The cloning of Andrew Lloyd Webber
Whether it plays in the West End or a German forest, a Lloyd Webber product stays the same. But one market sector remains untouched by this one-man export drive: the cultural lite. And it hurts him. David Lister reports
A founder member of The Independent David Lister joined the paper in 1986 as Assistant Home Editor. He became the paper's arts correspondent in 1988 and is now Arts Editor and writes a column each Saturday. He is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts.
Saturday 11 February 1995
At a rustic beauty spot in the middle of nowhere, at the confluence of the Rhine and Main rivers, surrounded by forests and 20 minutes' drive on the autobahn from the nearest city, Frankfurt, a £25m theatre is being built.
It will have a massive glass frontage to give scenic views. It will have an adjoining hotel for those who want to stay the night. And it will show Andrew Lloyd Webber's Sunset Boulevard and nothing but Andrew Lloyd Webber's Sunset Boulevard, possibly in perpetuity.
The show will be performed entirely in German, and hopefully the legendary dialogue between the fading silent film star Norma Desmond and her young paramour - "Didn't you used to be big?" "I'm still big, it's the pictures that got small" - can survive translation into gross and klein.
Only Lloyd Webber could see the lucrative potential in a greenfield site theatre purpose-built for one of his shows and then persuade a hotel group to fund it, and to agree to his company, the Really Useful Group, producing the show, and even to sign a contract that provides for him supplying the next few shows in the unlikely event of Sunset Boulevard flopping.
Just over the Swiss border in Basle, another theatre is being purpose- built for another Lloyd Webber show, Phantom of the Opera. This £15m project is being funded by city businesses and the city fathers, and will again cede all production rights to the Really Useful Group with an "on- going programming option" to put in more Lloyd Webber shows in the unlikely event of Phantom failure. It is, at present, the only show in London for which it is genuinely impossible to get tickets.
Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber, the shy and rather nervy composer of swirling romantic melodies, has become Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber, the multinational businessman, managing (like so many multi-millionaires) to persuade other people to put up the money for his projects. And he has changed the nature of the export of theatre through one word which sits more comfortably with factory products than an art form.
He mentioned it to me last Christmas over lunch, when we were talking about the impresario Robert Stigwood, who produced his early ventures Jesus Christ Superstar and Evita. Sir Andrew said he had had an up-and- down relationship with Stigwood, but added that he had learnt one vitally important thing from him, "that it was possible to clone a show".
And clone he does. Every theatre around the world which takes a Lloyd Webber show is also contracted to take the original West End director, designer and sets. Never will you read about an interesting new production of Cats or Phantom. The prospect of different interpretations and different designs bringing out different nuances, different performances, whole new meanings - the very stuff that pumps adrenaline for most playwrights, composers and producers - is an anathema to Sir Andrew. To him, his shows are like paintings. Once completed, they hang forever as the artist created them.
This is why he was prepared to lose £1m in closing the original West End production of Sunset Boulevard for a month to have it sharpened up, and why Tom Stoppard missed the point when he made fun of this at an awards ceremony, saying he was closing his National Theatre play Arcadia to transfer it to the West End, and, "guess what - when I reopen it, it will be exactly the same."
Sir Andrew was not having it redirected just for the Adelphi Theatre in the Strand, but for the Rhine-Main theatre near Frankfurt, for Glenn Close on Broadway and, potentially, dozens of other theatres from Tokyo to Sydney.
The money earned from these cloned productions around the world can set the mind reeling. In Germany alone, licensed productions of Cats and Phantom of the Opera in Hamburg and Starlight Express in Bochum have together taken £1bn at the box office. Today, 32 Andrew Lloyd Webber productions will be playing in 20 countries.
Numerically, it is a figure dwarfed only by a playwright such as Alan Ayckbourn, whose plays are on in hundreds of theatres worldwide on any given night. But Sir Andrew's profits from the huge houses and long runs far outweigh Ayckbourn's royalties.
A successful show has become a product to be exported lock, stock and barrel. Cameron Mackintosh has played the same trick successfully with Miss Saigon in Stuttgart. This theatre was purpose-built, but as part of a city centre complex rather than on a greenfield site, and without the same production deals that Sir Andrew has insisted on.
But Sir Andrew did not just spend last year secretly persuading European businessmen to build new theatres which incorporated the hydraulic machinery for the sets of his shows. He now has his eye fixed on the one area where his success has been limited - film.
Again, Sir Andrew, rather than relying on his own personal fortune, has persuaded others to bankroll him. The multinational company Polygram has promised him $100m to go off and make musical films. The first, to be shot this year, will be a musical of Mary Hayley Bell's Whistle Down the Wind. The classic English story will this time have a New Orleans setting and a rock 'n' roll score with lyrics by Jim Steinman, lyricist for the rock singer Meatloaf.
Sir Andrew stands to be our most lucrative musical export in both theatre and film. But almost like a character from one of his musicals, he still worries about not being loved.
During his multimillion-pound deals last year, he made time to make a call out of the blue to a British journalist who had written some unkind words about him. In a heartfelt 10-minute monologue, Sir Andrew complained that he had never been valued in Britain the way he was abroad, that he could not comprehend why the chattering classes took delight in knocking him, and how it was a cause of constant depression to him.
The complaint, from one of the wealthiest and most successful men in the world, seemed bizarre, but it was not a case of paranoia. For all his talent, success and contribution to the balance of payments, Lloyd Webber still craves and still has not found acceptance in the world of British theatre, and among up-market theatre and music critics.
One of his former associates tried for jobs in some of the leading British repertory theatres. She found, to her amazement, that far from being a passport to employment, her association with Sir Andrew was something that theatre managements were sceptical about. After a time, she stopped mentioning it at interviews.
The scepticism stretches beyond the managements of conventional theatre into academia. Robert Hewison, professor in literary and cultural studies at Lancaster University, says that Lloyd Webber, as such a financial force, is assured a place in post-war cultural history, but doubts whether he has a lasting place in theatrical values. Hewison describes his work as "meretricious tripe".
He adds: "There is a kind of spiritual yearning in Andrew Lloyd Webber's work, but this yearning appears to be a very individual desire for spirituality, for starry greatness which takes very little view of society. It is entirely consonant with this would-be spirituality, the celebration of this individualism, that he should have written the Conservative Party campaign theme tune and was knighted shortly after."
Perhaps this has been one block to Lloyd Webber's acceptance. His lavish success has been in the theatre, but his values and political allegiances are not those of the current theatrical lite. Perhaps, most pertinently of all, nor are his audiences.
Damning with faint praise, Nicholas De Jongh, theatre critic of London's Evening Standard, says: "I don't think anyone thinks he is a great composer. He is the Ivor Novello of our times. As a maker of musicals, his popularity is fantastic. His flair is in finding themes of huge interest to a particular theatre-going public."
That theatre-going public is, of course, the coach party and the tourist, vital components for the economic survival of theatre, but not the audiences for whom our subsidised houses produce plays, or at whom cultural historians aim their treatises.
Yet, as the Germans and Swiss recognise, Lloyd Webber's best shows will run for decades exactly because their music and plots touch a vein of individual yearning and romance, which could yet entrance a wider public, a cultural lite who still avoid Lloyd Webber shows because he is not "one of us".
Thelma Holt, doyenne of West End producers of serious plays and a Lloyd Webber admirer, recognises a certain mean-spiritedness in the theatre's attitude to Sir Andrew. "He is a populist," she says. "An awful lot of people will go to see The Threepenny Opera but won't see a Lloyd Webber, because they mistakenly think one is a classic and the other is not. The British have never been generous about success. The spirit of envy is alive and well in the arts, as it is everywhere else."
Fiona Maddocks, editor of BBC Music Magazine, adds that among musicians and composers there is also "a lot of jealousy of Andrew because he does have this facility, this skill of using music as a way to convey drama. But he's not to everyone's taste. For many people, instead of enriching on further hearing, his music can seem thin. There's not enough conflict and struggle in it. Really great operatic music has many more layers."
As Sir Andrew continues his journey of colonisation, first of European theatre and next of musical film, he will be hoping he ceases to be judged either as operatic composer or playmaker without a proper social conscience, and given credit as a cultural force for an uncommon ability to be entertaining and uplifting.
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