Local Arts

8 things you probably don’t know about composer Andrew Lloyd Webber

Performers pose for the 2014 London reboot of ALW’s “Cats,” which premiered in 1981 in London and played there for 21 years.
Performers pose for the 2014 London reboot of ALW’s “Cats,” which premiered in 1981 in London and played there for 21 years. AP

Years with the number 8 in them have been good for Andrew Lloyd Webber.

He was born in 1948. Coincidentally, he shares a March 22 birthday with the other most important theatrical composer of the last 50 years, Stephen Sondheim.

Lloyd Webber’s first hit, “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat,” premiered in a 20-minute version in 1968, though it would not be expanded into its modern form until 1974.

“Evita,” the first ALW show to play more than 1,000 performances on Broadway, opened in London’s West End in 1978 before reaching New York the following year.

“The Phantom of the Opera,” the longest-running musical in world history (12,730 performances as I write this) opened on Broadway in 1988.

In 1998, he produced a film version of “Cats,” starring Elaine Paige (the original Grizabella in London), Ken Page (the original Old Deuteronomy in New York) and Oscar-winner John Mills as Gus, the Theater Cat.

Though 2008 passed without much activity, other than a spot as a guest judge on “American Idol,” 2018 brought a Tony Award for lifetime achievement in theater and the publication of his memoirs, “Unmasked.”

Meanwhile, “Love Never Dies” – a “Phantom” sequel that takes Christine, Raoul and the title character to Coney Island at the start of the 20th century – continues its North American tour. The Broadway Lights series brings “Dies” to Belk Theater Sept. 11 for a week-long run. In its honor, we present eight things you probably don’t know about Andrew Lloyd Webber.

Andrew Lloyd Webber at the Grammys in January. Evan Agostini Evan Agostini/Invision/AP

1) He wrote his first full-length musical at 17. ALW met aspiring pop-song writer Tim Rice, then 20, and collaborated in 1965 on “The Likes of Us,” which has never had a production in London or New York. It debuted in 2005 at the Sydmonton Festival, on ALW’s estate.

“Oliver!,” a musical about a 19th-century pickpocket who provides a home for orphans in London’s East End, was then on a six-year tear in the West End. “Likes,” an old-fashioned show unlike future Rice-ALW collaborations, is about a 19th-century doctor who provides a home for orphans in London’s East End. Hmmm…. (Fagin’s a criminal, of course, and Dr. Bernardo’s a philanthropist.) A well-sung recording of the show from the Sydmonton premiere uses Stephen Fry as its narrator.

2) He has collaborated with more lyricists than any successful composer in Broadway history. ALW has paired with 13 credited co-writers through “Dies,” plus uncredited ones. For instance, he wanted Alan Jay Lerner to write “Phantom,” but the lyricist of “Gigi” and “My Fair Lady” was too weak to commit fully and died of cancer in 1986. His contributions have been disputed, though he reportedly wrote the words for “Masquerade.”

Early in his career, ALW had the reputation for being hard to deal with. He has apparently mellowed, and several people (including Glenn Slater, the lyricist for “School of Rock” and “Dies”) have worked with him more than once.

3) The show that should’ve been a surefire hit became his biggest failure. In 1975, he paired with Alan Ayckbourn for “Jeeves.” Ayckbourn, England’s most beloved writer of stage comedies, adapted stories by P.G. Wodehouse, its most beloved writer of comic stories. Wodehouse died two months before the show opened, which provided extra publicity.

Yet it ran just 38 performances in the West End. (Part of the problem may have been that Jeeves remained a zero; he didn’t even have a song.) I asked ALW in a rare interview – more about that in a moment – if he planned to revive the show, which has appealing numbers: “Half a Moment,” which Sarah Brightman used to sing in concert, catches the ear. “You can’t revive a corpse,” he said. Yet he tried in 1996, retitling it “By Jeeves.” It lasted seven months in London but managed just 73 performances when it finally reached Broadway five years later.

4) He has an honorary degree from the University of South Carolina. On May 12, 1990, USC awarded degrees to ALW, Disney CEO Michael Eisner and President George Bush, the commencement speaker. Said Bush, “I don’t know how many of you have heard me speak before, but being on stage with Andrew Lloyd Webber is about as close as I’ll ever get to a dramatic presentation.”

I took part in joint interviews with the unhelpful Eisner, who seemed to recite every answer from a memorized script, and ALW. The composer’s terseness came across as discomfort, rather than rudeness. He occasionally looked to Brightman, then his wife, for approval. Her massive sun hat concealed everything but her jaw from public view, so none of us knew her thoughts.

5) The alleged feud with Stephen Sondheim was fueled only by fans. The two composers, rivals for awards and audiences through the 1970s and ’80s, inspired endless debates. Those came to a head in 1988, when the Tony Awards gave best musical to “Phantom” and best score to Sondheim’s “Into the Woods.” (Both are masters of their craft, so these arguments had all the relevance of bald men fighting over a comb.)

Yet the two never attacked each other in public and ended rumors of enmity when they played a piano duet for the show “Hey, Mr. Producer!” – a tribute to Cameron Mackintosh. The fabled producer had mounted shows of both men’s music (and, coincidentally, later put Charlotte’s Eva Noblezada in “Miss Saigon”).

6) He had a mini-career as a film composer. As the concept album “Jesus Christ Superstar” took America by storm, the movie “Gumshoe” premiered in 1971. Albert Finney played a nightclub comedian who wants to be a private eye; ALW and director Stephen Frears, who went on to Oscar nominations for “The Grifters” and “The Queen,” both made feature film debuts.

ALW did the Jon Voight thriller “The Odessa File” in 1974, then never wrote another original film score. Coincidentally, he and Sondheim won their only Oscars with songs for characters played by Madonna: “You Must Love Me” in “Evita” and “Sooner or Later” in “Dick Tracy.”

7) An unusual theme runs through many of his musicals. Six have been about competitions: not for a job or a lover’s attention, but actual contests. “Evita” centers around an election and struggle for power; the characters in “Cats” compete to go to the Heavyside Layer (i.e. heaven); “Starlight Express” pits trains against each other in a race; students in “School of Rock” battle to get into a band and then enter a battle of the bands; “Cricket” and “The Beautiful Game” follow cricketers and soccer players.

Draw your own conclusions about why he loves this theme. He even wrote an anthem for the 1992 Barcelona Olympics: “Amigos Para Siempre – Friends for Life,” performed by Brightman and Jose Carreras.

8) “Love Never Dies” would have reached us earlier, if not for the composer’s cat. ALW noodled around with a “Phantom” sequel as early as 1990. After Frederick Forsyth’s “The Phantom of Manhattan” came out in 1999, he decided to use the novel’s story line. But in 2007, ALW’s kitten, Otto, climbed into the frame of his digital Clavinova piano, which has a built-in computer. He told the London Daily Mail, “Otto … jumped onto the computer and destroyed the entire score for the new ‘Phantom’ in one fell swoop.” (Maybe Otto jealously sensed the original would break the Broadway longevity record set by “Cats.”)

Lloyd Webber reconstructed and rewrote the score, shifting the locale from a Manhattan penthouse to Coney Island. The show opened to harsh reviews in the West End in 2010, so he reworked it for Australia in 2011 and reworked it again before the North American tour, which began last year. When it gets here, we’ll find out if Otto was a drama critic in disguise.