Poor Andrew Lloyd Webber. He's unemployed (or so he says, with a big grin on his still-cherubic face). Nowhere to go, nothing to do... except look after the 10,000th Broadway performance of his international phenomenon, The Phantom of the Opera ("There was always something about that show that worked"); shepherd into Broadway's Neil Simon Theatre, on March 22, the new production of his first worldwide hit, Jesus Christ Superstar; and make sure the new production of his Evita, starring Elena Roger and Ricky Martin, comes into the Marquis Theatre on April 5. And he has to premiere the Australian movie he produced of his Phantom sequel, Love Never Dies. Oh, and of course he's deeply involved with the reality show in the U.K. that will unveil, he hopes, a new star for the British production of Superstar that will tour the arena circuit.
Apart from this, Andrew Lloyd Webber has nothing to do. "I keep looking for a subject for a new musical, but so far nothing has really excited me. I'd like to write some film music," he says sadly, "but nobody asks me because they think I wouldn't do it. But if the film was right, I would."
I look at Lloyd Webber — whose many accolades include knighthood, an Oscar and multiple Tony, Grammy and Olivier awards — relaxing on the couch in his New York hotel suite, and think about how hard he has worked to achieve his worldwide success and how hard-won has been the respect he enjoys. The critics have been grudging in their praise and acceptance of his body of work, which is now too great to ignore or put down to fluke success. But the theatregoers who plunk down their hard-earned cash have loved and supported Jesus Christ Superstar, Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, Evita, Cats, Starlight Express, Aspects of Love, Sunset Boulevard — and above all Phantom — by the millions.
Forty-one years ago, a 22-year-old Andrew Lloyd Webber and his lyricist partner, Tim Rice, wrote a musical better described, perhaps, as a rock opera. Because they couldn't get it on in the theatre, they persuaded some friends to record the songs in the hope that they could attract a producer. "We didn't mean to invent the 'concept album,'" he laughs. "We just wanted to attract some theatre people to our little show." That "little show" was Jesus Christ Superstar, and it remains one of the most popular musicals ever, constantly performed throughout the world. Now, in a blazing new production by Des McAnuff, it comes to Broadway from its sold-out run at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival in Ontario. "I've never really been happy with it before," admits Lloyd Webber. "Now Des has got it absolutely right. In a way, this version is the opposite to the original in that it's got a grittiness and a reality about it, real rock 'n' roll, and as long as it stays rock 'n' roll, I'm a happy boy. If you go back over the years, it's amazing how many pieces that we now celebrate weren't quite right in their first incarnation. Now, it's right." Back in England, there are plans for an arena tour of Superstar led by the winner of a reality show competition. While controversial, (Rice has spoken out against it) Lloyd Webber stoutly defends the concept of letting the television audience help choose his cast: "It makes new stars and builds new audiences for musical theatre. To find and get performances out of these talented kids is wonderful. And the home audiences have a reason to come to the theatre. I'm proud of the gang we've encouraged."
It's a coincidence that Lloyd Webber and Rice's other massive hit, Evita, comes to Broadway at almost the same time as Jesus Christ Superstar. When Evita opens at the Marquis, it will be helmed, as it was in London in 2006, by British director Michael Grandage, known to New York theatregoers for his 2009 production of Hamlet with Jude Law (and the Tony-winning Red). "When Tim first suggested we do a show about Eva Péron, I was against it," says Lloyd Webber of Evita. "I didn't like her and I decided we shouldn't do it unless we could get the audience to turn on her, to be hostile to what she stood for, but understand her, too. So that's what 'Don't Cry For Me, Argentina' is about."
Unlike most of Lloyd Webber's shows, this one is cast with stars. Eva Péron is played by Argentinean triple threat Elena Roger; opposite her are singer Ricky Martin as Che (the role originated on Broadway by Mandy Patinkin) and Tony winner Michael Cerveris as Juan Péron. I wonder out loud whether Lloyd Webber has done extensive rewriting of the music for them. "Not rewriting, no," he says, "but when I wrote the piece nearly 40 years ago my knowledge of Latin music wasn't extensive, and there was some excitement missing. So when Michael Grandage said he wanted to do a new production, I went over to Argentina to get more color into the orchestrations."
In interviews, the composer is open and willing to talk about anything, even the painful moments. When something doesn't work as he would like, such as the first production of Love Never Dies, he keeps worrying away at it, reshaping, rethinking and rewriting until it does. "Love Never Dies is my Cinderella project," he says. "It's so tiny, so fragile. I'd love it to come to Broadway — after all, it's set in Coney Island, so its home ought to be here in New York. Will it come here? I hope so."
We should all be unemployed like Andrew Lloyd Webber.
(Ruth Leon is a London and New York City arts writer and critic whose work has been seen in Playbill magazine and other publications. She pens Playbill.com's monthly A Letter From London column.)