to have a checkup and, luckily, they spotted it. Men over 50 should really have a prostate check regularly. It is the most common form of cancer in men and if you can get it before it angles off into other parts of the body, it’s not a problem.’
He had a prostatectomy in November and looks very healthy now. ‘Yes,’ he says with a grin. ‘I am. In the circumstances.’ He has an endearingly self-deprecating anecdote to share about the time he was told to leave The London Clinic by a side door via a row of huge dustbins, in order to avoid a gang of paparazzi that had assembled outside the hospital’s front door.
He assumed they were for him but next morning awoke to vast coverage of Amy Winehouse leaving the same place having had, allegedly, a breast enhancement.
He speaks about how he accepts the operation may leave you with an incontinence problem, but that this gets better every day. It can also leave you impotent, but not necessarily. As for the infertility, he is not worried about that because he has five children.
It must have given him intimations of mortality though. ‘Yes, it makes you think.’ What is it all for? That sort of thing? ‘No, more that it makes you realise who your real friends are. I was struck by the number of people who were my friends a long time ago who were the most supportive. Tim, for example. He rang my wife every day. And my first wife Sarah came to see me and she happened to arrive on the same day as Tim and they were getting on like a house on fire, catching up and talking about old times.’
He grins again. ‘There they were talking away by the bed and I might as well not have been there! And then the phone went and it was Sarah Brightman and I thought this is not great timing so I said: “This is a little awkward Sarah, can I call you back?” It made me laugh.’ Sarah Brightman was known as Sarah Two.
Was he surprised to find himself on his third marriage by the time he reached his mid forties? ‘Well I’ve been married 20 years this time, quite a stretch. I’m very pleased that I am still very close to both my ex wives. Both of them have stayed at my place in Majorca this past year. At different times.’
I have to say, I am impressed by the way he has remained friendly with his exes be they in business or marriage. ‘Yes, Tim is such a good friend and Sarah was wonderful when I was ill. She heard the roughs for Love Never Dies before it was mixed in LA last summer and I was quite worried about playing it to her because, in a way, it would mean more to her than to me.’
His marriage to Brightman lasted six years and was played out in the spotlight, including the acrimony of the divorce. Was it a passionate affair to begin with? ‘I think with her it was more about the music.’
He makes himself a coffee and is adept at operating the complicated looking machine. I’m surprised given that he probably has butlers to do that at home.
‘We don’t have butlers. Obviously we have people who look after the houses, but I try not to run things formally. I have good people around me. My PA, my driver, but my best investment is my black cab which means you can go anywhere.’
When he says his cancer made him think, was that partly about the meaning of material possessions?
‘I don’t think I am that materialistic, actually. Obviously at home in the country the art collection is important but we have one big room in the middle of the house where we do everything, the television, the kitchen, everything. I like cooking so I always like to have the kitchen in the central place. Music, architecture and pictures have always been my passions, and all that material wealth has meant for me, is being able to have some of the pictures I liked.’
I try and get a measure of what he was like as a schoolboy. Was he serious? ‘I was a bit. I was passionate about architecture and so was considered an oddball. I could have been academic but I got bored. I think I was quite popular at prep school because they thought I was weird playing the violin, and then one day I got up and did a parody of the masters, six tunes, and after that they thought I had a sense of humour.’
Were his parents pushy? ‘I think my mother would have preferred it if I was more interested in history, but I wanted to plough my own furrow. My parents were supportive about me leaving Oxford, even though the family didn’t have any money. We didn’t have anything to fall back on. We have that now with our 18 year-old, who I have a feeling isn’t going to go down the university route. He’s got all his grades, but he’s been doing work experience and enjoying that. I’ll support him if I think he’s going to the right place.’
When Lloyd Webber was that age, the right place meant being alongside Tim Rice. ‘Yes once I met Tim I realised how few really good lyricists there were. I was aware of a chemistry between us but also an awareness that there was no one else around who had the sort of individuality he had. The turn of phrase he had was so quirky and individual. I had met no one who had come even remotely close to him.’
He talks about Sir Tim a lot. You get the feeling it was, in some ways, his most painful divorce. Was part of the problem that Tim’s heart wasn’t in music theatre? That he finds it a little, well, embarrassing? Wasn’t he always more interested in rock and pop?
‘I think that is true, though goodness knows, he’s made enough records. He’s sometimes deliberately provocative about these things, that’s all. Saying he hates musicals. But I think deep down he cares much more about his work that he would ever say.
‘We’ve written a few songs together since Evita and we almost have an album’s worth. And always with Tim there will be a couple of lines in a song that no other lyricist could have come up with. There’s one we’ve worked on called Dance the Dance and it has the line: “She was on the ball and he was so last season”. Wonderful.’
Lloyd Webber had even been hoping that Sir Tim would come on board to write the lyrics for Love Never Dies. He was quoted as saying: ‘I have implied it and he knows perfectly well to phone me.’
Clearly there is still a strong bond between them, so what went wrong? ‘Where Tim and I really had a parting of the ways was over Chess. I think I put it the wrong way to Tim when I said I thought the plot wasn’t theatrical. I said what it needs is a theatre craftsman to give it some John le Carré-type suspense. And for once we got out of step and then next I heard he was doing it with [Abba’s] Benny and Bjorn.’
It sounds like his feelings were hurt. ‘I was a bit hurt, yes, because I felt I could have done something with it. As it turned out, the songs from Chess are right up there with some of the very best ever written for musical theatre. If you audition in New York you will always hear four songs from Chess. But still, for me, there was a fundamental problem with the script. It never worked in the theatre, for me.’
Having been such a successful double act was he nervous about going it alone? ‘Well I had an immediate disaster without Tim, which was when I did Jeeves with Alan Ayckbourn. But then I did a big hit album on my own with Variations and that was a turning point.’
For his part, Sir Tim went on to have a huge hit with The Lion King, made by Lloyd Webber’s only real rival in music theatre, Disney. Ouch.
It occurs to me that, in some way, Sir Tim, who supposedly finds musicals a bit embarrassing, might have been something of a father figure to Lloyd Webber.
I ask Lloyd Webber – who has been quoted as saying that he was never that close to his father – whether he ever got a sense that his actual father considered musicals to be, well, not one of the higher art forms.
‘Not at all. I remember him bringing home a single by the Shadows and saying they are probably the finest quartet working in Britain at the moment. My father got every scholarship going and followed an academic side, but I know deep down inside that he would have preferred to go into film music. His make up was such that he wouldn’t have been able to cope with the problems that crop up constantly in the music theatre or film music world. Also, I think he would have thought he was letting the family down.’ Because? ‘My grandfather belittled it.’
For the record, one of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s rare forays into classical music was his Requiem in 1986. It is beautiful and haunting and deserved the Grammy it won. It was composed in memory of his father, William Lloyd Webber, without a hyphen.