Andrew Lloyd Webber

In the prologue to his new autobiography, Unmasked, Andrew Lloyd Webber describes himself as ‘the most boring person I have ever written about’. But if the 500 pages that follow prove anything, it’s that the life of arguably the world’s most successful modern composer has been anything but dull.

On the contrary, it’s a riotous saga full of salty tales and – ahem – hot gossip, from Princess Diana suffering a wardrobe malfunction while doing the splits to Michael Crawford and Cameron Mackintosh having a punch-up on Lambeth Bridge. And then there’s the time he got bitten on the neck by a predatory Frankie Howerd, and the story of how he accidentally came to co-write the world’s first gay cookbook…

‘I think it has been a bit boring, really,’ Lloyd Webber insists. ‘But hopefully I’ve tried to make it amusing as I cut through the tedium. I’ve got my own way of telling things – some people like it, some people don’t.’

Indeed, perhaps surprisingly, The Lord Lloyd Webber turns out to be quite the wicked wit, with a dry line in self-deprecating humour (describing a pet monkey that violently attacked his pregnant mother’s stomach, he writes: ‘In short, Mimi was the first person to take a dislike to Andrew Lloyd Webber’).

‘I’m not a public person who goes on chat shows and tells lots of stories,’ he says, when Weekend asks why he’s been hiding his comedy light under a bushel. ‘People who know me know me. All I’ve tried to be is myself.’

The book covers what the author calls his ‘charmed life’ period – from his birth in Kensington to a composer/organist father and pianist mother shortly after the war to the opening of The Phantom of the Opera in 1986. Even so, there were plenty of bumps in the road during those first 38 years, including a ‘confused and unhappy’ adolescence that, aged 15, led him to attempt suicide.

‘Yes, there have been ups and downs, and I can’t say I don’t have them now,’ he tells Weekend. ‘I think any artist has moments where you think everything is wrong, or you’re not writing properly, or you’re depressed for other reasons. And everything is much more black and white when you’re a teenager, because you’re not thinking as rationally as you do when you’ve had a bit of experience.’

One reason for his early turmoil was his mother’s ‘obsession’ with a young musical prodigy called John Lill, who she moved into the family home and lavished her attention upon, to the exclusion of her own sons. ‘Don’t get me wrong, John Lill is a friend and a very fine musician,’ says Lloyd Webber. ‘But suddenly there was an older brother and obviously it had an effect. But I think it probably had more of an affect on [younger brother] Julian than it did on me.’

While Lill and cellist Julian both attracted early attention as child prodigies, Lloyd Webber endured a miserable time at boarding school, nurturing a growing dream of a life in musical theatre. And even when that dream came true, it was far from plain-sailing – not least because, if Unmasked is to be believed, every musical theatre production ever mounted is a highwire test of nerve in which the walls threaten to cave in at any moment, and in which even a Broadway and West End smash is no guarantee of avoiding heavy financial losses.

‘It’s an unbelievably risky business,’ says Lloyd Webber. ‘Musicals are very expensive – they’re huge, unwieldy beasts, with so many ingredients. I’ve been lucky enough to have two or three, I suppose, where everything has come together, and that’s rare. The zeitgeist of when you open – the public mood at the time – is very important. Sometimes you capture it, and sometimes you don’t. Timing is something you can’t control.’

To add to the uncertainty, he is renowned for choosing risky subjects, arguing that ‘a great story is rarely the obvious story’. Eva Perón, the trade unionist who rose to become First lady of Argentina, was a left-field choice of heroine for Evita, while there was so little faith in Cats – based on a collection of whimsical T.S. Eliot poems about feline psychology – that Lloyd Webber was forced to take out a second mortgage on Sydmonton, his 5000-acre Hampshire estate, in order to underwrite it.

‘I think all these people who say, “We’re going to make a musical out of A Tale of Two Cities” or something like that should look at what’s going on,’ he muses. ‘The more unusual the subject, the more interesting it is. If you don’t take risks, there’s not a lot of point doing it.’

And then, of course, there are the critics. As winkingly alluded to in the monkey incident, Lloyd Webber hasn’t always enjoyed the easiest relationship with musical theatre’s would-be tastemakers. But then, he’s in good company: recalling the critically-derided London opening of The Sound of Music in 1961, at which the 13-year-old Lloyd Webber was a guest of Richard Rodgers himself, he writes: ‘That’s when I first experienced a feeling that’s taken a shine off many an opening night’.

Plus, there’s a side of him that clearly relishes the idea of outsider status. ‘At school I was considered to be off-the-radar for liking the sort of musicals I did,’ he recalls. ‘Nobody else did. I always rather enjoyed being in a world where I was fighting a very unfashionable corner.’

And besides, audiences have tended to take a different view (by one metric, The Phantom of the Opera has been calculated to be the most successful entertainment ever, contributing handsomely towards its composer’s estimated £700m fortune). As have award judges: Lloyd Webber’s haul of prizes includes seven Tonys, seven Oliviers, three Grammys, an Oscar, a Golden Globe and 14 Ivor Novellos, to say nothing of a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame and a Conservative life peerage.

Over the years, he’s written with with everyone from Don Black and Charles Hart to Jim Steinman and Ben Elton, but it’s his creative partnership with his 60s and 70s collaborator Tim Rice that proves enduringly fascinating. In Unmasked, Lloyd Webber pulls no punches over their creative tensions, claiming to be baffled by Rice’s ‘preoccupation’ with billing (‘On all our shows he has insisted his name goes first – I couldn’t care less’) and even claiming Rice tried to derail Phantom by poaching director Hal Roach for his own show, Chess.

How would he describe their relationship?

‘I don’t know,’ he says. ‘It’s such a long time ago since we worked together: the last major thing we did was written in 1976. It’s difficult to say why not. We’ve done the odd song together. But we’ve gone our own ways, really.’

Does he consider him a friend?

‘Oh yes, of course. I’m very fond of Tim, always will be.’

The chapter Lloyd Webber confesses he ‘dreaded’ writing is the one in which he describes leaving his wife Sarah Hugill (on whom he had already cheated) and their two young children, Imogen and Nicholas, after falling in love with singer and former Hot Gossip dancer Sarah Brightman in 1983. By his own admission, everyone at the time was ‘appalled’ by his behaviour – so was he appalled himself, revisiting it?

‘I can’t answer that, really,’ he says, tersely. ‘It’s in the book. I don’t think there’s anything I can add to it, usefully.’

Had he married too young, in retrospect? (He was 23 and his ‘child bride’ Hugill just 18 when they’d tied the knot in 1971.)

‘Well I don’t know, because Sarah’s a very great friend of mine now,’ he says. ‘She was with us in the country last weekend. At the time, my whole life expanded suddenly and I became, particularly in America, quite a celebrity. It’s not something I ever expected would ever happen, but suddenly you had it. Also, there were all sorts of things… I was financially free for a bit, particularly after Cats came right. Everything changed. It was one of those things. I try to be as frank about it as I can in the book, but there’s nothing really to add.’

His marriage to Brightman lasted six years, and in 1991 he wed Madeleine Gurdon, with whom he has three children: William, Alastair and Isabella. At the end of Unmasked, Lloyd Webber thanks Madeleine for ‘tirelessly reading the manuscript, even though she doesn’t feature in it’. And it appears she never will, as he has already ruled out a sequel.

‘Stopping at Phantom of the Opera, I’m not really forced into having to say some of the things I would have to say if I ever did a second book,’ he explains. ‘I don’t want to do a second book because I don’t enjoy going over things about people that would probably be a bit disturbing, really.’

It’s certainly true that, with a run of flops including The Woman in White, Stephen Ward and the Phantom sequel Love Never Dies coinciding with a period of ill-health in which he was treated for prostate cancer, there was a time when Lloyd Webber thought it might all be over.

‘I had three years where I was frankly ill, and when you’re in great pain, you think “I can’t go on with everything”,’ he says. ‘But happily that was behind me three years ago, and now I feel right back on form.’

And then some: with School of Rock – his smash hit musical adaptation of the 2003 film – joining Phantom, Cats and a Glenn Close-led revival of 1993’s Sunset Boulevard, last year Lloyd Webber sealed his reputation as the comeback kid by becoming the first composer since Rodgers and Hammerstein to have four musicals running simultaneously on Broadway.

In October, he retired from the House of Lords after 20 years, claiming he didn’t want to be used as ‘lobby fodder’. (Two years earlier, he had been widely criticised for flying in from the US to vote against an amendment delaying George Osborne’s tax credits cut – an issue he later claimed he had been misinformed about, and which had led him to consider quitting the Conservative party.)

When I went into the House of Lords it was a very different place,’ he says. ‘You went in as an honour, you were not expected to be a political animal, you were not expected to go and vote according to party politics or anything like that. I’m not a politician and I don’t think there’s anything useful I can do. Also, I’ve got a huge amount of work and I know honourably I can’t get there.’

Given that his grandmother was a communist and his mother a socialist, did his lifelong support of the Tories lead to some fierce debate around the family dinner table?

‘A little bit, for fun,’ he says. ‘Though my granny wasn’t a communist, she was a Christian Communist, which is rather an esoteric… It was always a bit puzzling to me. But I don’t want to go there, really.’

To mark his 70th birthday later this month, Lloyd Webber has also curated Unmasked: The Platinum Collection, a new 60-track anthology of his music performed by everyone from Elvis, Madonna and Beyonce to Barbra Streisand and Placido Domingo.

‘It’s pretty extraordinary who I’ve had the luck to work with, or who has recorded my songs,’ he says. ‘At the Grammys this year they did this tribute to me, and it was amazing – all these people who are big stars now, like Lana Del Ray and Bruno Mars, saying “I was narrator in Joseph…” I mean, it’s unbelievable.’

When the birthday celebrations and Unmasked promo duties are done, though, he’s looking forward to getting on with the next chapter of his life.

‘I rather enjoyed writing the book, but what it did absolutely make me realise was how much I don’t like looking back,’ he says. ‘I’ve got a very restless mind, and all I really want to do now is get back to my piano and get on with it. I’m raring to go.’

Published in Waitrose Weekend, March 8, 2018

(c) Waitrose Weekend