The superstar composer behind Phantom of the Opera, Cats and Evita has one more accomplishment to add to his résumé: cancer survivor.
Author Chrissy Iley Illustration Jeffrey Decoster
DON’T CRY FOR ANDREW LLOYD WEBBER. Although the powerhouse musical theater composer has recently been battling prostate cancer, he’s now in the clear following a successful surgery. Meanwhile, nearly 25 years after its debut, his Phantom of the Opera is far and away the most successful musical of all time, having grossed an estimated $5 billion worldwide, to outperform even the mighty Cats, that long-running sensation composed by…Andrew Lloyd Webber. Phantom has now spawned a sequel, Love Never Dies, which despite some snarky reviews is playing to packed houses in London’s West End. (Among his other ever-popular outings: Jesus Christ Superstar, Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat and Evita.)
After years in which Lloyd Webber seemed uncomfortable in the public eye, the father of five, who is married to Madeleine Gurdon, stepped boldly into the spotlight in 2006 as—of all things—a reality TV personality, judging a televised search for the lead in The Sound of Music. Three similar gigs followed, the latest of which, Over the Rainbow, focused on the casting of a new production of The Wizard of Oz. That musical, with several new songs by Lloyd Webber, is set to hit the West End in March 2011, possibly coinciding with the Broadway opening of Love Never Dies.
On a recent morning, Lord Lloyd-Webber took a seat in the top-floor hideaway of his townhouse in London’s posh Belgravia district, surrounded by posters from his many productions—including one of a stricken Sarah Brightman (his ex-wife) as Phantom’s first Christine—and spoke about his new show, his illness and his second career as a TV star.
HEMISPHERES: The Love Never Dies score is heartrending. Where does that sadness come from?
LLOYD WEBBER: I’m not sure. Even I find the last twenty minutes difficult to listen to, and I wrote it. I do know that that’s as far as I can go down that route, taking an audience on a journey of high romance. It’s very personal for me. Those characters, the Phantom, Christine and Meg, I can empathize with all of them.
HEMISPHERES: It’s easy to see your connection to Phantom, the musical genius, but Meg, the ingénue?
LLOYD WEBBER: Her story is about being overlooked and taken for granted, desperately trying to be noticed. I think anybody could identify with that.
HEMISPHERES: Did you know you had cancer when you were writing it?
LLOYD WEBBER: I had an instinct. I was throwing everything I possibly could into it, and as soon as I finished recording the album, I thought I should have tests done and be checked out. Then nothing showed up on the tests, and it was discovered later when a biopsy was done after I had E. coli.
HEMISPHERES: You have been unusually open about all that.
LLOYD WEBBER: Men usually don’t want to talk about prostate cancer, because it affects one’s sex life. They’re also not screened as regularly as women are for breast cancer. I don’t think the medical establishment would know what to do with all the people who would be found positive. In my case, it was detected early. With this cancer, they say you can often put off an operation. But I’d finished recording the cast album, so I decided to do it sooner rather than later, and it turned out I was right to do it then. The cancer was in a more awkward place than they thought, and it was just about to take a little saunter outside the prostate, so I was lucky.
HEMISPHERES: And now?
LLOYD WEBBER: I’m in the clear. They did some tests and nothing is showing up. But you get tests every six months.
HEMISPHERES: Are there side effects?
LLOYD WEBBER: Getting your continence back happens pretty quickly. Getting sex drive back takes longer. I don’t know what happens with that yet. I’ve had five children, fortunately, so it’s Madeleine I’m worried about more than me. But the most important thing is my children have a father and my wife has a husband.
HEMISPHERES: You’d been trying to develop Love Never Dies for years.
LLOYD WEBBER: It was a chance meeting with Ben Elton [who wrote the lyrics for Lloyd Webber’s musical The Beautiful Game]. He unlocked the ending, and that was it. There are a few sparse references to the old Phantom, but all of the music is new. Meanwhile, I’ve also been thinking about revisiting Cats in the next two or three years to maybe see if there are one or two more poems from T.S. Eliot that I could add.
HEMISPHERES: Perhaps you could add a poem about your own cat, whom I understand is able to swim?
LLOYD WEBBER: I would stick with Eliot’s original poems, but it is true that I have a Turkish swimming cat. If we did include that I’m not sure how we would get water in the theater—that might be a huge problem. I recently learned Susan Boyle also has a Turkish swimming cat, so I have a higher opinion of her by the hour.
HEMISPHERES: You’re also a member of the House of Lords.
LLOYD WEBBER: Yes, I go whenever I can. People from the arts are woefully underrepresented there. The fact is, England is not a manufacturing country anymore. We have to encourage creative people.
HEMISPHERES: You’ve got quite an amazing art collection, including a number of pre-Raphaelite works and pieces by Picasso and Canaletto. Are you still buying paintings?
LLOYD WEBBER: Not lately. I don’t have enough walls to put them on. I would have to start getting rid of things, and I’m not very good at that.
HEMISPHERES: I understand you’re also quite a wine collector?
LLOYD WEBBER: Don’t go there. It’s appalling. I have so much of the stuff. I’ll have a sale soon, but at the moment it’s an embarrassment.
HEMISPHERES: Do you think people’s opinion of you has changed since you’ve been doing TV?
LLOYD WEBBER: Of course. People tend to think, ‘He’s a lord…slightly untouchable…very successful composer.’ They don’t know what makes me tick at all. So essentially the programs have been an eye-opener for them, and for me, too. I always look forward to the filming and especially meeting all the kids who are auditioning.
HEMISPHERES: You’re funnier than people expect.
LLOYD WEBBER: I think what I am is myself. I’m only doing on TV what I would be doing anyway. In a small way, it’s what happened to Simon Cowell. I knew Simon well before he became the world’s most famous person, and on TV he’s exactly himself. I think people didn’t realize that I have a naughty streak in me. That said, I have never actually seen myself on television. I never watch myself.
HEMISPHERES: Have you always wanted to be a composer?
LLOYD WEBBER: Yes, I grew up in a musical household. My father was a composer and mother a piano teacher. I was also very interested in buildings as a child. Westminster Abbey had a fantastic influence on me. From that I got my love of all things Victorian. I would never have the technical skill to become an architect, but it’s my number one interest outside musical theater.
HEMISPHERES: Do you always have tunes in your head?
LLOYD WEBBER: I do tend to have a few melodies in there that are waiting to be developed, and then when I find a story it will drive the melody where it should go. Sometimes there’s no rhyme or reason and it just comes to me. But really you are only as good as your collaborators. I don’t write lyrics, and when I met Tim Rice in 1965, I knew he was very special. And Glenn Slater, the lyricist on Love Never Dies, has written very intelligent lyrics.
HEMISPHERES: It took you 20 years to complete Love Never Dies. You must be excited about its move to Broadway.
LLOYD WEBBER: Well, I hope there’s room for something like this—something that’s closer to the Carousels of this world than what people are used to now. Love Never Dies is outside the box of everything that has been going on in musical theater in the last twenty years. I don’t know if it will enjoy anything remotely like the success of Phantom—I’ve got a feeling that this piece will be around in thirty or forty years—but it comes down to people liking it. Anything could happen.
CHRISSY ILEY, a regular contributor to the Sunday Times Magazine and Glamour in the U.K., is in the market for a Turkish snorkling cat.