Theatre

The Man Who was the Phantom

The back story to Andrew Lloyd Webber’s autobiography is creativity and business. It’s a telling moment in the Phantom when the owners of the haunted theatre are reminded they must pay their resident ghost. An Australian spectre would have had to apply to the Australia Council

Unmasked
by Andrew Lloyd Webber
HarperCollins, 2018, 528 pages, $44.99
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webberWhen Andrew Lloyd Webber’s song “Take That Look Off Your Face” found a place on the British record charts, his three-year-old daughter was allowed to stay up and watch it being performed on Top of the Pops:

The following Saturday Imo[gen] was repeating like a demented parrot about going into town to buy the record about “your face”. I was touched by such an early show of loyalty. We joined a queue of other parents and their kids all wanting the single about “your face”. When we got to the counter the smiling salesman said to Imo, “You’re a lucky young lady, this is our last copy,” as he handed Imo Joe Dolce’s No. 1 single “Shaddap You Face” to the beaming up-to-then apple of Daddy’s eye.

Quadrant contributor Joe is not the only international celebrity to appear in Lloyd Webber’s new memoir, Unmasked, though he may be the only one to have published a recipe for barbecued rattlesnake—“Careful not to choke on the rattle.” The annoyance continued for Lloyd Webber when sales of Joe’s Dada classic kept his own single from first place in the charts.

Michael Connor’s theatre columns feature in every Quadrant.
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Unmasked is a solid volume. “Before me there was Mimi.” It’s not a bad first line. The second and third are pretty good too. “Mimi was a monkey. She was given to my mother Jean by a Gibraltan tenor with a limp that my mother had taken a shine to in 1946.” When mother became pregnant with the composer, Mimi turned music critic and violently attacked the offensive bump: “In short, Mimi was the first person to take a dislike to Andrew Lloyd Webber.” Though Mimi made a quick exit from the overcrowded South Kensington family flat, her memory would remain strong.

A Mark Steyn anecdote, not in this book, has Lloyd Webber touchingly asking lyricist Alan Jay Lerner, “Why do people take an instant dislike to me?” “It saves time,” said Lerner.

Over the years, as Lloyd Webber became wealthier and stayed popular with non-fashionable audiences, theatre critics and conservative-hunting academics kept the bonfire of dislike burning with typically inane commentary: “One could argue that the ‘traditional values’ of Reagan’s and Thatcher’s ideology are embedded in Phantom’s musical language.” Lloyd Webber dislike is often conducted at a very personal level. As the British historian Dominic Sandbrook noted, “few cultural figures inspire such visceral loathing”. Perhaps, in the dying days of the Second Elizabethan Era, and with the composer now aged seventy and new musical theatre works such as Hamilton being over-promoted, there are small signs that the modish loathing is retreating.

The book ends in 1986 when Lloyd Webber was thirty-eight and The Phantom of the Opera had just opened—it is still running today.

An Australian “mid-career” playwright, Emilie Collyer, complained in a far-Left taxpayer-funded literary magazine that after she received arts grant charity to write a play, another source of taxpayers’ money, Creative Victoria—the people who waste taxpayers’ money on non-existent creativity in Victoria—had refused to give her the cash to pay Equity rates to her cast and crew:

The very things praised about the project—the diverse group [entirely women], including a disabled actor, five mothers on the team, three in the cast, one of whom is breast feeding—are the things that this lack of funding puts the most pressure on … If a person like me, with a Masters in Writing for Performance and all the concomitant privileges of my white, middle-class identity, can feel shut out of theatre, then the problem for those with any compounding access issues is monumental.

Seriously, that’s not a mid-career. Lloyd Webber at thirty-eight, that’s a mid-career. By then he had written and staged Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, Jesus Christ Superstar, Jeeves (a flop), Evita, Tell Me on a Sunday, Cats, Song and Dance, Starlight Express, Cricket (for the Queen’s sixtieth birthday) and The Phantom of the Opera.

Lloyd Webber tells his story of rags-to-riches success: the back story to the successful shows, and occasional duds, is creativity and business. It’s a telling moment in the Phantom when the new owners of the haunted theatre are reminded that they have to pay a salary to their theatre ghost. In Australia the spectre would have had to apply to the Australia Council. Young Lloyd Webber had artistic talent and the determination to see his productions correctly mounted. He became a very, very rich man because a music industry magic man explained to him that there was something called Grand Rights that could be inserted into music publishing contracts. If these were owned by the creator they guarded all royalties from complete dramatic performances and were not shared or controlled by the publishers. When he acted on this advice early in his career he was able to hang on to Grand Rights because the companies he was dealing with had never heard of them—and signed them away.

Early on he and his then lyricist Tim Rice learnt a lesson with Jesus Christ Superstar—“In truth we were writing a musical radio play.” It first appeared as a double-album LP, which:

gave us one enormous advantage. Audiences came to know our recording so well that no future director or producer could add musical passages for scene changes or tamper with the construction. The score had become set in stone.

Not all their works were saved. In 2017 a New Zealand production of Joseph changed Tim Rice’s lyric “children of Israel are never alone” to “children of kindness are never alone” for political reasons. It was restored when the furious lyricist and composer learned of the brutality.

Lloyd Webber claims to have originated “sung-through” musicals:

a score with little or no spoken dialogue where the musical structure, the musical key relationships, rhythms and use of time signatures, not just melodies, are vital to its success.

He not only invented a new form of musical theatre, he banged it together and staged it. Yet things might have developed very differently if, after Rice’s departure, Lloyd Webber had found his own Hammerstein and been able to develop a relationship with a permanent lyricist.

He does not mention The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, the 1964 film directed by Jacques Demy with music by Michel Legrand. In the film absolutely all the dialogue is sung, and Cherbourg is presented in a highly colourised and artificial setting. It may well have had an influence on his work.

Index-makers deserve awards. Unmasked is perfection. Absolutely everything has been indexed from “broken toe” under “personal life”, “the wine incident of 1964” under “childhood and adolescence”, and the “Howerd biting incident” under “personal career and relationships”. The latter entry concerns a prominent and closeted British comedian. As his own career was building, Lloyd Webber planned to record Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf with Frankie Howerd as narrator. The two men held an office meeting to discuss the project: “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.” Lloyd Webber said nothing, concerned that a scandal would tarnish the opening of Superstar in Britain, his wife said nothing, and the recording went ahead.

Film director Milos Forman wanted Lloyd Webber to play Mozart in his film of Peter Shaffer’s Amadeus. When they met in a restaurant Forman made his request. Horrified at the thought of being an actor, Lloyd Webber choked on a shrimp, burped and made excuses. “Oh no,” Forman insisted, “I hear you’ve got a foul temper. You’ve just burped brilliantly and you are a hot-headed perfectionist who can be extremely obnoxious. I want you to play yourself.” He didn’t. He got out of doing it by making it a condition of playing the role that he be allowed to rewrite the Mozart scores. Forman got the message.

When Cats opened in America, over-thinking performer Betty Buckley attacked “Memory” in every other way than big. Lloyd Webber finally exploded with good advice: “Just sing the f***ing song!”

Until Unmasked was published it was not generally known that the Falkland War was won in the back of the stalls of London’s Prince Edward Theatre in the 1970s:

The leader of Her Majesty’s Opposition proved particularly partial to Evita’s big set pieces with adoring crowds at the end of Act I and the top of Act 2. This involved sneaking the Right Honourable Margaret Thatcher into the back of the stalls after curtain-up, then into the bar of Wheelers opposite the theatre during the interval and back for “Don’t Cry for Me” and “Rainbow High”.

Some time in the future, over dinner at Number 10, the Prime Minister jokingly asking him to write some Evita-style entrance music for her own Tory Party conference appearance: “Well I think she was joking.” However, he did help out for the 1987 election campaign launch. Margaret Thatcher told the story in her own memoirs:

Dry ice shot out over the first six rows, enveloping the press in a dense fog; lasers flashed madly across the auditorium; our campaign tune, composed by Andrew Lloyd Webber for the occasion, blared out; a video of me on international visits was shown; and then on I walked to deliver my speech, feeling something of an anti-climax.

Cue the familiar sound track of Lloyd Webber hatred from the media-academia complex.

Unmasked ends with the Phantom. Close the book and pick up the DVD of an outstanding twenty-fifth anniversary performance of Phantom in the Royal Albert Hall. Beautifully filmed, Cameron Mackintosh’s production is a full performance of the work, not a concert version. Watching it, we are returned to Lloyd Webber’s memoirs. Phantom opens with an auction of theatre memorabilia in a decrepit playhouse, just the sort of theatre Lloyd Webber likes buying. The setting itself and the bright, clear costume colours have come from the painted toy Victorian theatre that captivated his childhood. An auction is in progress:

Lot 665, ladies and gentlemen: a papier-mâché musical box, in the shape of a barrel organ. Attached, the figure of a monkey in Persian robes, playing the cymbals.

It’s Mimi, or Lloyd Webber’s revenge. Set working, the monkey musical box shakily plays the “Masquerade” theme from Act II. And his later musical Sunset Boulevard begins with the burial of a chimpanzee—perhaps it was the dead chimp and not Norma Desmond that attracted him to Billy Wilder’s film.

Remove the monster’s mask and beneath is the composer’s face, or should be—the Phantom is Lloyd Webber himself. In the opera the ghost writes an opera for beautiful young Christine; Lloyd Webber wrote Phantom for his wife Sarah Brightman. First-night audiences were expecting Michael Crawford in the Phantom role to offer a campy reprise of the effeminate Frank Spencer he played in the television comedy Some Mothers Do ’Ave ’Em. Lloyd Webber describes what they saw: “No scrawny Frank Spencer he. A handsome, sexy, well-built, middle-aged man stood before us with absolute command of Sarah and the stage.” He names his wife Sarah as the person being dominated by the composer monster, not the character Christine. Ultimately the Phantom loses Christine because she loves someone else, which is rather the way Lloyd Webber’s marriage to Sarah Brightman would end. He wrote a sequel to Phantom, his own life had other acts, not always very happy, and—cue fanfare—volume two of the compositions, adventures and accounts books of this theatre lord is waiting in the wings.

1 comment
  • en passant

    Like all great entrepreneurs and risk-takers, Lloyd Webber intermingles enormous successes (Phantom, Cats, Superstar, etc) with dismal failures (Phantom-2, Starlight Express, Jeeves [I have never heard a single song from it]).

    But could he have achieved any of this on talent alone, business nous and without a taxpayer-funded grant?

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