Andrew Lloyd Webber: Rich, a name I call myself

Eccentric, anxious and very canny: the impresario has climbed to the top of the musicals mountain
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Daddy Cool, the musical packed with Boney M songs, opened in London last week. Over the next few days Wicked, the most successful Broadway musical ever and Spamalot, the Monty Python musical which has also had a hit run in New York, both launch in the West End. They are not his shows (although Spamalot is in one of his theatres), but Andrew Lloyd Webber will not be worried; his appearance on the televised Sound of Music contest has made his position as the king of the musical unassailable.

Given his view that the West End musical is in a parlous state and that he wants to inject it with new vigour, his TV show was extraordinarily successful at drumming up advance publicity and thus ticket sales; it has also kept his musical in the news all week.

Even the news last week that Emma Williams - the professional singer hired to act as stand-in for the neophyte star of the show, Connie Fisher - has taken leave of the production apparently angered at having her contribution "downgraded" (Fisher says she wants to sing all eight shows a week) is unlikely to faze Lloyd Webber. His investment in How Do You Solve A Problem Like Maria? has paid dividends above and beyond its intended purpose. There is talk of an American version of the show and Lloyd Webber is considering using the format to find lyricists and librettists.

Yet even the unusual sight of Lloyd Webber on television as he went about his business does not begin to get to the bottom of a mystery. Why is it that one of the most successful British musical composers is so reviled? Professional envy is one thing and maybe the personal fortune of an estimated £700m is likely to make the humble songsmith viridian with jealousy. But even that doesn't account for the sheer odium of the personal attacks.

For many people, Lloyd Webber's appearance is typified by his Spitting Image puppet - a strangely coiffed homunculus whose limited talent has given him limitless wealth. "He is not a person about whom it is logical to be jealous," says Christopher Hampton, who wrote the book for Sunset Boulevard. "He is so anxious about his work and worries about it all the time that he never lolls around enjoying his millions. He pays the price for his success in anxiety."

Anyone who has ever dealt with him attests to his nervous manner. He's wired tighter than one of his brother's cellos. And he has, says Hampton, "a short attention span on a grand scale. Once he gets started on something he is very impatient for it to be finished."

Like any good entrepreneur, Lloyd Webber knows what he wants and how to achieve it. The detail of his criticism and notes to his potential Marias was impressive; his aesthetic instincts are strong and he did not try and compete with X Factor. "Ours is more than just a singing contest," he said in a recent interview. "And as the weeks have gone on I've enjoyed it more and more. This is what I do. It's just without the cameras, usually."

Of course it's been tough on the losers. But real auditions, he says, are much more brutal. And he seems incapable of hiding his feelings. The words "You're not Maria" became a mantra of dread which he couldn't help but enjoy, even if he was thinking of some alternative career path for the failed candidate.

Lloyd Webber brought the age of the British musical back from the dead with a combination of songs that sounded familiar, melodramatic stories and sheer showmanship. If Starlight Express was an abomination, Cats was a stroke of genius; if Jeeves failed to catch fire, The Phantom of the Opera was a conflagration. Without Lloyd Webber we might not have had the climate for The Lion King and Billy Elliot.

He is above all, a great marketeer. Together with Tim Rice, he invented a new way of pre-selling a musical by recording the music first and putting it out as an LP before the show hit the stage. Most people come away from musicals humming the tunes, but the audiences who arrived for Jesus Christ Superstar and Evita were humming the tunes on the way to them.

Born in 1948 in South Kensington, Lloyd Webber had music running through his genes. His father, William Southcombe Lloyd Webber, was a professor of theory and composition at the Royal College of Music; his mother, Jean Johnstone Lloyd Webber, was a piano and violin teacher. His brother, Julian, is a cellist of international renown.

Andrew began playing violin at the age of three. By six, he was composing his own songs and had a piece of music published at nine. Encouraged by his Aunt Vi who took him to see My Fair Lady on stage, and Gigi and South Pacific in the cinema, he built a small theatre at home and wrote musicals for it.

A queen's scholar at Westminster School, he went up to read history at Magdalen College, Oxford, but dropped out when he met Tim Rice to pursue a career in musical theatre. Although their first collaboration, The Likes of Us, was not performed until 2005, their second effort, Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, got the juggernaut on the road. It has been rolling ever since.

There have been awards, of course, and personal honours. He was knighted in 1992 and created a life peer in 1997. He has houses all over the world, owns seven West End theatres, an extraordinary collection of paintings and has five children from his three marriages. Now married to Madeleine Gurdon, by whom he has three children, he claims to be on friendly terms with both his ex-wives, Sarah Hugill (1972-83) and Sarah Brightman (1984-90). Brightman originated the role of Christine in the first production of The Phantom of the Opera, opposite Michael Crawford.

Many of Lloyd Webber's broken relationships - from two wives to writing partners (he and Rice split in 1980) are a result of his inability to conceal his feelings. By a strange irony, the one time he could not express his horror or happiness was when he contracted Bell's palsy, which temporarily paralysed one side of his face.

His concern is the fate of the West End theatres. Part of the thinking behind How Do You Solve A Problem Like Maria? is to regenerate interest in prod- uctions to keep theatres running.

"The Theatre Royal is a Grade-1 listed building that isn't going to be viable without a major renovation. Air-conditioning is £20m. No commercial person can find that money and the theatre could never generate it, so what's the future?" he says.

It may be that stories of his inability to relax are a tad exaggerated. And it appears that he is not entirely bereft of humour, either. Rob Brydon relates how they were at an England vs New Zealand polo match in June. Just before the match began, a large Maori lady stood up to sing the New Zealand national anthem. Brydon recalls Lloyd Webber leaning over to him and hissing in his ear: "She's not Maria!"