The sound of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s new memoir, “Unmasked,” is the sound of history’s most successful musical theater composer laughing his way to the bank. The tone is bright, the jokes are mischievous, and, to borrow a song from “Evita,” the money kept rolling in.
You almost feel like he’s pulling your leg — or rubbing your nose in it — as he repeatedly mentions costs or sales and helps you understand what those numbers really mean.
But that’s been the Andrew Lloyd Webber story: unprecedented commercial triumphs that almost eclipse the art. “Unmasked” does not undo that image, but it brings to center stage the personality of an ineffably British bon vivant. The book reads like dinner party tales: conquests, side stories and a few confessions. The tone? Puckish smile behind lifted wine glass.
Inarguably, it’s been a remarkable career. Starting with the 1971 American arena tour of “Jesus Christ Superstar” — a glittery rock pageant produced by the film and record impresario Robert Stigwood — Lloyd Webber introduced the concept of the indestructible blockbuster to the West End and Broadway. This 500-page memoir is so packed, that it only gets through the opening of “The Phantom of the Opera,” now more than three decades old and still going strong. The hits came largely in those early years, though he had four shows on Broadway in 2016. (Lloyd Webber claims that the skies will darken in the next memoir — if he gets around to it.)
His musical family, including a lively, risqué aunt and a star piano student who moved into the household, is given its due: We “redefined the ‘B’ in bohemian,” he writes. Lloyd Webber’s unusual schoolboy interests marked him as an English dandy, with architecture and British history competing with music as his early specialties. Composing was something he could actually do, as when he played original songs and got threatening mates off his back. “I was no longer the little school swot,” he writes, claiming his superpower musical identity once and for all.
In a rare dark patch, he recalls being forced in 1963 to miss a recording session by a stern military instructor at Westminster. In response, the adolescent Lloyd Webber swallowed “an overdose” of aspirin. “I can’t tell you if it was a cry for help or whether I meant it,” he writes. “I don’t know.”
Insightfully, he describes learning how to orchestrate in the mid 1960s, when orchestral accents were permeating pop hits by the Beatles and even the Rolling Stones. The form-bending “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat,” “Jesus Christ Superstar,” “Evita,” “Cats” and “Phantom” would all occupy that pop-classical intersection. While recording the song “Superstar” — before completion of the album, which itself predated the stage show — Lloyd Webber, just 21, was asked how it should sound. “I replied that I wanted it to be a fusion of symphony orchestra, soul brass section, gospel choir and rock group with a bluesy lead vocal to go with our three-chord verse,” he recalls, “in other words nothing fancy.”
Such jaunty “making of” stories are the bulk of the book, and, veiled as it is, you get a sense of his temper under pressure, especially when cost-cutting or ineptitude threatened the quality of his complicated projects. “Easygoing Tim and hypertense Andrew,” he writes of lyricist Tim Rice, who moved into the Lloyd Webber family compound almost as soon as he and the teenage Andrew teamed up as songwriting partners in 1965.
Two of the three marriages are detailed, too, beginning with his courtship of 16-year-old Sarah Hugill in 1970. The tenor of the times is unrevised as he writes, “There are worse things when you’re 21 than a pretty schoolgirl waking you up in the morning.” The schoolgirl would be replaced a decade later by “Sarah II”: Sarah Brightman, who became his “Phantom” muse and star.
The business edge of this memoir is striking, from Lloyd Webber’s explanation of “grand rights” (the rights to stage productions that would spin unprecedented profits for him around the globe) to establishing his producing enterprise called the Really Useful Group. His nose for the bottom line explains why he gets on so well with producer and frequent collaborator Cameron Mackintosh, “the only Brit who loves musicals as much as me.”
“My verbosity got in the way,” he apologizes in the coda, explaining why he couldn’t fit his whole life in one book. His contemporary, Stephen Sondheim, has published two volumes of annotated lyrics — a technicians’ handbook peppered with juicy backstage stories. Lloyd Webber only gives the odd glimpse of technique, as when he points out what few would have noticed: that each of his shows has a song in the unusual 7/8 time signature.
But the unworried “Unmasked” proves as readable as his hits are watchable. This is a very satisfied after-party, set against the backdrop of the West End theaters he conquered and then bought and inside the Sydmonton estate that has doubled as his home and the site of his own annual arts festival.
He once asked the conductor Lorin Maazel to tell him about the composer Philip Glass and minimalism. “Andrew, there’s no point in my explaining this,” Maazel replied. “You are a maximalist.”
Nelson Pressley is a theater critic for The Washington Post.
By Andrew Lloyd Webber
Harper. 528 pp. $28.99