Nonfiction: Andrew Lloyd Webber, Hotheaded Perfectionist


Not exactly the promise of a page-turner to come.

Still, he soldiers on. And so must I.

Andrew Lloyd Webber, who turns 70 today, was born in London’s Westminster Hospital to a father who was a talented but unambitious composer who turned instead to the academic world, and a mother who poured her own dreams into Andrew and his younger brother.

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From the beginning, Lloyd Webber showed a distinct musical talent. And he was an early fan of musical theater — seeing the London productions of “My Fair Lady” and “West Side Story” while still a child, beginning to write school theatricals when he was 11 and finding that his satirical portraits of the teachers suddenly made him popular with his peers. “Boys were shouting ‘Lloydy, Lloydy!’” he recalls.

The turning point in his career came in 1965 when he met Tim Rice, whom his agent had recommended as a potential lyricist for a project the precocious 17-year-old was beginning to work on. The meeting seemed to go well: “Awe-struck might be a better way of describing my first encounter with Timothy Miles Bindon Rice,” Lloyd Webber says. The two later went on to write “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat,” “Jesus Christ Superstar” and “Evita,” parting ways around the time that “Cats” was coming together (as a lyricist, Rice was replaced by a long-dead T. S. Eliot).

One recurring theme of Lloyd Webber’s memoir is his increasingly fractious relationship with Rice. The two seem to have fallen out sometime around “Evita,” their collaboration apparently complicated by Rice’s affair with Elaine Paige, the leading lady in the original London production, and by tensions over which of the two men was getting more credit for their growing fame. A final break came when Rice was called in on “Cats” to help write the lyrics for what would eventually become “Memory,” but his work never made it into the final product. “We had a great 10 years,” Rice later told an interviewer. “Very few artistic partnerships last more than 10 years, and if they do they tend to go down the tubes.”

Lloyd Webber frequently drops hints that all was not well between the two — at one point quoting his father saying, “You won’t have a long-term partnership with Tim” — but he never states what exactly went wrong or demonstrates that he ever confronted Rice about what he apparently saw as his undermining and occasionally deceitful ways. The closest he comes is when he seems to suspect that Rice was trying to undercut the forthcoming production of “Phantom” by attempting to “hijack” its director, Hal Prince, for a show of his own.

The other main character in Lloyd Webber’s life, at least in the period covered in this book, is the singer Sarah Brightman, his second wife, with whom he had an affair while still married to his first wife (also named Sarah), and whom he later cast in “The Phantom of the Opera.”

Even if you knew nothing of Lloyd Webber’s personal life, and that this union did not last, the author certainly foreshadows the fact that the marriage was doomed. While describing her otherworldly singing voice and delicate beauty, Lloyd Webber casually says that during their affair, Brightman was married to a man no one ever seems to have seen, and insinuates that she had a reputation for becoming romantically entangled with colleagues. Sure enough, when their split finally comes, Lloyd Webber mentions in passing that Brightman was apparently having an affair with a keyboard player in the “Phantom” orchestra. (Lloyd Webber seems to have found marital bliss with his third wife, Madeleine, to whom he has been married for 27 years.)

The one revelation in the book has nothing to do with Lloyd Webber’s music or his romantic affairs. It is the surprising assertion that in 1981, Milos Forman approached him about playing Mozart in his film version of “Amadeus.” Lloyd Webber was appalled, telling Forman that he was “a hopeless actor.” But the director was undeterred. “You are a hotheaded perfectionist who can be extremely obnoxious,” Lloyd Webber quotes him saying. “I want you to play yourself.” Lloyd Webber writes that Forman pursued him off and on for the next couple of years and that he managed to wriggle out of the director’s grasp only when he insisted (jokingly, he says) in a meeting with Forman and some of the producers that Mozart’s music be replaced by his own. Startlingly, the producers seemed willing to go along, until Forman stepped in and stated the obvious: “I think Andrew is saying he doesn’t want to play the role.” (The film, with Tom Hulce taking on the role of Mozart, went on to win eight Oscars.)

My suspicion is that Lloyd Webber might have had a similar conversation with his book editor, arguing that he really didn’t want to write a memoir. If so, readers may finish this book wishing the editor had agreed.

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