Missing those high notes

Andrew Lloyd Webber is shedding his wine, his house and his cars. Is the man who takes tax manuals to bed changing his tune?

For once, the hype from Sotheby's may be justified.

Next month's sale of Andrew Lloyd Webber's wine cellar really does sound like "a roll-call of the most beautiful and perhaps the most opulent, wines ever to be created" - even though it is Sotheby's own wine guru who says so.

Under the hammer will come 18,000 bottles including: five bottles of Chateau Margaux 1900 at an estimated pounds 2,000-pounds 3,000 each; Cheval Blanc 1947, pounds 30,000 per case; and Chateau d'Yquem 1900 which is expected to fetch pounds 3,000 a bottle. Lord Lloyd Webber, who has been buying wine since he was at school in the mid-Sixties, can expect to raise pounds 2m from the sale.

The great impresario, composer and capitalist explains why he is selling: "One of my larger problems is that I'm an incurable collector. Wine is alive and I now realise that I have been hogging far too much of it. It is time for a clear-out."

Another problem is that his profits are falling, and his artistic inspiration may be fading, but it is Lloyd Webber as collector that is the stuff of a psychiatrist's dream. He admits to having an obsession about wanting to own everything, yet he appears to have experienced a Damascene conversion, and wants to get rid of it all.

Wine is not all he is selling. The six-floor, six-bedroom home in Eaton Square, Belgravia is on the market for pounds 15m, because, he says, his wife Madeleine prefers somewhere easier to run. His car fleet is shrinking: he recently donated a vintage Bentley to the Tories for fund-raising.

There are other changes. Some of his horses are being transferred from his country seat, Sydmonton Court in Berkshire, to Kiltanin Castle, his estate in Ireland. Plans for a public museum in this country for his great Pre-Raphaelite art collection which he has amassed with the passion he once devoted to wine have slowed down. This is downshifting on an epic scale.

Associates talk of him spending more time in America and Ireland. He is said to have told friends that if Labour wins the election he will consider becoming a tax exile, probably in Ireland where he would be exempt from income tax. If this was calculated to stop Labour in its tracks, it backfired. Labour MPs signed a motion claiming the possibility of his emigrating was another reason to vote Labour.

He will be fifty next year. He took up his seat in the House of Lords two months ago. He has won an Oscar for his work on Evita. In others, such behaviour could be attributed to a mid-life crisis and a wish to slow down and to concentrate on the finer things.

But that is not in Lord Lloyd Webber's nature. This is a man for whom making money is a passion; he even reads tax manuals in bed. The idea that he will sit and watch the grass grow in Tipperary does not ring true.

As a fervent Conservative, another Major government threatens to appoint him as a "cultural ambassador".Perhaps he feels he would be made a target by an incoming Labour government. He does not like paying large sums in tax and may resent the rigorous minds in the Inland Revenue, who, presumably, will be given greater encouragement to hound the rich.

If he were to go, few tears would be shed. The public has never taken Lord Lloyd Webber to its collective heart. It must gall him that Sir Tim Rice, his less successful erstwhile collaborator on Evita and Jesus Christ Superstar, is more popular. Partly, it is Lloyd Webber's frequently self- important and bumptious manner that is to blame. He is known in his profession as a control freak, prone to bouts of bad temper if things do not go his way.

For someone used to seeing his name in lights, he is surprisingly secretive. He would not be interviewed for this article, even by phone. Anyone writing about him does so in the knowledge there is the threat of an angry lawyer's letter or, worse, a writ.

He retains a battery of heavyweight advisers, including Sir Tim Bell, who handles his public relations. Bell's agency, Lowe Bell, told me not to expect anyone to speak about him on the record at Lloyd Webber's private company either. They were right.

Maybe he is trying to evade the fact that a study of Lord Lloyd Webber's company accounts reveals that the composer of The Phantom of the Opera and Cats, is not the profit-generating genius he once was. He is still one of the richest men in Britain; the latest annual survey puts his fortune at around pounds 550m. There are homes in New York and France, as well as Britain and Ireland, though feeding his obsessive pursuit as a collector can lead to colossal outgoings. Last year, he admitted that paying pounds 18m for a Picasso, had "rather cleaned me out".

Furthermore, there have been two expensive divorces. Madeleine is his third wife, who he married after Sarah Brightman. Before Brightman there was Sarah Jane, with whom he had two children. Sarah Jane has remarried and Lloyd Webber bought a house for her and her new husband.

Each wife has meant a change in style. With Sarah Jane he was the family man who wanted to get back to Sydmonton. With Brightman, star of Phantom, life was grander with servants and minders in tow. Madeleine, the daughter of an Army officer, is a countrywoman who loves horses; hence stud farms here and in Ireland.

The cash for all this comes from Really Useful Holdings. He owns 70 per cent, and Polygram, the Dutch record label, owns 30 per cent, but turnover has not grown for three years. In 1994, sales for the group were pounds 110m. In 1995, they fell to pounds 95.6m and last year, they were back up to pounds 110m. Profits, which were pounds 46m in 1994, fell to pounds 30m in 1995 and, despite the recovery in sales, stayed the same in 1996.

Even more significant is the performance of Really Useful Group, the subsidiary that manages his musicals. In 1994, its profits were pounds 35.4m, in 1995 they were down to pounds 26.1m and they fell again in 1996 to pounds 21.7m.

The amount paid to Lloyd Webber for his share of the copyrights has also been falling: from pounds 19.7m in 1994 to pounds 18.6m in 1995 - much what he paid for Picasso's Angel Fernandez de Soto. At the same time, the company has been borrowing heavily. In 1994, Really Useful Holdings had bank overdrafts and loans totalling pounds 221,000. In 1995, they soared to pounds 17.1m.

This is a far cry from the heady days of 1986, when Really Useful floated on the stock market. The City was greedy at the prospect of spectacular and sustained growth, with hit shows in the pipeline and spin-offs galore. But that never quite happened. Lord Lloyd Webber soon tired of having to answer to City analysts, and within four years of taking his company to market, he took it private again.

Really Useful's last major hit coincided with those four years. The Phantom of the Opera, which was launched in 1988, has grossed hundreds of millions of pounds. Cats - opened in 1981 - is well over the pounds 1bn mark. But both were produced by Lloyd Webber working with Sir Cameron Mackintosh. That collaboration ended and it is Mackintosh who went on to produce global hits in Miss Saigon and Five Guys Named Moe. Lloyd Webber, by contrast, produced Aspects of Love and Shirley Valentine.

Undeterred, the talk was, until recently, of expansion. In an interview with the New York Times last June, Patrick McKenna, Really Useful's chief executive, spoke of live-action or cartoon versions of Cats, Phantom, Joseph and the Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat and Starlight Express. Theatre complexes, said Mr McKenna, would be built in Las Vegas and London to show Lloyd Webber productions. Since then, the building plans have been scrapped and the films postponed. In January, 18 of Really Useful's 95 staff were declared redundant.

When Lloyd Webber has a hit, it's huge. But so are his flops, and Sunset Boulevard has been a flop. The show closed in London and New York earlier this month, to be followed shortly by the German version and the US road tour. Sunset Boulevard, a story of hollow Hollywood glamour, was more adult than most of his shows. Children did not pester to see it, and people did not go twice. Nor did it parade great stars, though when Glenn Close was in it, sales soared.

The set was spectacular and hugely expensive. The Hollywood mansion on the Broadway set cost $2.75m (pounds 1.7m) to build, and $1.5m to install. Lloyd Webber's fees as composer and producer came out of a weekly budget estimated to be twice that needed by Miss Saigon. The New York investors have been complaining they have seen little return for their money.

The idea that Lloyd Webber might be losing his touch has been bolstered by his latest show, Whistle Down The Wind, which opened in Washington DC, but did not transfer to New York. Having shut it, Lloyd Webber is anxiously rewriting in the United States.

Perhaps he has gone out of fashion. The crowd-pullers on Broadway these days are noisy, fast and furious affairs, with minimal sets like Rent, and Bring In 'Da Noise, Bring In 'Da Funk.

Two weeks ago, the Lloyd Webbers arrived at Elton John's fiftieth birthday party. He cut an incongruous figure in Leyton Orient football kit; she came as a bunny girl. This was a social occasion but it is hard to imagine business was ever far away, especially as John Reid, Elton John's frenetic manager, has been installed as Lloyd Webber's personal business manager.

Reid and Elton John would love to go into musicals. Lloyd Webber, no doubt, would love them to do so with him, and it would be a neat fit because Polygram is Elton John's label.

Lloyd Webber has done best with a strong partner. If Elton John could play that role, he might be Lloyd Webber's salvation. For him, it is a risk he can afford to take. After selling his wine and London house, Lloyd Webber still has the estates in Berkshire and Ireland, the apartment in Trump Tower, the villa in Cap Ferrat and, of course, the paintings to fall back on.

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