Andrew Lloyd Webber on 'Phantom,' 'Evita,' Michael Jackson

It’s the night of the Grammys and the scene on the red carpet is anarchy as Rick Ross struts in his multi-animal faux-fur coat, a multicolor-haired Cyndi Lauper talks #MeToo and host James Corden guffaws alongside New York Mayor Bill De Blasio in front of a sea of reporters. One serene face among the bedlam is that of Lord Andrew Lloyd Webber, the multiple-Grammy–winning composer whose works have dominated Broadway for nearly five decades.

Tonight, the awards show will spotlight his contributions in musical theater to New York City with a performance of Evita’s “Don’t Cry for Me Argentina” by Patti LuPone, the Great White Way’s first Eva Perón, who at age 68 will sing the challenging number stunningly. The performance represents the repair of a rough patch in Lloyd Webber’s life, since for decades LuPone has long cursed the composer’s name in interviews after she was passed over for a starring role in Sunset Boulevard in 1994. But now is a time for coming to terms with Lloyd Webber’s past.

The composer will turn 70 later this month, and he has spent much of his time recently reflecting as he wrote his newly released memoir, Unmasked, which chronicles his life up through the opening of Phantom of the Opera in 1986. “It tells a few of the warts and a few of the, as we say in Britain, ‘cock-ups,'” he calmly tells Rolling Stone, as Lana Del Rey flits by on the Grammys red carpet dressed as a fairy. “I didn’t want the book to me, ‘ … and then he won the Tony Award.'”

Also, in the spirit of celebration, Lloyd Webber is releasing a companion four-disc box set, Unmasked: The Platinum Collection, which spans his entire career with recordings of hits from various productions of Phantom, Evita, Jesus Christ Superstar, Cats and Joseph and His Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, among other works, alongside new recordings by Del Rey and Nicole Scherzinger and a rare recording of the Phantom movie’s “Learn to by Lonely” by Beyoncé. Additionally, NBC will be broadcasting Lloyd Webber’s first big hit, Jesus Christ Superstar, on Easter Sunday (April 1st) with a cast that includes John Legend, Sara Bareilles and Alice Cooper.

Amid the chaos of the carpet, Lloyd Webber is glib about his accomplishments and his life. What did he learn about himself from writing Unmasked? “How boring I am,” he says drolly, aided by his London accent.

And just how boring is he? “Very.”

Very? “Yes, very.” Then he relaxes his guard. “As I say in my very first introduction, I’m the most boring person I’ve ever written about, but I hope it’s quite fun,” he offers. “I hope it’s quite funny.”

The book, which he wrote with the help of “pretty accurate” office diaries, coupled with phone calls to friends who knew him at various points of his life, recall his early fascination with musical theater, the suicidal depression he felt as a teenager when his career seemed impossible, the surprise genesis of Superstar from rock concept album to stage show, the breakdown of his working relationship with lyricist Tim Rice, a ridiculous, champagne soaked first meeting with Barbra Streisand when she wanted to sing Cats’ “Memory” and backstage looks at his working relationships and marriages. By omitting much of the past three decades, he skipped a bout with cancer, a few ups and downs on Broadway and another marriage – but he says his life has largely worked out how he’d hoped.

This self-described boring composer has weighted down his bookshelf with seven Tonys, three Grammys, seven Oliviers, a Golden Globe, an Oscar, two international Emmys, a Kennedy Center Honors medal and several other trophies. He was knighted in the early Nineties and promoted to “honorary life peer” (a Lordship) in 1997. He owns seven theaters in London’s West End, he’s amassed a well-recognized collection of pricy pre-Raphaelite art and by many accounts he’s the wealthiest composer alive. And when he celebrates his 70th birthday this month, he’ll be surrounded by “everybody who has been part of my past – everybody – I mean wives, composers, theater people – they’ve all accepted to come.”

A few weeks after the Grammys, he phones Rolling Stone from his London home to candidly discuss his life and works up until this point – warts, cock-ups and all. He also sheds light on just why anyone would want to be a composer in the 21st Century. “I’m a composer for the joy of it,” he explains. “It’s what I do, and it’s what makes me tick, really. I always have melody in my head.”

When you listen to the box set – which contains nearly 50 years of music – what strikes you?
What I’m realizing now is that all the ideas I had about how you could make it quite funny when you were listening to it would be lost since nobody listens to anything in order anymore since everything is on Spotify. Like, I took my “Pie Jesu” from my requiem mass and following it with a song called “Where Did the Rock Go?” [from School of Rock]. I just hope that the very few people in the world who might listen to it in order have a smile.

But there are so many songs. I’m a musical dramatist, therefore I write in the style of whatever I think is right for the story, so I suppose when I listen to it, I think, “Gosh, would somebody say all of these songs are by the same person?” But they are all me assuming the character that I feel worked for a particular story.

Does it all make sense to you, stylistically?
Of course. I have two sides to me. I have a serious side and I have a fun side. If I want to write a fun piece like School of Rock, I’m doing it because it was at a time where I felt I needed to do something for myself that would be amusing or something I strongly believe in, which in the case of School of Rock is highlighting the empowering force of music for kids. But the next thing I write will be the polar opposite. I have a couple of ideas, but I can’t talk about them because neither are firm. But I’ve got opposites in my personality and I like to express them.

For example, I’m attempting grittier subjects because I decided that when I wrote [the Phantom of the Opera sequel] Love Never Dies that I needed to close the door on my high romantic side for a while and just move on. Phantom of the Opera was such a huge thing in my life that I thought, “I need to close it and there is a way I can close it.”

On the topic of romantic music, you describe a meeting with composer Richard Rodgers in the book in which he told you that critics were afraid of sentiment. What did you make of that?
I think it’s generally true that people are afraid to admit that they’re moved sometimes. It resonates for me because when I was a kid, my friends at school thought Carousel was sentimental rubbish. It may seem strange to your generation that people would ever have said that, but certainly in Britain it was the case. If you look at some of the reviews that Rodgers and Hammerstein had, people despised the sentiment. With me, one side of me is a huge romantic, so I can’t ever shy away from a moment where I feel that I’m going to try and move people. Perhaps people are frightened to cry in public.

Having read reviews of your shows over the years, critics sometimes take issue with the sentimentality but obviously the audiences like it. There’s a divide there. Why is that?

Well, I’ve since moved on from the high romance of Phantom. I’m also very proud of the musical I wrote about Northern Ireland called Beautiful Game, which is about as unromantic as you can get.

The thrilling thing is if you look at the four new big musicals on Broadway at the moment – I’m excluding Frozen, which I haven’t seen yet – they are like the shows I’ve done where people have said “they’re completely useless, hopeless subjects, don’t bother.” There’s a hip-hop musical about a founding father of America – a subject you’d forget it if you were coming up with ideas for musicals – and there’s a story about alienation through social media, with Dear Evan Hansen, which is, gosh, not an easy idea. And Come From Away is about planes landing in Gander, [Canada]. Is that a good idea for a musical? In theory, no. Even worse, my favorite musical of the whole lot, The Band’s Visit, is about an Egyptian band turning up in Tel Aviv in military union. What’s so glorious about what’s on Broadway at the moment is you’ve got four big musicals that look like not very good ideas on paper. That’s what’s thrilling about it. Broadway at the moment is flying, in my view. Four big shows with really interesting subjects has got to be great cause for celebration.

What do you make of Broadway right now as a whole?
The costs of getting a show on Broadway are horrifying. Everything now has to be workshopped to such a degree before it gets there. I workshopped School of Rock, but I did it in a smaller space where we didn’t have sets, so we could just play around with the material. We got an audience in at $25 a ticket. They told us what they liked and what they didn’t, and it was a very refreshing way of working. I don’t know if you could do that with every show, but it was certainly a great way for me.

But at the moment, Broadway is probably healthier than it’s ever been. The fact is that there is very good new work on Broadway, so one would wish it was possible for a bit more experiments. But as a Brit – I always felt a little bit like an outsider – I’m overjoyed to see that Broadway really is back to where it should be an American musical theater is thriving. I see myself a little bit as a tiny part of American musical theater now [laughs], so I hope someone will allow me through immigration.

Some of your works, including Jesus Christ Superstar and Evita, came out as albums before they were theatrical works – and “Phantom of the Opera” was a single with another singer before you’d cast Michael Crawford as the Phantom. You were workshopping in a different way in your early years.
Well, the Superstar album was an accident. Nobody thought it was even remotely possible to produce onstage, and the record company, MCA, said they’d like to do it. It’s funny. Superstar was written like a radio play, because that was the closest thing we had available to us. I think it works best when it’s closer to a rock concert than to a stage show that’s shoehorned into a proscenium theater. But with Evita, yes, we did do the album first, and we changed it when it went into the theater. With Phantom, we did the single because you could do that then. Getting something from a musical played on the radio today before it came out would be very difficult. Everything has changed so much.

I had a meeting with Tim Rice yesterday, and NBC was saying, “Could we add another song for the broadcast they’re going to do in a few weeks’ time?” And Tim and I started thinking to each other, “Well, we’re not going to say no. We’ll think about it, but we would have already written it if it was really right.”

In the book, you take a lot of the responsibility for the breakdown of your and Tim’s working relationship, saying you were higher strung than him. How are things between you two now?
The fact is that we wrote three shows together that are still being performed. What can one say? Those early days were very, very special.

Did the two of you ever have a heart-to-heart about your differences?
No, never. I’m sure in many ways he feels very similarly about me. I am five years younger than him. When you’re 17 and somebody is 22, it seems like an awfully long gap. Of course, now we’re two old men [laughs].

In the book, you talk about learning that Deep Purple, whose singer Ian Gillan was your original Jesus, were going in a heavy metal direction around the time you were doing Jesus Christ Superstar and that you thought it was a “wise move.” Why is that?
Because Ian was a revelation. Once I heard his voice, I thought, “My gosh, I can go so much further than I’d thought. I can go much, much stronger with some of the heavy-metal ideas I had then.” So I beefed up all the chords in the temple scenes, because a lot of those ideas were tried out in the studio.

When you’re writing a vocal melody, are you singing doo-doo-doo or la-la-la in your head?

What I’m mostly hearing is, “What can a singer actually do?” When you’re writing something that’s through-composed, like most of my shows have been, you’ve got to think about how you end up with a song that shows off the performer in the best possible sense. You think about where the best notes are for the singer when you want to make an impact. I found that out very quickly on Superstar.

When you did Evita, you found out later that the title role was too demanding to do at eight performances a week, as Broadway tradition requires. The role of Christine in Phantom also seems hard. What did you learn from that experience?
I realized that opera singers probably sing only two or three times a week, and we were asking our performers to do eight shows a week. If you’re trying to keep their voices intact, you’ve got to remember that the voice is a muscle and you wouldn’t ask a baseball player to play on a muscle that wasn’t working properly. You have to think about a performer’s wellbeing. There are certain roles that – in the interest of not only the performer but also the performance – you can’t expect somebody to do “Don’t Cry for Me” as well as “Rainbow High” in close proximity, as well as a matinee and an evening performance. So I suggested the six-and-two idea – where a singer does six performances with an understudy doing the other two – for [Evita star] Elaine Paige, and we did it again for the role of Christine and still do.

While we’re on the subject of Evita, Patti LuPone sang “Don’t Cry for Me” at the Grammys in your honor, an act she called a “détente.” The two of you have had friction ever since she thought she’d be getting a role in the U.S. production of Sunset Boulevard. How did it feel to repair that relationship?
Well, I hope that’s the end of that. I think there was a little bit of a misunderstanding there. I hope she would accept [that] on her part. But we are now where we are. But her performance was fantastic. What else can I say? I don’t think anyone could have done it or done a tribute to me as it was supposed to be that night [like her]. It was fabulous for me, and I’m incredibly grateful to her.

Let’s talk about flops. In the book, you wrote about how disappointed you were with the stale reception to 1975’s Jeeves. How do you get over something like that?
It was [theater producer] George Abbott who said that after a show opens, you have to have a meeting to talk about your next project the next day. I wish I could say that wonderful dictum applied in my case, but with Jeeves, I was very depressed. But I had already started on Evita by that point. My notes told me that I’d started writing “Don’t Cry for Me Argentina” at the same time I was working on Jeeves and I knew it wasn’t working at the time.

It’s ghastly when a show doesn’t work, particularly when a musical is out of your control. I’m only a small part of a musical. Once it gets going, your director, your production and so on take over. Harold Prince taught me early on that a production design has got to be right for a show, otherwise it can completely kill it. When I first saw Chicago in 1976 in New York, it didn’t work. Then years later, with different lighting guys, different production, it worked spectacularly. But there are so many ingredients in a musical where you have the fine line between getting it right and wrong. So it’s a great blow when they don’t work.

You mention suffering depression in the book and contemplating suicide in your early years. When you look back –
[Interrupts]. It was when I was very young. I was an adolescent, not wanting to be at school anymore, wanting to leave, feeling, “Why can’t I get on? I want to do things that I want to do.” I look back now and think, “How could I ever have gotten myself to that pitch?” At the time, it wasn’t over love or anything like that. I was a teenager who was a bit lost and I snapped out of it. But if you’re writing an autobiography, you might as well say what happened and not gloss over it.

Now, as an adult, you’re going to have moments of depression, moments when you think things aren’t working, that you’re not writing as well as you could. I don’t believe anybody doesn’t have self-doubt at some time.

On that note, what do you consider your best and worst works?
It’s difficult for me to say. There are works of mine that I think are some of my best work that may not necessarily be in things that people know so well. In my romantic style, I think my best writing without question is in Love Never Dies. But when it comes to reflecting on my own works, so much depends on the musical and how it’s produced. And so much depends on the night you see it and the production. I’m not trying to be evasive; it’s difficult. But there are certain pieces where I would love to write them again, but you can’t because they’re from a particular time.

Outside of musical theater, you and Tim Rice wrote “It’s Easy for You,” the song became the last song on Elvis Presley’s final album. Did you ever hear from him personally about the song?
No, but there’s a nice moment on the Jungle Room mix of the song where he says, “This is a very important song for me.” [Laughs]. “It’s Easy for You” is one of the very, very few songs that I’ve written that has been recorded outside of a show. In fact, I’m fairly certain it’s the only one.

You wrote two songs for Elvis, but he recorded only the one. Do you remember how the other one went?

I think I’ve forgotten [laughs]. I’m quite curious. It never saw the light of day.

When you wrote about Cats, you included a hilarious story about meeting Barbra Streisand for the first time where you’d accidentally spilled champagne on yourself. You have an idea of what she may have thought of you, so what was your first impression of her?
She probably thought, “God, who on Earth was this complete twit?” [Laughs]. I was soaked with this champagne that had exploded all over myself. It was not good. But as for what I thought of her, she was a huge star for God’s sake. We were terribly frightened.

But when I worked with her, it was great. She’s a perfectionist. For me, I still think that there was a version of “Memory” that was less “perfect” but was possibly more dramatic but equally so, I think she knows her audience and probably a slightly more melodramatic version, which I would have preferred, might not have been played on the radio. And of course, her version of “Memory” was the one that became a huge hit in America.

You wrote that your favorite version of “Memory” is the Nicole Scherzinger recording in the box set.
It’s very good. Sadly, I don’t think anybody in America realizes how good she is. I wish she did more, but I think it’s a pretty extraordinary performance.

On the subject of big stars, there’s a picture of Michael Jackson backstage at Starlight Express in the book, but there’s no story about it. Did you meet him?
Yes. My book finishes with the opening of Phantom of the Opera, but Michael was very keen to be involved in a movie version of Phantom of the Opera. At the time, the show had just gone to Broadway, and he must have seen it three or four times at least. I was with him a couple of times. But we weren’t ready to do a movie at that time.

Did he want to be the Phantom?
Oh, yes. It would have been incredible, but we weren’t ready. Phantom was only in its first year on Broadway.

But I knew him a little bit later, because he shared my love of A.R. Rahman’s music, and we found ourselves some very obscure part of Long Island listening to a Bollywood concert where A.R. was playing. He had a great love of that music. So I knew him a little bit, but I never saw him again.

The book ends just as Phantom is opening, effectively skipping 30 years of your life. Were you letting yourself off the hook there?
It was a very good place to stop and I didn’t really want to go on. I’m not somebody who likes to write slightly more unpleasant things. When things are not going too well, which they didn’t for me for a bit, and you see new sides of one or two people – I didn’t want to write about that. There are a lot of things that I don’t feel I ever want to write about. Somebody rather brilliant said that since I’d turned the corner somewhat in the last three years, “Why don’t you write a Volume Three and put Volume Two in a safe?” [Laughs]. I’m not the kind of person who wants to write some of the things I know, and I do know a few things.

Well, one of the things you didn’t address in detail was your bout with cancer in 2009. I imagine that was a huge part of your life.
It was one of the worst things in my life, but what was worse than that was the pain I was in for the back problems I had. But I’m through that now. I had two years where I couldn’t work at all and tried to but writing musicals on morphine is not a good idea.

Are you back to writing music every day?
Oh, I’ve got tunes and tunes and tunes at the moment, none of which will fit into the thing that I really want to do. So it’s like waifs and strays waiting from the orphanage. But I’m writing more than I’ve written probably ever. I’m driving everybody mad.

Lastly, you’re turning 70 in a matter of days. When you think back on your life, as we’ve been talking about, what does that mean to you?
Gosh, I really wish I wasn’t having that birthday, really. What it means to me is I’m going to have to think of a speech I’m going to have to make at a birthday party, which is very annoying indeed. Have you got any good jokes, I mean bad jokes? I don’t know. I thought of one, which I thought was quite funny. “Andrew Lloyd Webber is a self-made man. Nobody else would have bothered.” [Laughs]. I quite like that.

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