Andrew Lloyd Webber: Don't cry for him

We may not have loved him, but we had to acknowledge his extraordinary success. Now his latest West End musical, 'The Woman in White', has been critically panned and his star is waning. Never mind. He still has a theatrical empire and £370m to console himself with
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The Independent Online

Taken collectively, they do not make happy reading. This week's first night reviews for Lord Lloyd-Webber's new musical The Woman in White, an adaptation of the Wilkie Collins thriller (itself hugely popular in its day) are almost without exception downbeat and disheartening. Despite the top-notch cast led by Maria Friedman and Michael Crawford, the experienced direction from Trevor Nunn and innovative design by William Dudley, the £3.75m show simply does not appear to sing. "A terrible disappointment," sighed the Telegraph; "... clunky rhymes and .. weak characterisation," judged The Times, awarding the show two stars out of five. "A show so old-fashioned," opined the London Evening Standard, "it deserves to be stuffed and displayed in a museum for deceased musicals."

Taken collectively, they do not make happy reading. This week's first night reviews for Lord Lloyd-Webber's new musical The Woman in White, an adaptation of the Wilkie Collins thriller (itself hugely popular in its day) are almost without exception downbeat and disheartening. Despite the top-notch cast led by Maria Friedman and Michael Crawford, the experienced direction from Trevor Nunn and innovative design by William Dudley, the £3.75m show simply does not appear to sing. "A terrible disappointment," sighed the Telegraph; "... clunky rhymes and .. weak characterisation," judged The Times, awarding the show two stars out of five. "A show so old-fashioned," opined the London Evening Standard, "it deserves to be stuffed and displayed in a museum for deceased musicals."

And with notices like that, deceased it may shortly be. Well-placed pundits give The Woman in White perhaps a year in the West End, maybe less - which, by the standards set during Lord Lloyd-Webber's creative prime, rates as a decided and very costly flop. By contrast Cats, the longest running musical ever, played for 21 years, until 2002.

In fact Lloyd Webber has not had a real hit for more than a decade, since 1993's Sunset Boulevard. His unmemorable collaboration with Ben Elton in 2000, The Beautiful Game, about sectarian divisions in Northern Ireland overcome through football (complete with on-stage knee-capping), was widely judged a failed attempt to attract younger people to old-fashioned musical theatre, and did desultory business for only 12 months. Bombay Dreams, which opened in 2002, suffered from too complicated a plot and after much tweaking ran for two years. A new Lloyd Webber musical is still - just - a significant cultural event. But it no longer arrives in a blaze of excited expectation, and it's no longer expected to shore up an increasingly beleaguered commercial West End. Has the man lost his touch?

Lloyd Webber has never been fashionable. Attitudes towards his work are often tinged with snobbery. A Lloyd Webber first night can be a strange, disorientating experience, once described by a senior drama critic as like "two worlds colliding". The defiantly populist, middle-brow, Middle England world of the Lloyd Webber musical exists alongside the chattering, high-brow, "serious" London theatre world, but the two very rarely meet. Over the past few years, half a dozen contemporary productions have been judged that exceptionally rare thing, a fashionable musical (Jerry Springer, the Opera, Sam Mendes's Cabaret, Rent, the production of Chicago with Ute Lemper) yet nothing by Lloyd Webber has come close. Much of his work is widely regarded as the musical equivalent of, say, a shelf of Tony Parsons' novels - enormously popular, yet hardly cutting edge.

This is a view that deeply irritates Lloyd Webber fans. "It's very unfair," says the lyricist Don Black, a friend and collaborator. "I think he's a musical genius, and I've worked with lots of composers. He's besotted with the genre, he relishes it, you can see it all over his face when he's at the piano and he has a new idea. If he gets the idea right, it's a global phenomenon. Sometimes he gets it wrong - but so did Rodgers and Hammerstein, so did Irving Berlin."

Yet Lloyd Webber, 56, is not well loved, or even much appreciated, by the great British public. Even those who like his work view him as curiously uncharismatic; a man who appears both overweeningly confident in his own talent - to the point of conceit - and rather diffident when it comes to praising others. Rumours of a short temper and a severe management style have long circulated in theatreland. ("On Monday it was, darling you were marvellous, and on Tuesday, I was the darling who was out," said Faye Dunaway on being sacked by Lloyd Webber from the LA production of Sunset Boulevard.) Yet the poor man is equally vilified for his Tory politics, his vast wealth, his looks, his choice of wives, and for introducing roller skates to the West End. In person he strikes one as an unconventional presence (but a presence nevertheless) whose boyish, bumptious enthusiasm for the theatre verges on obsession.

His upbringing was all about music. Father was an organist and composer who wanted to write film scores but did not have the confidence to break family expectation, and ended up an academic at the Royal College of Music. His mother meanwhile taught piano and nurtured a number of highly gifted protegés - her sons apparently not amongst them. Indeed Andrew and his younger brother Julian, the cellist, occasionally felt neglected by their parents. "There were moments when we sort of felt there was nobody really interested in us," Lord Lloyd-Webber has said. "It always seemed to be other people." It is the sort of parental behaviour perhaps guaranteed to instill in two brothers a sense of fierce competitiveness. Andrew was an undeniably precocious and cultured little boy who is said to have begun his famous art collection at the age of 12, when he bought his first drawing by Rossetti.

He was sent to Westminster, and then won a scholarship to Oxford University, but upon meeting the lyricist (now Sir) Tim Rice, dropped out after only a term to concentrate on writing music. In 1968, Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat was premiered at a school in London in the form of a 20-minute cantata. Three years later, Jesus Christ Superstar opened in New York, followed by Evita, Cats and Starlight Express. The Phantom of the Opera, Lloyd Webber's most successful musical from both a commercial and critical point of view, opened in October 1986. In the past, with more than a trace of the arrogance for which he is famous, he has described Phantom as "the biggest entertainment in any medium ever, including film. Forget Harry Potter, forget Titanic". Can this claim possibly be justified? "What he's done for theatre around the world cannot be exaggerated," says Don Black. "Phantom was a ground-breaking musical." It is currently playing in New York, London and Budapest, and on world tours taking it across the US, and to Korea, China and South Africa.

Today Lord Lloyd-Webber is worth an estimated £370m, of which £200m exists in the form of that extraordinary collection of art, said to be one of the finest in Britain. He would like to be remembered for his acuteness of eye as much as ear, and last year exhibited roughly three quarters of the collection - some 300 paintings - at the Royal Academy, including works by the intermittently fashionable Pre-Raphaelites Holman Hunt and Burne-Jones. The high romanticism of these artists has been compared to Lloyd Webber's lushly sentimental musical style. He has also acquired theatres, buying 50 per cent of Stoll Moss Theatre (13 London playhouses, a significant chunk of Shaftesbury Avenue) through his company, The Really Useful Group, in 2000.

The gossip columnists have meanwhile made a living from Lord Lloyd Webber's acquisition of wives. The two Sarahs (Hugill and the pre-Raphaelite-esque Brightman) were followed in 1991 by Madeleine Gurdon, a brigadier's daughter who set about creating a stud at the family home in Sydmonton (he was elevated to the peerage as The Lord Lloyd-Webber of Sydmonton by John Major in 1997) and now breeds racehorses.

Lloyd Webber is undeniably a man who loves the finer things in life, then, rather than a tortured genius who suffers for his art. But perhaps the lovely paintings and the fabulous wine - he is also a famous oenophile - will prove some comfort in the face of critical disappointment. The West End is not dependent upon the success of The Woman in White. Rather, it now looks forward to a succession of much more likely hits: Mary Poppins, Billy Elliot and The Producers, none of them bearing the fingerprints of the once Midas-like Andrew Lloyd Webber.

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