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Andrew Lloyd Webber: we must fight to keep music alive

Andrew Lloyd Webber has been relentless in his drive to get music and theatre back on track after the pandemic. As he releases a new recording of orchestral suites to highlight the issue, the composer shares his thoughts with Stephen Moss

andrew loyd webber

What should I call you, I ask Andrew Lloyd Webber. Andrew; Lord Lloyd-Webber (with the hyphen insisted on by the House of Lords); or Baron Lloyd-Webber of Sydmonton in the County of Hampshire, if we’re being super-formal? ‘Call me Andrew,’ he says breezily. ‘It’ll be quicker.’

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And speed is of the essence. He is grappling with final previews of Cinderella when we talk, time is short and there is much in his prodigious 50-year career to pack in. This may have to be a Greatest Hits interview rather than the full three-hour extravaganza.

In a way that is appropriate, because the reason we are talking is a new album called Andrew Lloyd Webber: Symphonic Suites, freshly orchestrated versions of music from three of his best loved shows – Evita, Sunset Boulevard and The Phantom of the Opera (one of the best stage musicals ever).

They were performed by a hand-picked orchestra and recorded in Lloyd Webber’s own beloved and newly refurbished Theatre Royal Drury Lane, which provided a stage large enough for 81 socially-distanced players, a perfect acoustic and a twin return to music-making and theatre. The disc is a potted history of high points in his career, but also a symbolic return to something like normal cultural life after the pandemic.

Ah yes the pandemic… and the fight to keep musical theatre open

Lloyd Webber has been a prominent critic of the government’s perceived lack of support for culture in general and theatre in particular over the past 18 months. Cinderella, which cost £6m to put on, was endlessly delayed and initially forced to play to half-capacity audiences – and shortly after we talk, its planned opening night in front of a full house gets cancelled when one of the cast tests positive for Covid-19. It has all left him exhausted, fearful for the future – his Really Useful Group of theatres can’t exist on thin air forever – but not quite ready to throw in the towel. At 73, his love of music theatre and his desire to compose burn as brightly as ever.

‘I tried my best to get music open during the pandemic and to fight government inconsistencies,’ he reflects. ‘When we opened Cinderella we were socially distanced with a really well-behaved audience sitting in a beautifully ventilated theatre, and then members of the audience were contacting us saying they were on a train going home with football fans drinking, with no masks and some of them not wearing shirts. You just wondered what possible logic there was in keeping our buildings closed. I wondered if they should close everything else down and open up theatres to see what would happen.’

Lloyd Webber took legal action against the government to force it to publish the results of pilot events, which he says demonstrated that theatres were not a high-risk area, and even said he would be prepared to open illegally and go to prison if his theatres weren’t allowed to operate. ‘I said it was all nonsense and I would have been quite prepared to have a full audience and break the law, but I couldn’t do it because we were advised by counsel that every member of the audience, cast and crew would be liable to a £500 fine.’ He reflects on the tiny amount that commercial theatre in the UK has received from the government during the pandemic – he says his company has received nothing at all – compared to the assistance provided to the sector elsewhere.

He hopes the release of Symphonic Suites will mark a watershed in music theatre’s fightback against the ravages of the pandemic, with his music for Evita, Sunset Boulevard and The Phantom of the Opera orchestrated by Andrew Cottee and conducted by long-time collaborator Simon Lee.

‘I felt it would be good to let somebody else have a go [at the scores],’ he says. ‘I edited them a little bit and Decca wanted to record them, but the issue was that with social distancing there wasn’t a studio big enough. Abbey Road couldn’t take 81 musicians, so I suggested using the stage at the Theatre Royal Drury Lane. We tried it and the extraordinary thing was that the acoustic on the stage was really good for a big orchestra.’

Lloyd Webber says he has long wanted to fashion orchestral suites from his shows, but had never found the time. So why start with these three? ‘We thought Sunset Boulevard would work well because it needed a kind of Hollywood sweep to it. I had done an Evita suite earlier, but I was never very pleased with it and I thought we should probably do that again. And Phantom was the one that everybody wanted. But I want to go on and do others. I want to do Cinderella, Cats, Aspects of Love.’

You would think that having the music from these much-loved shows – The Phantom of the Opera has been running in London’s West End for a staggering 35 years – orchestrated by someone else might cause a little unease on Lloyd Webber’s part, but he says he found the process ‘refreshing’. ‘I didn’t want to go back over my old shows other than to do a bit of editing,’ he says. ‘He [Cottee] is a brilliant orchestrator, and it’s lovely to hear some textures that I might never have thought of.’

The disc was recorded at the height of the pandemic in the spring, and many of the musicians involved hadn’t worked for a year. Lloyd Webber says the day of the recording was an emotional occasion: ‘To have a full orchestra on the stage of the Theatre Royal Drury Lane was a wonderful thing.’ Despite the need to space out musicians on the stage, he says, ‘it’s the best orchestral sound I’ve ever had.’

Does Lloyd Webber have a favourite musical?

Lloyd Webber has composed more than 20 musicals in a career that began in his late teens with The Likes of Us, which was only staged for the first time 40 years later. His breakthrough came, aged 20, with Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, with lyrics by Tim Rice, his writing partner for the first ten years of his career. Jesus Christ Superstar, Evita, Cats, The Phantom of the Opera, Aspects of Love and Sunset Boulevard are his best-known shows, but he refuses to name favourites. ‘They’re all like children,’ he says, ‘and you have your own particular love of bits of them.’ 

He says predicting what will work and what won’t is hugely difficult, because all the constituent parts in a show have to meld by some sort of theatrical alchemy. ‘With a musical, everything has got to come together in the production. I come back to what Hal Prince [the original director of Phantom] said to me very early in my career, which was that you can’t listen to a musical if you can’t look at it. The production has got to be absolutely right. A great score can’t save a not very good story.’

Does the relative failure of some of his more wayward children – Whistle Down the Wind, The Woman in White, Love Never Dies, Stephen Ward – bother him? ‘Not really,’ he says. ‘I always want to get on with the next thing, and there are certain shows where one realises that maybe all of the elements of the production weren’t right. I had a period of several years when I really wasn’t very well [with prostate cancer and back pain] and I don’t know whether I might go back over Stephen Ward, which was written when I was sitting there on morphine.’ Lloyd Webber likes to believe that every show can be salvaged with the right production, and it is true that even relatively unsuccessful musicals such as The Beautiful Game can have second lives later if a fresh director picks them up and attempts something new.

What drives Lloyd Webber to carry on writing musicals and running his theatrical empire?

At 73 he has nothing left to prove. Why not take it easy? ‘I already know what I want to do next [after Cinderella], but I can’t talk about it yet.’ This is his way of saying that he doesn’t intend to get off the carousel any time soon. ‘I love musicals, and I love writing musicals. That’s the answer to any question. If they don’t work, they don’t work, and if they do work, they do work, but it’s what I enjoy doing and so long as I can do it, I’d quite like to continue doing it.’

His music has always met with resistance among some critics. Do the naysayers get under his skin? ‘I’m just concerned with feeling that I’ve done my best,’ he says. The late Dutch modernist composer Louis Andriessen was particularly scathing about what he saw as the derivative nature of Lloyd Webber’s compositions. Did the verdict of a fellow composer faze him? ‘Not really,’ he says. ‘I actually don’t know who he is.’

Lloyd Webber has composed very little music outside the theatre. He wrote a Requiem dedicated to his composer father William Lloyd Webber, who died in 1982, a set of variations based on Paganini’s Caprice No. 24 for his cellist brother Julian, part of which was used as the theme music to the South Bank Show, and has produced two film scores.

Would he like to have written more ‘straight’ classical music?

‘I don’t think I could,’ he says. ‘I’m a theatrical animal.’ He even conceived the Requiem in theatrical terms, and adds that he may one day rework it as ‘I’m not very happy with it’. Is it not tempting to emulate Rossini, and indulge himself with some musical ‘sins of old age’ – personal pieces that don’t rely on some vast theatrical machine? No, he says, he is addicted to the unpredictable magic of that machine.

The addiction started early. ‘I remember when I was about ten going to see [Puccini’s] Bohème in the Adelphi, of all places, My Fair Lady, West Side Story in Her Majesty’s, South Pacific on film, Gigi. I built my own theatre. I wrote – or rather my father extrapolated from my nursery jottings – a suite of music called The Toy Theatre. There was also a wonderful pop show on Saturday nights called Oh Boy! directed by Jack Good, who went on to do the rock Othello. Oh Boy! was broadcast from the Hackney Empire, and I loved the theatricality and the fact that he used the building and used pop music in that way. So I never saw any difference between rock and pop and theatre. It was always just one thing for me. I was in love with theatre by the time I was eight years old.’

Lloyd Webber’s younger brother Julian once said their father advised them against a musical career, though possibly only as a way of warning them they should be certain of their choice and be willing to commit to it completely. But Andrew says there was never much doubt what he would do with his life. ‘My father was sure I would go into musical theatre pretty early on.’ His mother, Jean Hermione Johnstone, was a distinguished music teacher, and her sister an actress. Lloyd Webber was never going to be an accountant.

His love of musicals endured into his teenage years at a time when, thanks to the pop explosion, they had become deeply unfashionable. ‘To say one loved Rodgers and Hammerstein, which I did, when I was 13 – people just laughed. I remember the father of one of my great friends at school saying “You can’t like Carousel. It’s sentimental twaddle.” When I was a teenager, people laughed at you if you liked The Sound of Music, but I loved all that.’ Unfashionability came early to Lloyd Webber, and may explain his resilience during his long career. 

So what musical mountains remain for Lloyd Webber to conquer?

‘I can’t really answer that,’ he says. ‘What’s left is the next show. I like to get on, and take on subjects that are a bit challenging. In its own way, Cinderella has quite a serious point, which is that you shouldn’t alter yourself because others tell you to. Just be yourself. As I did with The Beautiful Game, which was about Northern Ireland, the next thing I do I’d quite like to take on a subject that’s got some meat in it and which is a little bit leftfield. A good story is the most important thing. That’s what gets my compositional juices flowing.’ Indeed, Lloyd Webber does not write with a view to conquest, but simply out of compulsion.

Andrew Lloyd Webber: Symphonic Suites has been released by Decca 

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Top image by Gregg Delman