The troubling incident that changed his life for ever. The dark thoughts that made him consider ending it all. And why he feared Cats would make him a laughing stock. Andrew Lloyd Webber charts his extraordinary journey from schoolboy prodigy to superstar showman
THE FIRST EXTRACT FROM HIS SENSATIONAL NEW AUTOBIOGRAPHY
Considering I was smaller than the other boys, useless at sport, played classical music and was the school swot, it’s not surprising I was bullied. I was aged 11 and some of the class were nearly two years older than me. I needed a big idea.
It came about in an unlikely way. Westminster Under School was in those days in a square that was walkable from Victoria station, two stops down the underground from South Kensington station.
On the morning in question, a saddo tried to fondle me under cover of the tight standing crush on the Tube train.
I was too shocked to make a fuss. But I was furious. So furious that it gave me an idea that maybe was big enough to call an epiphany. Whatever, it changed my schoolboy life.
In his new book, Andrew Lloyd Webber charts his extraordinary journey from schoolboy prodigy to superstar showman
That afternoon was the end-of-term concert. I was slated to play some boring piano piece by Haydn. It was time to ring the changes. I ascended the stage to a deafening yawn and announced a change of programme. There was a small flicker of interest.
‘Today,’ I said, ‘I am going to play some tunes I have written that describe every master in the school.’ The flicker of interest was now a flame – on the small side, but a flame nonetheless. So I dedicated to each master one of the tunes I had written.
After the first there was baffled applause. After the second it was heading towards strongish. During the fourth song, the school was clapping along and when, before the sixth, I turned to the headmaster and said, ‘This one is for you’, even the other masters applauded.
At the end there was uproar. Boys were shouting ‘Lloydy, Lloydy!’ I was no longer the little school swot. I was Andrew. And I had become Andrew through music.
The first critic to take against me was Mimi. Mimi was a monkey. She was given to my mother, Jean, by a Gibraltarian tenor with a limp that Mum had taken a shine to in the summer of 1946.
Mimi and Mother must have seemed an odd couple as they meandered through the grey, bomb-damaged streets of ration-gripped London’s South Kensington.
Andrew Lloyd Webber with then wife Sarah Brightman in the Eighties
Lloyd Webber with Tim Rice in 1970. ‘I first met Tim Rice aged 17 after he wrote to my agent offering to write lyrics to my music’
Lloyd Webber with brother Julian. ‘Considering I was smaller than the other boys, useless at sport, played classical music and was the school swot, it’s not surprising I was bullied’
Lloyd Webber visiting Judi Dench in hospital – she had been due to perform in Cats but was injured in rehearsals
Lloyd Webber outside the Palace Theatre in 1983. He purchased the theatre for £1.3 million and began a series of renovations to the auditorium. He sold the theatre in 2012
South Ken was where my Granny Molly rented a flat, which she shared with Mimi, Mum and Dad.
Granny was an interesting lady. She had married some Army man and divorced him asap, which was not what a girl did every day in the Twenties. She told me she threw her wedding ring down the lavatory on her honeymoon night. But the military deserter lurked around just long enough to sire her three kids – Alastair, Viola and, finally, my mother Jean.
Unquestionably, Granny had a raw deal. Her only son Alastair drowned in a boating accident near Swanage in Dorset after he had just left school at 18.
It affected Granny hugely, but it particularly traumatised my mother. Mum had a complete fixation on Alastair and was forever proclaiming psychic contact with him.
When Mum met a plumber’s son named William Lloyd Webber, a young scholarship boy of the pre-war Royal College of Music, love blossomed. Soon, despite the Second World War, nuptials could not be put on hold. Dad had close to zero income. That’s why he, Mum, Granny and Mimi shacked up under one roof.
A mere two years after VE Day, this post-war ménage à quatre came to an abrupt end. Mum got pregnant.
Mimi became horrendously distressed and violently attacked my mother’s stomach with bloodcurdling cries. In short, Mimi was the first person to take a dislike to Andrew Lloyd Webber. She had to leave the South Kensington ménage on the urgent side of asap.
On March 22, 1948, I brought the number of residents up to four again.
Ten years later, Mum took my brother, Julian, and me to Chessington Zoo. On entering the monkey house, she let out a great cry of ‘Mimi!’.
The simian turned its head, puzzled. ‘Look, she recognises me. It’s Mimi,’ said Mum triumphantly, as the monkey leapt across its cage and climbed the wire in aggressive fashion, uttering the most fearsome sounds.
‘I told you it was Mimi.’ Mum looked at me pointedly. ‘She always hated the thought of you, now she’s seeing you for real.’
I was pretty confused and unhappy for two years at Westminster (where I had now passed into the senior school), partly because I was now boarding.
Towards the close of the Easter holidays in 1963, when I was 15, I was deeply depressed. My mother, an incredible piano teacher, had taken on a new protégé, the Royal College of Music junior school’s star pianist, John Lill, and her obsession was making her increasingly moody and erratic.
Not very gradually, Mum imported John into the family. As he increasingly practised at our flat, I sometimes turned the pages of his piano scores and discovered a huge amount of music I would never have known. But there were three boys going on the summer family holiday now. I am sure it must have been very awkward for John, too, but he seemed to accept everything Mum threw at him.
A FLIGHT AT THE OPERA
One sunny afternoon in 1985 I found myself at a loose end in the Big Apple. I was meandering past a bookstall on Fifth Avenue when my eye was caught by a copy of the original English translation of Gaston Leroux’s The Phantom Of The Opera. I had nothing better to do, so I parted with 50 cents, headed back to the Ritz-Carlton, where we were holed up, and got stuck into the tome. I had an epiphany. The Phantom Of The Opera could be a passionate story of unrequited love.
Michael Crawford and Sarah Brightman headed the original 1986 cast of Phantom Of The Opera
During rehearsals the following year there was what might be described as an ‘incident’.
Producer Cameron Mackintosh, leading man Michael Crawford, and I were driving from Vauxhall in south London to the theatre. As we neared Lambeth Bridge, Michael said that he wanted his performance of The Point Of No Return to be pre-recorded because he performed the song with a hood over his face. He thought he’d sound muffled.
Cameron went tonto, and said that for the money he was earning, Michael could at least sing his big second-act song live. Did he want to ‘phone in’ his performance?
By now we were stuck in a traffic jam. Michael yelled, ‘How dare you!’ whereupon producer and leading man leapt onto the pavement and a few astonished tourists savoured a mini bout of fisticuffs.
I, being a pacifist, stayed in the car.
The sight of the traffic jam clearing and the car receding with me in it mouthing, ‘May the best man win’ calmed things down. We proceeded to Her Majesty’s Theatre in silence. The topic was never raised again.
Whatever Julian and I felt, we had acquired an elder brother. We had no choice in the matter. Nor did Dad. He admired John and recognised his exceptional gifts, but it must have been hard for this quiet, reserved man to stomach that his wife’s attentions and ambitions were focused on someone else. I was desperate to prove that I too, not just John Lill, could be a success.
But as another school term loomed like a grey sledgehammer, my adolescent hormones told me I’d had enough. One morning I stole some Veganin pain-relief tablets out of the bathroom cupboard, went to the Post Office and withdrew my life savings – all £7 of them. Then I bought aspirin from two different South Kensington chemists and headed for the underground station. In those days, the underground penetrated as far as Ongar, in the then deep Essex countryside.
I bought a one-way ticket. When I hit the end of the line, I wandered into the town, bought some more aspirin and a bottle of Lucozade and headed for the bus station. I planned to take the first bus, get off somewhere remote and swallow my arsenal of pills behind a convenient hedgerow. I saw a bus with ‘Lavenham’ on its front. Something told me to take it – the name rang an architectural bell. By the time we arrived at Lavenham, an overcast morning had turned into a glorious spring day.
Lavenham! I’d never seen such an unspoilt English village before. But it was the church that did it. All I remember now is sitting inside for what must have been two hours and saying, ‘Thank God for Lavenham’.
Lloyd Webber with Sarah Brightman in Tokyo for a performance of Cats
Sarah Brightman in 1983 – the pair were married from 1984-1990
Lloyd Webber with his first wife Sarah Hugill, whom he married in 1971
Lloyd Webber with his brother, Julian, in their schooldays
Lloyd Webber with lyricist Don Black and singer Marti Webb in 1980
I headed back to the bus stop and then London, thinking things weren’t so bad after all. But I kept the pills.
I first met Tim Rice aged 17 after he wrote to my agent – who I had acquired when a number of songs I’d written were sent to Decca – offering to write lyrics to my music. Nothing came of my burgeoning pop-song-writing career at that point, but Tim was to become my most enduring writing partner.
His letter explained: ‘I have been given your address by Desmond Elliott of Arlington Books, who I believe has also told you of my existence. Mr Elliott told me you were looking for a “with-it” writer of lyrics for your songs, and I have been writing pop songs for a short while now, and particularly enjoy writing the lyrics. I wondered if you’d consider it worth your while meeting me. I may fall far short of your requirements, but anyway it would be interesting to meet up – I hope!’
Naturally I was intrigued, and arranged to call him. A very well-spoken young man answered and explained that he did write pop lyrics – in fact, he had also written some ‘three-chord tunes’, as he put it, to go with them. He had done a course at the Sorbonne in Paris and was now 22, working as an articled clerk in a firm of solicitors and was bored out of his skull. We arranged to meet at my parents’ flat.
I spent some of the in-between time pondering what a ‘with-it’ aspiring pop lyricist with a public-school accent who had been to the Sorbonne would look like. Somehow, I imagined a stocky bloke with long sideburns and a Beatle jacket, possibly sporting granny glasses. Consequently I was unprepared for what hit me when I answered the door three days later: a six-foot-something, thin-as-a-rake, blond bombshell of an Adonis.
Mum used to read TS Eliot’s cat poems to me at bedtime when I was a kid. Years later I wanted to see if I could set existing verse to music and I thought of Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats.
The idea grew from then, but it didn’t really take off until I met my ‘soulmate’, producer Cameron Mackintosh, over a long lunch in 1980. The first thing that struck me was Cameron’s boyish, bouncing, giggly, girlie enthusiasm. I have never come across such a passionate force of nature or anyone so sure of himself.
The UK cast perform in Beirut at the first open-air performance of Cats, 2002
Nicole Scherzinger as Grizabella, 2014. ‘At the first preview, Cameron and I were still not convinced it would be a hit’
But by the first dress rehearsal in 1981, the sight of our cats donning cardboard boxes as footwear to resemble dogs reminded Cameron and me of British amateur theatre at its worst. We were about to become the laughing stock of London. Cameron and I agreed that Cats could go no further. We were pulling the show.
At the first preview, Cameron and I were still not convinced it would be a hit. We clutched each other as the final ‘cat theme’ thundered out and waited for the debacle. Instead there was a huge round of applause.
Furtively, Cameron and I tiptoed round to the front of house. The audience was loving the show. Over the stage speakers came gales of laughter and occasional bursts of applause. Were they laughing at or with us? They were with us. Cameron and I embraced. To quote The Producers, ‘Where did we go right?’
The resulting celeb-fest that erupted around Cats kindled enough stories for a mini-series. One night we were joined by the Prince and Princess of Wales. When the Prince wondered how the dancers managed their feats, Princess Diana responded by demonstrating the splits. Unfortunately, she had a wardrobe malfunction and displayed more intimate royal parts than is usual for members of the House of Windsor.
Granny, who had shuffled down the corridor after me, seemed to go unusually weak at the knees. I felt, how shall I put this, decidedly small. Awestruck might be a better way to describe my first encounter with Timothy Miles Bindon Rice.
It soon dawned on me that Tim’s real ambition was to be a heart-throb rock star.
He’d brought a disc of a song he’d written and sung himself. Apparently, there was tons of interest in it. I was wondering where on earth I could fit into this saga of impending stardom, but it instantly struck me that the simple, happy, hooky melody seemed at odds with the bittersweet lyric about a guy dumping his girlfriend. I thought it would make Tim a huge star by the end of the year. I reckoned that it would be nice to say I’d met him before he was world famous and that was about it.
I somewhat diffidently broached that although I loved pop and rock, my real love was musicals. To my surprise, Tim said he’d been brought up on his parents’ cast albums and he actually liked theatre songs. I didn’t sense that he had an overpowering passion for musicals, but he certainly didn’t rubbish them like most of my friends.
And so we began working together – our first project would be called The Likes Of Us, and was based on the life of Victorian philanthropist Dr Thomas Barnardo.
Tim’s law career came into question in May 1966 after his bosses at the firm Pettit & Westlake told him to destroy some highly sensitive legal documents. Unfortunately, he shredded the wrong ones. So his father, Hugh, leant on some contacts with the result that, in June that year, Tim joined EMI Records as a management trainee.
At almost exactly the same time, I got a letter from Magdalen College, Oxford, where I had won an exhibition and had been studying history as an undergraduate for a term. The college bigwigs had heard that I was working on a musical. They wished me luck but hoped I realised that when I returned I was expected to concentrate on my studies. Reality had caught up with me big time.
My only future at Oxford was to read history seriously. Even give or take a little bit, realistically I would have to take a three-year break from musical theatre or at least from attempting any professional involvement.
A SUPERSTAR IS BORN
Our next project after Joseph was called Come Back Richard, Your Country Needs You. Tim thought the story of England’s Richard the Lionheart was a suitable case for treatment. In truth, there is hardly any story. King Richard spent most of his reign away from home warmongering on crusades, hence our title. It was terrible. After this debacle, we needed to write something decent and do it pretty quick.
The 1971 Broadway production of Jesus Christ Superstar. ‘Tim Rice had mentioned several times Bob Dylan’s question, “Did Judas Iscariot have God on his side?”‘
Ben Forster as Jesus and Melanie C as Mary Magdalene at the 02 Arena, 2012
Post-Joseph, we had been encouraged to choose another biblical subject, and many progressive churchmen had urged us to consider the story of Jesus Christ, which we resisted. Tim Rice, however, had mentioned several times Bob Dylan’s question, ‘Did Judas Iscariot have God on his side?’
He became fascinated about Judas in the historical context of Roman-occupied Israel. Was Judas the rational disciple trying to prevent the popular reaction to Jesus’s teaching from getting so out of hand that the Romans would crush it?
Was Jesus beginning to believe what the people were saying, that he truly was the Messiah? What if we dramatised the last days of Jesus’s life from Judas’s perspective? I could see massive possibilities in this, particularly theatrically.
Unsurprisingly, nobody else thought this was remotely a subject for a stage musical, but we did write one song whose lyric encapsulated these questions. It was called ‘Superstar’ and its chorus was destined to become the best-known three-chord tune I have composed.
In the meantime, Tim, nearly four years older than me and understandably ambitious for his own future, was starting a job at the world’s top record company.
Even if Tim was at the bottom of the ladder, he had his foot in the door. He might easily lose interest in a younger hopeful whose real interest was theatre, a world far away from the white-hot heat of Swinging London.
Should I go back to Oxford or leave? It was the biggest decision of my life, and there was nobody I felt I could turn to for advice. I knew my family would be appalled if I chucked in the lifeline that Magdalen had offered me.
I took myself away to agonise. What if musicals were on the way out? What if I was no good at them anyway? I knew I was no lyricist. So was it not lunacy to try a career where my music was greatly dependent on words?
Finally I made my decision. On July 17, 1966, I wrote to Thomas Boase, Magdalen College’s admission tutor, informing him that I did not want to continue.
I suspect Tim was too busy finding his feet at EMI to worry about my decision and I often wonder if he realised just how big a factor he was in my making it. But the fact was that his job at the world’s number-one record company could open doors for both of us and I was keen to ride his coat-tail.
Despite our growing confidence, 1967 dawned without any sign of a theatre production of The Likes Of Us. Then, at the end of February 1967, I got a letter from the music master of Colet Court, the junior part of St Paul’s School in Hammersmith. His name was Alan Doggett. Alan had taught my brother Julian at Westminster Under School, and had become friendly with our parents.
So I met with Alan for a drink and he explained that he wanted something for the whole school to sing but there must be a special role for the choir and school orchestra. There could be soloists too, but he reiterated that it was vital there was something for everyone to perform, even the tone deaf.
FRANKIE BEARS HIS FANGS
‘I proposed I record veteran comedian Frankie Howerd as narrator of Prokofiev’s Peter And The Wolf’
While I was preparing for Jesus Christ Superstar to open in Britain in 1972, I had one rather daft project up my sleeve. I proposed I record veteran comedian Frankie Howerd as narrator of Prokofiev’s Peter And The Wolf.
Frankie’s innuendo-filled humour was riding high in such romps as Up Pompeii. He was managed by impresario Robert Stigwood, who fancied the scheme. Robert was away at the time so Frankie and I commandeered his office for an afternoon. As we sat talking, Frankie lunged at me and bit me viciously on the neck, saying, ‘Take this home to your child bride.’
I was totally shell-shocked and didn’t know what to do. Frankie was a national treasure. If I said anything, it would inevitably overshadow Superstar’s debut in Britain.
Worse, I didn’t know what to say to Sarah, who I had only married the year before, so I said nothing, and nor did she.
We went ahead with the recording as if the bizarre incident had never happened.
Tim wasn’t instantly ecstatic at the thought of writing something for a bunch of eight-to 13-year-old school kids. It was a bit of a comedown from hopes of a West End premiere. But he had schoolday memories of Gilbert and Sullivan operettas and Gilbert’s witty lyrics in particular.
Soon our first collaboration to be made public was slated for the end of Easter term concert, 1968. Tim fell on the story of Joseph and his coat of many colours. I liked the idea. It had the primal ingredients of revenge and forgiveness. There could be humour, particularly if Joseph himself was made out to be a bit of an irritating p***k who in the end turns out to be OK. And then there was Pharaoh. I wondered what would happen if we built up Pharaoh’s entrance, and he turned out to be Elvis. Plus, there is a nice happy ending when Joseph is reunited with his dad and family. It seemed a natural.
Friday, March 1, 1968, was a grey, drab, drizzly day but not over-cold for the time of year. Around 2pm, a gaggle of 200 or so parents, mostly mothers as it was a weekday afternoon, gathered with no particular sense of anticipation. Conversation centred on their fervent hope that this special end-of-term concert was short enough for them to drive their children home before the weekend rush hour.
The headmaster ascended the stage and made a brief speech which decidedly hedged its bets on the forthcoming entertainment. He then introduced Alan Doggett in a fashion that suggested that if things went t**s up, it was all Doggett’s fault and he needn’t turn up on Monday.
Alan bounced on stage, raised his conductor’s baton and off we went, straight into the story at bar one, because the now signature trumpet fanfare introduction didn’t exist in those days.
The concert was a total blast. The yummy mummies forgot about the weekend rush hour, and virtually the whole 22-minute cantata was encored. Some mothers clamoured for a repeat performance on another day, so that their other halves could hear it.
DON’T CRY FOR ME, I’M A DIVA
Elaine Paige as Eva Perón in Evita, 1978
Evita is about Eva Perón, the tragic wife of Juan Perón, the former president of Argentina – but from the outset I saw a serious problem. There is nobody in the story with whom you empathise.
Eva had such ghastly values, I couldn’t see how to make an audience care about her. It took me what seemed like ages to come up with a solution but I vividly recall when and where I did. It was on a Saturday afternoon in Bristol in 1975, when I recalled having seen one of Judy Garland’s last-ever performances, back in 1969. Non-performance might be a more accurate description – Judy was an hour late on stage and the dinner-theatre crowd, fuelled by the cheap house champagne, was restless, to put it mildly.
As she stumbled through her signature song, Over The Rainbow, the booing and whistling grew louder and louder. Her anthem was devouring her like a vulture on a battlefield. It was heartbreaking.
If I could find an anthem for Eva and turn it on her like Over The Rainbow had turned on Judy, it would unlock her story musically. That afternoon I wrote the tango melody of Don’t Cry For Me Argentina.
The choice of who to play Evita came down to three: Verity Anne Meldrum, Elaine Paige and an actress whose name I can’t remember. I was already strongly leaning towards Elaine. She was petite, brassy and sexy. Her chest voice seemed cast-iron, yet she could show real warmth and vulnerability.
In short, she had star quality. But I wanted to be doubly sure. After a dazzling rendition of Rainbow High, I asked her to sing Don’t Cry For Me… one more time.
‘Oh, f***!’ she said eyes blazing.
We knew then that we’d found our street-fighting Evita.
I didn’t realise it at the time, but in my attempt to write music that would never allow its child performers to get bored, I was unwittingly creating what was to become my trademark: a ‘through-sung’ musical – a score with little or no spoken dialogue, where the musical structure, the musical key relationships, rhythms and use of time signatures, not just the melodies, are vital to its success.
Thrillingly, after the concert there was an on-the-spot offer of publication. Unbeknown to Tim and me, Alan Doggett had invited the team from classical music publisher Novello & Company. The musical would become Joseph And The Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, and would launch our careers and make the names Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber famous around the world.
Abridged extract from ‘Unmasked’ by Andrew Lloyd Webber, published by HarperCollins on March 8, priced £20. Offer price £16 (20% discount) with free p&p, until March 25. Pre-order at mailshop.co.uk/books or call 0844 571 0640