Andrew Lloyd Webber reveals he planned to kill himself

Andrew Lloyd Webber knows a thing or two about theatrical surprises but when Frankie Howerd gave him a lovebite he was caught completely unawares. ‘It did rather take my breath away,’ he says, sitting quietly in the foyer cafe of one of his London theatres.

The Grand Old Man of Musical Theatre nonchalantly delivers this first extraordinary revelation while discussing his memoir, Unmasked, which he insists he never really wanted to write. ‘I didn’t want to hurt anybody, but I wanted to be truthful. I particularly didn’t want to write anything that was dissing people, but wanted it to be relatively amusing.’

Well, his encounter with the former Carry On star more than ticks those boxes: ‘Frankie just lunged, bit me on my neck and said, “Take that home to your wife.” ’

For almost 50 years he has kept secret this #MeToo moment.

‘I was 23 and Jesus Christ Superstar was about to happen in London and I didn’t want to be remembered then as the man who complained about Frankie Howerd. So I said nothing. In the end I just thought he was a sad old man.’

On the cusp of turning 70, Lloyd Webber could not be more cheerful or optimistic as he relays this startling encounter. But he also reveals darker moments in his past: he has contemplated killing himself at least three times, most recently just three years ago.

Madeleine Gurdon, a professional horsewoman, has been Andrew Lloyd Webber’s wife for the past 27 years (pictured together). He says: ‘She is absolutely a rock to everything in my life’

Crippling health difficulties – prostate cancer followed by agonising back pain – took him to the very edge of endurance. ‘It was absolute agony and utterly despairing,’ he recalls. ‘I did think of suicide. It was so painful and I couldn’t sleep and you go on thinking about it.

‘You have all those ridiculous painkillers and none of them working and you just think, “I shall take the whole lot of them.” ’

It was a bleak temptation he had not experienced since his troubled teenage years.

As a very young boy at Westminster junior school, and uncertain of his place in the world, he had feared that he might never succeed as a songwriter. ‘I got quite depressed; it’s something that possibly affects artists. It was one of those moments where I thought everything had got on top of me. These things are illogical,’ he recalls.

He stole Veganin painkiller tablets from his parents’ bathroom cupboard, withdrew all £7 of his Post Office savings and bought aspirin from two different chemists, plus a bottle of Lucozade, and set off for what he planned to be a terminal journey on the London Underground.

‘I felt very alone at the time. It was pretty much at the end of the line, quite literally because I went to the end of the Central Line, but then took a bus to Lavenham,’ he says.

Miraculously, when he got out at Lavenham station, he was overawed by the beauty of the Suffolk market town (architecture remains a passion) and wandered around dazzled. ‘It sorted me out and I simply got on the train back. It was probably all started by the combination of not really feeling happy at home, wanting to get away from school … all that sort of thing,’ he said.

As I awoke from my overdose, a doctor asked what the hell I thought I was doing 

His second suicidal episode was in the 1960s when he failed the basic army test in the school corps and was accused of ‘sowing seeds of mutiny’. His troop commander punished him by stopping him going to a breakthrough appointment to have a song recorded, and Lloyd Webber plunged into despair again. This time he took an overdose of aspirin. ‘I woke to find a doctor’s face pressed close to mine, demanding what the hell I was doing frightening my parents like this.’

Such melancholic moments seem at odds with the most successful composer alive, whose success has brought him a string of West End theatres, the finest pre-Raphaelite collection in Britain, a glorious estate on the Hampshire/Berkshire border, and a back catalogue of songs to which the whole world taps their feet. On the whole, like his memoir, Lloyd Webber talks in fast, open bursts. Unmasked records a colourful London childhood with his bohemian family, most notably his ‘fabulously un-PC’ Auntie Vi, to whom the book is dedicated. An actress and a cook, she wrote the first gay recipe book – one chapter headed ‘Too many c*cks spoil the breath’.

She was a friend of Tony Hancock, who Andrew met while the comedian was trying to teach his parrot to say “F*** Mrs Warren” to the cleaner he despised. ‘A perfect introduction to the theatre really,’ he suggests.

The journey to stardom is lightly told – writing the main Superstar song on the back of a napkin after sharing his parents’ home with a monkey called Mimi (who hated him). He also partly credits the genesis of Cats to his ‘walking South Kensington with a Siamese cat called Perseus on a lead’.

He even takes some of the blame for being persecuted at school. ‘Considering I was smaller than the other boys, useless at sport, still played classical music and was the school swot, it’s not surprising I was bullied.’ He hints, too, at a relationship with his headmaster that would raise more than a few eyebrows in our hyper-aware age, and not only because it began over a shared bottle of claret, though that was deemed unusual even at that time. ‘I valued my time with him, even if it did sometimes mean sitting very close to him on his sofa.’

Indeed he credits another inappropriate incident – this time with a stranger on the Underground – with kick-starting his entire musical career. ‘On the morning in question a saddo tried to fondle me undercover of the tight standing crush on the Underground train.

A saddo tried to fondle me in the crush of the Underground 

‘I was too shocked to make a fuss. But I was furious, so furious that it gave me an idea that may be was big enough to call an epiphany.’ His reaction was to charge into the school and play six short piano pieces teasingly dedicated to the masters, causing amusement and uproar among the boys.

‘I was no longer the little school swot. I was Andrew, and I had become Andrew through music.’

The book describes the genesis of many of his best-loved works – Jesus Christ Superstar, Cats, Evita, Starlight Express – but this first volume stops after Phantom in 1986. Lucky for some, he thinks: ‘So the dodgy art dealers who tried to screw me can sleep peacefully.’

He remains ambivalent about his memoir and its repercussions. ‘I always want to do new work and not look back.’ But it was a cathartic process, none the less.

‘I kept asking questions of myself and I’ve never really done that before.’ That includes discussing the creative tension with his collaborator Tim Rice, who he teases for his unstoppable wandering eye for girls. ‘There have been quite a lot in his life and a few children as well, not that I can say that I haven’t any!’ (He has five children and has had three wives).

Lloyd Webber also talks about the creative tension with his collaborator Tim Rice (pictured together), who he teases for his unstoppable wandering eye for girls

Lloyd Webber also talks about the creative tension with his collaborator Tim Rice (pictured together), who he teases for his unstoppable wandering eye for girls

They met when Lloyd Webber was at school, with Rice being five years older. Just as Paul McCartney wanted his name before John Lennon so, we learn, did Rice with Lloyd Webber. ‘The fact is Lloyd Webber and Rice is easier to say than Rice and Lloyd Webber. Just as Sullivan and Gilbert would have sounded awful!’

And their tensions? ‘I think he will say that I was a nagging perfectionist and worried too much about the sound – a worrier by nature – and Tim was sometimes too much of an easy-going guy. He wouldn’t know what I was worrying about.’

Such perfectionism could lead to pique, and the composer is frank about his temper and tirades. ‘I’ve learnt to tame it now, but I always used to get very concerned in those days that theatre sound was terrible and orchestral playing wasn’t as good as it is now. When I started out there was some pretty ropey playing and pretty second-division players. I’d scream and say, “Look, we’ve got to make this better.” ’

But that was all then. Now, he is something of a changed man. For a start he has become teetotal and sold off an astonishing wine cellar.

He realised he was drinking too much and, four years ago, stopped completely. He shed two stone and now feels ‘101 per cent better, firing on all cylinders. The funny thing is that wine now tastes toxic like acid to me. I can’t touch it.’ The bags under his eyes disappeared and he embraced a new fitness regime, swimming almost daily.

His cancer scare was undoubtedly a traumatic experience that has made him a fervent advocate for all men to have prostate checks – one saved his life.

Almost as a joke he had kept an old set of blood tests, as he was amused that his liver was shown to be perfect even though he was then a heavy drinker. ‘I kept it by my bed with the intention of framing it and giving it to Madeleine [his third wife] for her birthday!

‘I had another blood test and I was flicking through to make sure everything’s normal and I looked at the prostate measurement and noticed that in eight months it had gone up staggeringly – like from two point something to six point six. It was 300 per cent up. I had a biopsy and it was cancerous. It was all a close thing as it was very virulent. They advised me to get it whipped out as soon as possible.’

The operation literally saved his life as the cancer had not yet burst beyond the prostate. ‘Prove the wretched cancer has not moved out of that prescribed area and then it is eminently solvable.’

It was just as he had turned a corner that he endured the appalling back pain which prompted those suicidal thoughts to return.

As for Sarah Brightman (pictured together), he is still misty-eyed about her voice. 'There is something wonderfully fragile about it. Actually it's very robust and an unusual musical instrument'

As for Sarah Brightman (pictured together), he is still misty-eyed about her voice. ‘There is something wonderfully fragile about it. Actually it’s very robust and an unusual musical instrument’

He believes that a chiropractor had stuck a needle in his side which nicked a vein that gave him sciatic symptoms. He had an operation on his back which he did not feel he had needed and his back prolapsed.

‘Then I ran into this extraordinary osteopath and he said I’m 99 per cent certain that I can get you back to 95 per cent and within three months he did,’ he says. ‘Very much thanks to Madeleine discovering what the cause of the whole thing was, it was sorted. She is absolutely a rock to everything in my life, and now hugely involved with the business.’

He is honest enough to admit he hasn’t always been a good or faithful husband. Andrew deals head-on with leaving his first wife, Sarah, with whom he had fallen in love when she was 17, marrying her when she was 18.

With success and money came temptation. An affair with a female teacher at his old school ‘was a distinct improvement on the master who had taken a shine to me’ but left him ‘devastated’ with guilt.

Not so devastated that he didn’t begin a subsequent affair with the soprano Sarah Brightman. Their relationship, he reveals, was sealed on a trip to Italy.

‘I loved the vicarious thrill I got from the waiters in our deserted hotel and of course I loved the sex,’ he writes candidly. In a bid to keep the marriage going, his wife even offered to turn a blind eye to the infidelity, but it was not to be. ‘I’m not the sort of person who can duck and dive,’ explains Lloyd Webber. ‘Besides, I was head over heels in love’.

It was the passages about his relationship with his first wife, Sarah, that he found hardest to write about. ‘There were several moments when I wondered whether to go on with this book and dealing with Sarah was one of them because I didn’t want to do anything that hurt her.’

As for Brightman, he is still misty-eyed about her voice. ‘There is something wonderfully fragile about it. Actually it’s very robust and an unusual musical instrument.

‘I find there are certain things of mine that she’s sung that nobody has done any better. Like a lot of performers she is really a gypsy, she likes going from place to place. I don’t think she wants to settle down. She is a slightly restless soul who is possibly always looking for something else to try.’

Certainly, their marriage was not without its well-publicised complications – including Brightman’s affair with a keyboard player. ‘We both realised as we became older that our life together would have been very difficult; she never could have coped with the kind of life that really began with Cats. She would say that now to anybody.’

In the end, though, it was Lloyd Webber who brought his second marriage to a close, having fallen in love with Madeleine Gurdon, a professional horsewoman.  

Unmasked by Andrew Lloyd Webber is published by HarperCollins on March 8 priced at £20

Unmasked by Andrew Lloyd Webber is published by HarperCollins on March 8 priced at £20

‘A friend brought her round to Sydmonton [his country estate] which is how we met. I was asked to a huge amount of dinners and used to take Madeleine with me.

‘People started asking, “Who is this girl?” and I grew keener on her and she with me.’

She has been his wife for the past 27 years, bringing him a fulfilment he had almost forgotten existed.

 When I met Madeleine, it was like getting my life back. A door had been unlocked back into a world that I’d missed for years

‘When I met Madeleine it was almost like getting my life back; a door has been unlocked back into a world that I’d perhaps missed in the previous years – people outside the theatre. There is a world outside the Tony Awards and I think that’s what Madeleine brings to me.’

His life is blessed and he says he knows it. But if he had not hit the musical jackpot in the theatre? ‘I don’t think I would even have been number four in the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra because I don’t think I would have been good enough to get there.

‘I would be more likely playing in some bar somewhere.’

Unmasked by Andrew Lloyd Webber is published by HarperCollins on March 8 priced at £20. Offer price £16 (20 per cent discount) until March 25. Pre-order at or call 0844 571 0640, p&p is free on orders over £15.