Interview: Andrew and his amazing catchy tunes: Queues are forming for another Lloyd Webber musical. Why is the maestro so admired? Perhaps it's because we think we've heard it all before

Hunter Davies
Monday 17 May 1993 23:02
comments

VERY NICE, I said, very lovely, I'm sure it'll do great. Well, what else can you say when our leading creator in the field gives you a special showing of his latest creation? We'd walked from the back of his London house in Eaton Square, where he has his private office, run by three jolly Sloanie girls. 'On no account call us three jolly Sloanie girls,' said Sara, their leader, jollily, as we set off.

The journey seemed to take ages, through dark halls, deep drawing rooms. He bought the house from an Arab, then went off it. He failed to sell it, so converted it to Victoriana, filling it with his paintings - the poorer ones, the best being at Sydmonton, his Berkshire home. 'That's an Alma-Tadema, just bought in New York. Had to have it. Now I don't think I like it.' Eventually we made base camp in his front sitting room. He put on a video of his latest musical, Sunset Boulevard; queues round the globe, millions in advance bookings, and it doesn't open until the end of next month.

Trevor Nunn, the director, is still rehearsing the artistes, but Andrew made a video of a small-scale performance at Sydmonton. I found myself humming the title tune, plus another called With One Look; songs I felt I knew after only one showing. Barbra Streisand is doing both as singles.

Yes, lovely, Andrew, but what do you think the critics will say? 'Hard to tell. People who saw the try-out liked it, but it was small-scale. We might make a mess of it by going large scale.'

What about the punters? 'If you don't like Andrew Lloyd Webber, you won't like Sunset Boulevard. It's very me. I haven't pulled any emotional punches.'

Who likes Andrew Lloyd Webber? Mrs Thatcher did, and he was given a knighthood. Not just for writing tunes for the Party but bringing in squillions to the economy from endless foreign performances of his hit musicals. London's theatregoers do. How else could he manage to fill six West End theatres at the same time?

He looks better in the flesh than some of his more unfortunate photographs. Pale, fleshy skin, no hips, but pretty fit now that he's given up caffeine. He felt poorly, for no reason, had allergy tests which indicated coffee as the baddie.

He speaks excitedly, nervously, sometimes stumbling. I asked if he had a stammer as a child, which wasn't very kind. He stopped, glared and I thought he would clam up or turn angry. Trevor Nunn says he can be volatile when things upset him. But phew, he recovered, continuing to talk openly and, best of all, enthusiastically. I do love enthusiasts.

He has two equal enthusiasms in life - always has had - and maintains they are the clue to his character. 'I escape from one by going into the other, and arrive refreshed. Some creative people can't do that.'

Music was first, thanks to his family background, his mother a pianist and his father becoming director of the Royal College of Music. Young Andrew was on the cover of Nursery World at four playing the violin, but his brother, Julian, turned out to be the real performer.

He went to Westminster School, which he says was lucky. 'Next door is Westminster Abbey. I loved going to look at the stained glass by Bodley, the best anywhere.' Strange for a boy growing up in the Sixties, who followed all the pop music of the time, to also fall in love with the Victorian age. That was his second passion. On his own, he started going on little expeditions to churches and museums.

He mucked up A-levels, getting a D in History and an E in English. Bugger them, he thought, I'll put myself in for Oxford all the same. He sat the history entrance exam for Magdalen and questions came up on his self-selected expertise, the Pre-Raphaelites. 'No one had taught it me. I picked it up. Because I knew so much and didn't care whether I passed or not, I let myself go. I was pretty outspoken.' The result was an Exhibition.

So up to Oxford, but you had to be quick to spot him, for whoosh, he was down again after only one term. Trouble with the beaks? No, he had formed what he hoped would be a beautiful and meaningful relationship with a boy four years older, Tim Rice. He was tall and handsome, which poor Andrew never was, awfully fluent, witty, talented, in fact good at everything. Andrew wanted to write music for musicals and found that Tim wanted to write lyrics.

Did your folks protest, giving up university? 'No, they accepted it. I decided I'd do a year's course at the Royal College of Music instead, but my dad was not keen. He said it would 'educate the music out of me'.'

Good point. After all, Lennon and McCartney had no musical training. Wasn't your background more of a handicap than an asset? 'I'm not really all that musically trained. I only did a short course at the RCM. It was useful to know things like the French horn is a transpositional instrument. I didn't do the sort of course where you had to write a fugue in the style of Bach. All my composing has been instinctive. The things I now do can't be taught. I learnt how to do musicals by doing them.'

Their first together was a bummer that he'd rather forget about. They thought they'd try something Cockney, following the success of Lionel Bart, called The Likes of Us, all about Dr Barnardos. 'Thank heavens it never got put on.'

Their next try was Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, first produced in 1968, when Andrew was only 20. No need to list the follow-

ups. Around 1980, he and Tim Rice went their separate ways. No big row, he says, just time to go it alone. He did Variations on his own, then found other writers for later musicals.

'I still love him and admire his talents very much. I have high hopes we might work together again one day. We might do a musical based on King Saul, from the Bible story, which he's very keen on.'

His stage flops, such as Jeeves, are usually forgotten. 'I learnt most from that, as you do from all disasters.' And for various reasons, he has had no film successes. In fact no films, apart from Jesus Christ Superstar. Rights are sold, then nothing happens, although the struggles to make Evita would make a film in itself. It was going to star Madonna at one time, which he thought was a good idea, when she was young and fresh, but no one seems to like the idea now she is into decay. 'But it's nothing to do with me anyway. Disney owns the film rights.'

He is something of a period figure, with his passion for Victorians. In his work he has usually gone for period or dateless topics, often using second- hand material - from the Bible, T S Eliot, a long forgotten novel for Phantom of the Opera and now a 1950 movie for Sunset Boulevard. Was he scared of the new and the contemporary? Or just playing safe?

'I'm not sure if that's true,' he said, thinking long and hard down his CV. In the end, the only 'original' project he could think of was Tell me on a Sunday.

Traditionally, of course, the musical has used old stories, such as West Side Story and Oliver]. We discussed what happened to Lionel Bart, once the hope of the British musical, whose work he loved. Andrew likes to think his own passion for something outside showbusiness has helped him to cope with the pressures and keep up his creativity, unlike Bart. I suggested it could be because he was better at business.

'A lot of people presume that, but it's not true. I have no stocks and shares and I hardly know any lawyers. Well, Sir David Napley, but he's a personal friend. The last business decision I made was five years ago, when I bought back the Really Useful Group. I was fed up with having to please people in the City. I never go to my office in town. I work from home, in an informal atmosphere, as you can see. Once a month my managing director comes here with an update on what's happening. I devote myself to creating or collecting.'

The bulk of his collection is at Sydmonton, which he bought in 1974 when it had 27 acres. He has expanded it somewhat; it now has 4,000 acres, including the site of Watership Down. Inside, he has one of the best Pre-Raphaelite collections in the country - though not all the ones he would like. There's a gent near Carlisle who won't sell him a Burne- Jones oil he covets, and a little collection in Puerto Rico he'd love to have. See, have a good hobby, and you get to visit some exotic locations. What will happen to it in the end? 'One day I'd like to set up my own museum, open to the public.'

Meanwhile, the Canaletto and the Richard Dadd, on which he spent pounds 12m to save them for the nation, are on show at the Tate. Sounds generous, but I gather you still own them? 'My family trust does. I want to be able to control what happens to them. I'm pleased for example, to let the Canaletto go on show soon in Birmingham. It also means that in 100 years' time, should they go out of fashion, they will still have to be on show. You know that most museums have three-quarters of their treasures not on show. I don't want that.'

In his personal life he has had a few flops, considering that he is aged 45 and on to his third wife. He doesn't quite see it that way. 'I don't intend to repeat the process, but I have no regrets. I am still very close to my previous wives. In fact I had dinner with Sarah (Brightman) last night.' His first wife, also Sarah, was very young when they married.

'She was 18, and went straight from school to the opening of Jesus Christ on Broadway. It was a difficult life for her - and would be more so today.' The second Sarah was already part of showbusiness, but that brought its own problems. 'Without her, I would not have written for a soprano voice or have done the Requiem or Phantom, my most successful show, but life with her was difficult. She's a gypsy, a theatre animal, who loves her work. I became almost a recluse, nobody to go out with, while she worked. I started going out with Madeleine (Gurdon, his present wife) purely as a partner, for social occasions, not intending it to lead anywhere. She came along as my Other Half - and then became it.'

He has two children by his first marriage - Imogen, aged 16, who is at day school in London, and Nicholas, 14, at boarding school in Oxford. By his third wife he has a year-old son, Alastair, given a Scottish name because he was born with red hair. A second child is due in August.

His wife was a successful three-day eventer. She runs a mail-order fashion firm, The Done Thing, and is starting a stud at their country home.

His next project will be a book, based on his thoughts and research about the Pre-Raphaelite movement, a book he's been talking about for some years. This time he says it's definite. Once Sunset is safely launched.

The idea for a musical based on the Billy Wilder film came to him in 1972, while in New York, when he first saw it on late-night television. The subject came up again in 1978, after discussions with Hal Prince, who had had the same idea. This time Andrew knocked out a theme - the same one he has used today. He has also used a Hollywood-type song he wrote some years ago. 'Musicals are all about construction. You might have a good song, but it must be used in the right place.' The subject emerged again in the mid-Eighties, when it turned out that Christopher Hampton had also thought of it. The problem in the past had been copyright, which remains with Paramount Pictures, not Billy Wilder. With the present production, Paramount is technically a partner, so keeps a share of the proceeds.

'It's the first time I've worked with a serious dramatist, Christopher Hampton, and the first time I've used a lot of spoken dialogue. The title song is in 5/8 time, again a first for any of my title songs. An unusual beat for a popular song. It's meant to suggest restlessness.'

Some clever clogs are bound to suggest something else, such as a pinch. He gave a good-humoured groan. 'I write big, broad melodies, so I suppose that's why I get accused of plagiarism.

'I was asked to write the theme tune for the last Olympics, and given only three weeks' notice. I wrote it in 15 minutes, the simplest thing I ever did; so simple, that even I thought: 'Oh no, this is from something else.' So before I handed it in, I asked a musicologist to check it. He agreed it was simple, but it was an original melody.

'I do worry about what's happening to original melodies today. Last night I watched Top of the Pops, which I never miss. Each year I try to record a single aimed at the charts. It's my self-imposed challenge. I did it with 'Itsy Bitsy', which got to number one, and a theme I wrote based on a computer game, 'Tetris'. Not one of my more subtle productions, but it got to number six.

'Anyway, last night I realised that the present charts are either filled with old songs or new rubbish. I thought I'd never live to see the day when the best melody on Top of the Pops was a Eurovision Song Contest number . . .'

Keep at it, Andrew. Your country still needs you.

(Photograph omitted)

Join our new commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies

View comments