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Lloyd Webber, Superstar

By David Richards
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, December 1, 1996

NEW YORK -- You would hardly expect Andrew Lloyd Webber to endorse a cliche, but to hear him tell it, the top is indeed a lonely place.

His new musical, "Whistle Down the Wind," will begin its world premiere engagement Friday at the National Theatre in Washington, and the nine-week run is already 70 percent sold out. When "Whistle" moves here early next year, he will have four shows running on Broadway. If it gets a London production, which seems probable, he will have seven shows running there. "Cats," of course, continues to turn up everywhere on the planet. So does "The Phantom of the Opera." And who's even counting the film version of "Evita," which hits the country's movie houses on Christmas Day?

"It's just too much," says the 48-year-old British composer, contemplating the proliferation of productions, which have earned him a fortune in excess of $400 million. "Good as I think our team is around the world, you can't keep all of them policed. It's worrying also -- and I think this is a very important point -- that there hasn't been another composer who's come along and is firmly banging at the portals. There's nothing worse than sitting around in isolation and not having a forum of people to bounce ideas off."

A frown creases his forehead, darkening the plump face with the full cheeks that has always made him look rather like a petulant choirboy.

"I sometimes wonder about these endless workshops of musicals that produce absolutely nothing at all. We pour hours and hours of time into them, and millions of dollars, literally. And I'm not sure there isn't a real possibility that we're educating the spirit of musical theater out of people. The stuff just isn't coming through."

The frown gets deeper.

"I feel it would be great for me, if there was something going on. I care so about the form. But look at the situation. Who am I supposed to bounce off? The only person really producing consistently good work is Steve [Sondheim]."

Here Andrew Lloyd Webber's voice rises perceptibly, so that his complaint verges on a whine.

"And Steve, for goodness sake, is at least 15 years older than me."

The critics have never really given him his due. Lloyd Webber shrugs his shoulders philosophically and says that "you just have to get on with it and write what you want to write."

But he feels their sting when they talk dismissively about his "jingles," compare his scores to elevator music, and flail him for repeating a melody, if not ad nauseam, at least often enough that even the tone-deaf will leave the theater humming it. He is, they huff, just a pint-size Puccini, and not above borrowing the occasional Puccini tune, either.

Yet no theatrical figure in the last 20 years has appealed so consistently to popular taste as Lloyd Webber. Not just American popular taste or British popular taste, but worldwide popular taste. He has established the vogue for the sung-through (no dialogue) musical, brought epic dramas and operatic emotions to the musical stage and helped prove that no subject is off-limits. His pop operas -- beginning with "Jesus Christ Superstar" (1971) and continuing through "Sunset Boulevard" (1993) -- are, for the general theatergoer, not just thrilling entertainments. They are the stuff of art.

"People criticize his melodies because they're so big-scale and so accessible, you can't miss them," says Richard Maltby Jr., who collaborated with Lloyd Webber on the American version of "Song & Dance." "They're a little like dirigibles. At the same time, in terms of the size and scale of the music, he's completely altered people's expectations of what they're going to hear in the theater, just as Sondheim has altered people's expectations of the words in a musical."

Indeed, Lloyd Webber's fans claim that he is one of the great melodists of the 20th century musical theater, second only to Richard Rodgers, who was his idol when he was growing up.

Mary Rodgers, the grand old man's daughter and a composer herself, acknowledges that "Andrew has enormous theatrical flair, and let's face it, this huge body of work didn't just happen by mistake. He had the right sound at the right time. And he's become the Little King -- remember the cartoon character? -- because of it."

'A Rather Pleasing Muddle'
Appropriately enough, in Manhattan Andrew Lloyd Webber lives very close to the top of glossy Trump Tower on Fifth Avenue. He bought his duplex apartment on the 60th floor in the late '80s so his then-wife, Sarah Brightman, would have a place to stay while starring in the Broadway edition of "Phantom." They have since divorced, but he couldn't unload the apartment, so he had it renovated and redecorated instead.

Luncheon will be served shortly, but for the moment Lloyd Webber has settled back into an armchair by the baby grand and is sipping white wine. He doesn't submit often to interviews, being notoriously shy around the press, although he tries to mask the awkwardness by talking a blue streak. His intelligence is immediately apparent, and once his nerves have quieted, he projects an odd charm. If he weren't so overwhelmingly successful, he would probably be viewed as one of those whimsical British eccentrics who wear scratchy tweeds and plod about the moors, savoring the delicacy and disorder of God's universe. (Instead of wildflowers or mushrooms, Lloyd Webber just happens to collect pre-Raphaelite paintings.)

In the supercharged world of musical theater, however, his eccentricities are read by many as manifestations of a great and terrible temperament. He is too powerful to cozy up to. Or to contradict. During the early days of "Sunset Boulevard," his run-ins with actresses Patti LuPone and Faye Dunaway made headlines on both sides of the Atlantic. ("The nastiest experience I've had in the theater" is all he is willing to say for publication about the backstage brouhahas.)

"Someone once said that everyone who works for him seems to be on red alert," says British lyricist Don Black, a frequent collaborator. "He has so many facets, they don't know which Andrew they're going to get, so they're never relaxed. I've even heard him described as human cocaine. If you catch him in a food mood, that's one thing. Another day it's architecture. Or horses. Or banking. Or politics. He'll walk you around the splendid gardens of his house at Cap Ferrat in the South of France, and not only does he know all the plants, he knows their Latin names. This, mind you, is the same man who will go into a pub, have a pint of beer and talk about the football team he supports."

"Oh, he's slightly crazy," says Elaine Paige, the British actress who created the role of Eva Peron in "Evita" and is currently playing Norma Desmond, another of Lloyd Webber's terminally deluded divas, in the Broadway production of "Sunset Boulevard." "Sometimes I'm with him and I think, 'Oh, I know you exactly.' Then he'll go do or say something completely off-the-wall, and I can only wonder where it came from. His mind just darts from one thing to another. It's quite staggering, really."

Here, for example, is Lloyd Webber talking about Sydmonton, his 5,000-acre estate in England (it includes the celebrated Watership Down), where he holds an arts festival every summer to try out his latest project before an invited audience:

"The house at Sydmonton is the quintessential English muddle -- bits of architecture of all periods from early medieval to last week. I think it's a rather pleasing muddle. One of the nicest English churches -- I was reminded of this when I was up at Scarborough for the production of 'By Jeeves' -- is the Georgian interior of the church at Whitby, which is a complete muddle of pews and galleries and this, that and the other. In most churches of that period, the furnishings would have been ripped out by the Victorians, but that one survived, and it's really one of my favorites. Whereas, of course, the perfect form of, say, Salisbury . . ."

By the time he has stopped for breath, he has also touched upon Versailles, Westminster Abbey, Buckingham Palace and the oil painting by Joshua Reynolds that he recently purchased for his collection. ("He was the artist the pre-Raphaelites most hated, so the link is almost there." )

Some of the glorious clutter of his mind invariably finds expression in the weekly newspaper column, "A Matter of Taste," that he has taken to writing for the London Daily Telegraph. Lloyd Webber isn't sure how much he gets paid for it -- "$1,000 or $1,500 a week," he guesses. "Plus expenses." What matters is that it affords an outlet for "Webber, the man," as he puts it. "It's loosely a food column, but as it's progressed over the last six months, it's much less about food than it used to be."

He has managed in recent columns, when not addressing the merits of a particular restaurant, to muse about "Rent" (he admires the score), freight trains in Pittsburgh, Sotheby's fees and those theater folk known as "luvvies." The latter, he explains, are those wealthy "champagne socialists" who loudly proclaim their loyalty to the subsidized theater, "having fleeced the commercial theater for all it's worth. You can be gay or straight, but you've got to wring your hands a lot about the work you have to do in films. The other point is that luvvies secretly want to be part of the establishment and get knighthoods and all that."

(The director Trevor Nunn and actor Kenneth Branagh are luvvies, he notes, his glee showing. He is poking fun at the breed, but just barely. Andrew Lloyd Webber, the titan of the commercial theater, has already been knighted.)

"I'm the luckiest person of all time now, because I'm paid to eat, which is wonderful," he beams. "Of course, I'm trying to think what on earth I'm going to write about for Sunday. I'm not the sort who likes to have a go at other people. The awful truth is that it's much easier to write a filthy review of something, than not."

A New Scale
"Whistle Down the Wind" is inspired by a little-known 1961 British film of the same name, which starred Hayley Mills as a young girl who discovers an escaped convict hiding in her father's barn and mistakes him for Jesus, come back to Earth. Although budgeted at $9 million and boasting a cast of 35, the musical represents a departure from Lloyd Webber's usual super-spectaculars. For one thing, it has actual scenes with spoken dialogue. Then, as "Whistle's" director, Hal Prince, who also staged "Evita" and "Phantom," points out, "we're not talking about a staircase here with 50 people on it. There's a fire in the plot, but we've chosen not to show it."

Lloyd Webber even goes so far as to describe the show as "a kind of tone poem, really, about mystery and faith."

His original impulse was to make another motion picture out of the story, but one set in America, circa 1959, instead of Northern England. So with lyricist Jim Steinman and book writer Patricia Knop, he set off to Louisiana in search of locations.

"We ended up in a backwater called Donaldsonville, somewhere between Baton Rouge and New Orleans," Lloyd Webber recalls. "The countryside is wonderfully evocative there. It probably hasn't changed much since 1959, except for the cars, and a few of those looked as if they'd been around since then, too. It's Edward Hopper, that kind of America. Well, the scales sort of dropped from my eyes. I thought, 'I understand these people. I can do this story.'

"I've always enjoyed American pop since I was a kid. I knew the Everly Brothers, Buddy Holly and, obviously, Elvis. Those are the names that would have been very much a part of that community in 1959. So there's a fair amount of rock-and-roll in the score, and I get to use harmonicas and accordions -- instruments I've never used before. Obviously, what the piece does not demand is a David Lean-sized string section."

In 1995, he tested the material at the Sydmonton festival. "All my friends said, 'You're crazy, this should be a theater piece, not a movie,' " he notes. "Then Hal rang up and said, 'I want to see a video of this thing. I've heard about it. I want to do it.' " (Prince says that it was actually Lloyd Webber who called him. But why quibble?)

What composer and director agree on is that the contemporary musical is entering a new phase. The day of the mega-musical is over. In the post-"Rent" era, they believe, audiences want emotional intimacy, not histrionics; atmosphere, not gigantic stage effects; stories about real people, not thundering sagas. A revised version of Lloyd Webber's "By Jeeves" -- a 1975 flop about that quintessential P.G. Wodehouse twit, Bertie Wooster -- has proved an unexpected hit in London, and it is one of the composer's smallest shows. (An American production is currently playing at the Goodspeed Opera House's workshop in Chester, Conn.)

Whether this constitutes a move toward a new minimalism is debatable. On the other hand, in this business whatever Andrew Lloyd Webber does has to be deemed significant. As with the elephant on the coffee table, there's no pretending he isn't there.

"People sometimes get it a little bit wrong when they think of my shows as these big juggernaut musicals," he argues, gently but firmly. "They forget that 'Evita' was essentially a small show. 'Tell Me on a Sunday' [the song half of "Song & Dance"] was a one-woman show with a girl sitting on a stool. They forget, in fact, that every single piece of mine starts out at Sydmonton on a stage which is half the size of this room. If it works for an audience of 150 people there, it tends to go forward. If it doesn't, it is scrapped.

"I sometimes resist the way these shows are always tacked on to me. They're not just Andrew Lloyd Webber musicals. They're the product of an awful lot of people. I can't say enough times that musical theater is about the most collaborative form you can work in. 'Evita' was very much Hal's conception. 'Cats,' well, Trevor Nunn had a strong vision there, although I'm not so sure that all of us weren't slightly batting in the dark, if we're being truthful. My greatest contribution to the shows, in many ways, is an unseen one. It's ordering things through music, storytelling through music. What follows, what doesn't follow -- there's much more to it than people realize."

"Take 'The Phantom.' Every single thing that happens in it is my plot. It was my idea to have the chandelier rising up at the beginning, to have the phantom sing his own opera onstage, to have him unmasked onstage, the whole thing. The order is me."

"When you're working with him," explains lyricist Black, "you realize that he's really a musical dramatist who brings an extraordinary overview to the show. He won't just play you a melody -- 'With One Look,' for example, from 'Sunset Boulevard.' He'll back up 30 or 40 bars before the melody and shoehorn you into the moment. Andrew writes the piece, not just the tune."

Lloyd Webber concedes that "some of the scores haven't been recognized for what they are. But I know when I've done a good job. Put it another way. 'The Phantom of the Opera' is the fourth-best-selling album of a musical ever. It's just quietly gone on over the years."

He can't help adding, "Longer than anything by the Beatles."

Old Wives Tales
Today, lunch at the Lloyd Webbers' consists of a seafood salad, lamb chops and baby vegetables.

Lloyd Webber's 17-year-old son, Nicholas, just back from a shopping spree at Eddie Bauer, is seated to his left. Facing him is Madeleine Lloyd Webber -- the composer's present wife and the mother of three of his five children. (Nicholas and his older sister, Imogen, are from Lloyd Webber's first marriage, to Sarah Norris, who is referred to in the household as "Sarah One." This to distinguish her from Sarah Brightman, wife No. 2, known as "Sarah B.")

An accomplished horse trainer, Madeleine is quick and funny, with an appealingly independent spirit that doesn't preclude a fierce loyalty to her husband. "Andrew needs constant affirmation, like most creative people, and she gives him a lot of attention," observes one acquaintance. "He's a lot more centered since he's been with her. And his haircuts are also a lot better."

The two met at a friend's dinner party, while Lloyd Webber was still wedded to Brightman. As Madeleine recalls, "We got on pretty well, and he started taking me to things. His then-wife was out doing his concert tours, and he was forever complaining that she was never around. I said, 'Of course she's not around. She's off doing your music. It's your bloody fault. If you stopped writing music for her, she might be around.' Anyway, she preferred to be singing, which was fine, because I became the other half, as it were, socially more than anything else. And the rest is history."

Andrew Lloyd Webber remains friendly with his former wives, who showed up recently for the 10th anniversary celebration of "Phantom" in London. "Now it's almost standard in England that if I have a major do, the two ex-wives are going to be there along with Madeleine," he says. "Nick's mum is going to be staying with us for Christmas, as usual. I find it funny that people don't understand why that might be. One does move on and change."

Nicholas, tousle-headed and rangy, is asked which of his father's works is his favorite.

"Doesn't have one," Lloyd Webber interjects.

His son disregards the aside. "I think one of my favorites -- and I don't know if Andrew likes this or not -- is 'Jesus Christ Superstar.' It really says something, and it's quite different from the other things he does."

The groundbreaking rock musical, which Lloyd Webber wrote with Tim Rice, has just been given a revival in London's West End that threatens to generate a whole new round of controversy. "All the things I wanted originally are in this production, plus the 40 lashes," Lloyd Webber notes brightly. "It's quite clear that Jesus, Mary Magdalene and Judas Iscariot are a triangle, and that Judas is extremely jealous of Mary Magdalene. When he kisses Jesus on the mouth, he does so for about five or six seconds. I'm wondering how the charity audiences are going to take that."

A sobering thought occurs to him. "When I started writing it, I was 20. I have been on this planet for longer since the first incarnation of 'Superstar' than I was before. That's really terrifying."

Lloyd Webber and Rice had a severe falling-out after "Evita" in the late '70s, but for the movie version they have written a new song for Eva, "You Must Love Me." Any further rapprochement seems unlikely, though. "One of my larger regrets," Lloyd Webber allows, "is that I haven't found the one really long-term collaborator."

Still, the film is likely to re-cement him and Rice as a team in the public mind. "My feeling is that the reaction is going to be massive, judging from the response to the single on the radio," Lloyd Webber says. "But I don't go to the cinema very often. It's a completely new world to me. I'd be far more interested in my daughter's reaction to it than in my own. She's at Cambridge and knows her movies. I will say this: The sound is mind-blowing. It's going to be hard for me to keep crusading about the minimalist 'By Jeeves.' Nothing of mine has ever sounded like this before."

Final Acts
Eventually, luncheon gets around to dessert -- a bread pudding laced with chocolate -- and conversation gets around to posterity. Does Andrew Lloyd Webber ever give it a thought?

"No, not really. I'd like to make sure that my memorial service is completely orchestrated."

"I hope I go before Andrew, so I don't have to organize his funeral," chimes in Madeleine. Immediately, the two are swapping repartee, as if they were on "The Webbers," a sitcom about an indefatigable composer and his clever wife.

"What I've been thinking about is what we should send them out with," he says.

"Do you mean, T-shirts?" she asks.

"No. The music! What the play-out music should be, as people walk out of the church. 'Half a Moment' from 'By Jeeves' definitely figures in it."

"Please write all this down, Andrew, and put it in a safe somewhere, just in case I'm lumbered with it in the end."

"Shall we have Sarah B. singing the 'Pie, Jesu'?" (It's from his Requiem Mass.)

"No, we won't," she replies in mock horror. "Even if you write that in your will, it shall be crossed out. 'Sorry, she's not available.' "

"Then how about 'Wishing You Were Somehow Here Again' [from 'Phantom']? . . . Perhaps that could come in sort of small?"

The exchange has stirred up a gale of laughter. Andrew Lloyd Webber is enjoying himself mightily. The critics may delight in discounting his talents. But the world's most successful maker of hit musicals has a broad grin on his face as he sets about polishing off the bread pudding.

© Copyright 1996 The Washington Post Company

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