Andrew Lloyd Webber's Genius Is 'Unmasked' In New Memoir

Mar 4, 2018

Arguably the most successful musical theater composer ever, Andrew Lloyd Webber looks back on his early days in the business in the new memoir, Unmasked.

The tome will be released March 6. It's over 500 pages — and that only covers his life until 1986 when The Phantom of the Opera opened on Broadway. A double-disc compilation album will be released March 16 to accompany the book and will feature his musical work from the last five decades, including new covers from Lana Del Rey, Nicole Scherzinger and Gregory Porter.

The book takes readers from Lloyd Weber's school days to the stage. In 1970, Lloyd Webber released Jesus Christ Superstar, his first megahit musical in what would become a pantheon of many. From there, productions of Evita, Cats and The Phantom of the Opera followed, solidifying his status in the theater world.

Cats, as Lloyd Webber explains, came from the idea of setting T.S. Eliot's Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats to music. Lloyd Webber recalls his early critics deemed Cats "decidedly dodgy," but the musical went on to be one of Broadway's longest-running productions.

With more than 20 musicals and counting, Lloyd Webber attributes the success of his best productions to the collaborative nature of musical theater. He says every "ingredient," from the plot to the score to the set design, has to be right.

"There are always going to be people who think a subject for a musical is not going to work," he says. "Think Hamilton, really. If somebody had come in three or four years ago and said to you, 'Look, I've got this idea for a hip-hop show about a less well-known founding father of America,' you'd have said, 'Hang on a minute, I'm not sure about that.'"

Instead, Lloyd Webber has learned to go with his instincts. "I think anything that actually sounds on paper as if it's a brilliant idea, it's probably a bad one." Hear his fill conversation with NPR's Renee Montagne at the audio link.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

Consider the mega hits of modern musical theater - "Jesus Christ Superstar," "Evita," "The Phantom of the Opera," plus a poetic tale set in a junkyard populated entirely by singers and dancers dressed as felines - cats gathered for a ball.

(SOUNDBITE OF ANDREW LLOYD WEBBER'S "OVERTURE")

MONTAGNE: That's just a short list of the hit musicals composed by Andrew Lloyd Webber since he started mounting shows in a toy theatre as a boy in London. As he tells it in his new memoir "Unmasked," Lloyd Webber's father was a working-class boy whose own musical talent turned him into an academic and composer. His mother was an educator obsessed with raising a musical prodigy. Young Andrew's glamorous Aunt Vi offered massive connections to London's theater and TV world. And always, at every turn in his life was a cat. Andrew Lloyd Webber joins us from our New York bureau. Welcome.

ANDREW LLOYD WEBBER: Hello. Hi.

MONTAGNE: Hi. Really nice to have you. And "Cats" does seem like a good place to start. At one point, it was the longest-running show on Broadway and it seems to have started with a cat by the name of Perseus.

LLOYD WEBBER: Yes. Well, Perseus was the family cat when I was a little boy. He lived through into my teens, and he was a lovely, lovely old Siamese cat. But, really, "Old Possum's Book Of Practical Cats," the T.S. Eliot poems, was the source and the inspiration for "Cats." My mum used to read them to me - when the poems when I was a kid. And they stayed with me forever. And one of the things when I was working with Tim Rice on the three big musicals we did, "Joseph And The Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat," "Jesus Christ Superstar," and "Evita," it was during "Evita" that I realized that on the whole, I had written the melodies before Tim had written the lyric. Although we did all the plots together and we were taught where we wanted the songs and how we wanted them, the lyric came after the tune. And I wanted to see if I could compose to existing verse. So I started doing it almost as a bit of fun, you know, at home to see if I could set the poems that were already written.

MONTAGNE: This is kind of a crazy thing to ask, maybe. But why are cats so cool?

LLOYD WEBBER: Well, of course, what Eliot brilliantly did with the cat poems was he gave all of the cats human characteristics, so we recognize something of the human in the cat that he's describing. And we also all know that cats - shall we say (unintelligible) - they're naughty. And whether you get cats like the Rum Tug Tugger - you know, when he's in, and you want to be out and all of that kind of thing. Eliot brilliantly summed up human traits and cat traits in the same poem. They're brilliantly witty.

But, of course, what made "Cats" really work was the fact that when I thought seriously that I might do a concert piece, which is where I thought "Cats" might go, I was given by Valerie, his widow, some ideas that he had for a much bigger event. And, of course, a poem about Grizabella, the glamour cat, who was considered to be too sad for children. So that poem was cut from the book. But with that, of course, was unlocked what became the storyline that, in the end, gave us the song "Memory." And so that was a huge moment.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MEMORY (FROM "CATS")")

NICOLE SCHERZINGER: (Singing) Memory, all alone in the moonlight. I can smile at the old days. I was beautiful then.

LLOYD WEBBER: I mean, "Memory" was almost an afterthought in a way when the whole thing was completed. We felt we lacked an emotional center for the piece. And "Memory" came quite later on in the proceedings.

(SOUNDBITE OF SNOW GOONS SONG, "SICK LIFE")

MONTAGNE: You write that some consider the project "The Phantom Of The Opera" - and I'm quoting you here - decidedly dodgy. Why? Why would they have thought that?

LLOYD WEBBER: Well, there are always going to be people who think that a subject for a musical is not going to work. I mean, there had been "Phantoms Of The Opera" before. You know, I didn't know them, but there had been. Look. If you think about, what are the four big musicals right now on Broadway? And you think of what their plots are, the new ones. Well, think of "Hamilton" really and think, if somebody had come in three or four years ago and said to you, look. I've got this idea for a hip-hop show about a less well-known than perhaps some Founding Father of America. You'd have said, hang on a moment. I'm not sure about that.

If you'd thought about "Come From Away" and about the idea of a whole load of people turning up in Gander because their flights were all diverted and what happened to them, you'd think, well, is that necessarily a great idea for a musical? I mean, you could go on. The band's visit and the Egyptian band turning up in Tel Aviv, not knowing where they're supposed to go. I mean, it's brilliant musical. But on paper, it sounds a really, really daft idea and that's what I think about musicals. I think anything that actually sounds on paper as if it's a brilliant idea is probably a bad one.

MONTAGNE: And how do you know? I mean if you do. But how do you know when it could be magical?

LLOYD WEBBER: You never necessarily know. The thing about musical theater is that it's unbelievably collaborative and every ingredient of a musical has to be right. It's not just me with the music. I mean, I get very involved with the plot, but the plot has to be a great plot. I don't think a great score can save a bad plot. I mean, maybe "Cats" is an exception. But - because it doesn't really have a plot - but in the main, a bad plot can't be saved by a great score. Whilst, I think an OK score can be carried by a great plot. It's so many ingredients. The set and design has got to be right.

Something I was told very early in my career by Harold Prince was that you can't really enjoy a musical if the design of the show is all wrong for the material. And, for example, "Phantom Of The Opera" - the design of the show, which Maria Bjornson produced, triumphantly fits what I wrote with the music. And it's rare. It's very, very rare in musical theater that all those ingredients really come together.

MONTAGNE: So you have all these influences, but how far back do you think you were who you came to be?

LLOYD WEBBER: Oh, I can't answer that question.

MONTAGNE: Well, I mean, as a child, it seemed like you were doing things that not every child was doing, like the little toy theater that you had.

LLOYD WEBBER: Yes, I had my own theater, and I put on ghastly musicals which bored parents were made to come and listen to. I loved it all from the very earliest times I can remember. And it was a parallel love of mine. I had a huge love of architecture. And history is - still is the subject that I was - am pretty passionate about, particularly medieval history, which interests me a lot. Theater overtook, and it became the thing I loved. And I knew pretty early on. I knew in my teens that that's what I really wanted to do.

MONTAGNE: You also have an album coming out next week, also called "Unmasked," connected to the memoir. Talk to us about that.

LLOYD WEBBER: Oh. This album is a very, very sweet thing the record company have done, which is a sort of, I suppose, an album for my 70th birthday, which is not exactly a new album, although there are a few new tracks on it of songs that have been cut by other artists who have not done them before like Lana Del Rey. And so it's a great excitement for me, but it's really a sort of compendium of some of my best songs.

MONTAGNE: Do you have a favorite cover?

LLOYD WEBBER: Oh, well, I never like to single things out, but there's a pretty good version of "I Am The Starlight" from "Starlight Express" by Mica Paris. And there was some really, really good things - the Lana Del Rey track of "You Must Love Me," which was the song that Tim Rice and I added into Evita for the film. She does that beautifully.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "YOU MUST LOVE ME")

LANA DEL REY: (Singing) Deep in my heart, I'm concealing things that I'm longing to say. Scared to confess what I'm feeling. Frightened you'll slip away. You must love me. You must love me.

MONTAGNE: Andrew Lloyd Webber's book is called "Unmasked." Thank you very much for talking with us.

LLOYD WEBBER: OK. Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "YOU MUST LOVE ME")

DEL REY: (Singing) Why are you at my side? How can I be any use to you now? Give me a chance, and I'll let you see how nothing has changed. Deep in my heart, I'm concealing things that I'm longing to say. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.