Andrew Lloyd Webber: ‘I don’t feel like a Conservative at the moment’

Andrew Lloyd Webber should be in jail. Sort of. The multimillionaire composer promised that if the government didn’t allow his latest musical, Cinderella, to open at full capacity in June, he would go ahead anyway. To hell with the handcuffs.

It put theatre, one of the overlooked casualties of the pandemic, on Britain’s political agenda. Privately, though, Lloyd Webber soon received legal advice “that every member of the company, every member of the cast, every member of the audience could be fined £500 each”. He bowed to reality. ­Cinderella would not go to the ball immediately.

The incident illustrates two things about Lloyd Webber, whose scores for Cats, The Phantom of the Opera and Evita have helped to create a fortune estimated at more than £500m.

The first is his absolute love for theatre. At 73, he is half-man, half-archive. Listening to him, you get used to nodding along to lines such as: “‘Say a Prayer for Me Tonight’ was Eliza’s song going to the ball in My Fair Lady, and became a big song in Gigi.”

He struggles with people who do not share this passion. Between 1997 and 2017, he sat in the House of Lords as a Conservative peer, but says, “I don’t feel like a Conservative at the moment . . . I just can’t support a government that has so little time for the arts.” His threat of civil disobedience was in “desperation and frustration”, he says, after culture secretary “Oliver Dowden said to me one day, ‘Unfortunately, the government thinks that theatre is nice to have but not essential.’”

Beautiful gilt features at the Theatre Royal Drury Lane, London
Gilt features restored to their former glory at the Theatre Royal Drury Lane, which Andrew Lloyd Webber bought in 2000 © Silvana Trevale

Rows of red seats in the circle
The curtain is about to rise on the £60m refurbishment, which aims to return the theatre to the grandeur of its 1812 reincarnation © Silvana Trevale

The second lesson is his style of negotiation. It’s been 50 years since the first major staging of a musical by Lloyd Webber and lyricist Tim Rice, Jesus Christ Superstar, on Broadway. In that time, he has become accustomed to getting his way, or at least making clear what that way is. “When he sees his vision going off beam, his way of getting it back on beam is getting pretty cross about it,” says Madeleine, his third wife. “Quiet negotiation doesn’t really happen.”

The lyricist Don Black recalled Lloyd Webber saying 15 minutes before a performance of Sunset Boulevard: “I think I have time for one more tantrum.” Lloyd Webber himself admitted to behaving “appallingly in theatres because of bad sound more times than I care to mention”. He is often known as “ALW”, and he is certainly an ALW unto himself. Actors, producers, investors, politicians — he confronts them all.

The single-mindedness that has made Lloyd Webber successful has also often made him unloved. He sees himself as a champion for the industry, but the industry doesn’t always feel the same way. It’s not just the critics, who have ­frequently looked down on his work, despite its echoes of Puccini and Prokofiev. “He’s been rich and successful for 50 years. That does something to a man,” says one fellow theatre entrepreneur. “He’s greedy.”

Thanks to The Book of Mormon and Hamilton, musicals are cool again. Lloyd Webber, the man who globalised the musical, is not. His music is a rite of passage for school players, the accompaniment to car trips, the ultimate family theatre treat. Yet powerful male artist-cum-visionaries are now sometimes viewed with suspicion. And like the poet John Betjeman, whom he admires, Lloyd Webber has upheld a vision of traditional Englishness, and in the process become both a snob and a target for snobs.

Andrew Lloyd Webber with his wife, Madeleine, on a staircase inside the refurbished theatre
Lloyd Webber with his wife Madeleine on the theatre’s Wyatt staircase. The former Tory peer says he feels ‘desperate’, ‘frustrated’ and neglected by those in power: ‘I just can’t support a government that has so little time for the arts’ © Silvana Trevale

Which brings us to Theatre Royal Drury Lane, Britain’s oldest theatre site still in use. Lloyd Webber bought it in 2000; he has now spent £60m to revive it. You could buy several other West End theatres for that amount of money. This is a project so grand, so permanent, that it will give him a victory over the naysayers.

“I don’t think anybody’s done anything of this scale to a theatre of this kind for years and years,” he says. “It’s been a labour of love.” The only recent comparison is the £50m renovation of the Royal Opera House, financed by 15 philanthropists.

When we meet in early July, Drury Lane’s restoration is almost finished. Lloyd Webber peers past me into the saloon. “I’m just seeing what things I don’t like.” His eyes alight on a sofa in a side room, with its back to the doorway. “That sofa makes a barrier. It makes me say, I don’t want to go back there.” A compromise is soon found.

For all his professional bluntness, Lloyd Webber can be emotionally evasive. When we are seated in what used to be a fire escape and is now the downstairs brasserie, I ask whether he hopes Drury Lane will endure even more than his shows. “It’s not really for me . . . ” he begins, coyly.

Madeleine, his partner in the theatre restoration, is blunter: “In years to come, when people say, ‘What on earth did Andrew Lloyd Webber do with all his money?’ This is where it is.”

Lloyd Webber first came to Drury Lane in 1958, aged nine, to see The Tempest with John Gielgud; he was back months later for My Fair Lady. Music had already entered his life: his mother thrust a violin on to him aged three. His father was a composer.

Lloyd Webber wrote his first musical at 13. He dropped out of Oxford, where he had won a history scholarship, to collaborate with the slightly older Rice. They wrote a song for Elvis Presley. Lloyd Webber collaborated with Plácido Domingo. His music has been sung by Barbra Streisand, Madonna and Taylor Swift. He won an Oscar (for Evita) and had, in Phantom, one of the highest-earning entertainment productions of all time. He even wrote the UK a decent Eurovision song in 2009.

Andrew Lloyd Webber on a seat inside the theatre
Lloyd Webber inside the auditorium: ‘I don’t think anybody’s done anything of this scale to a theatre of this kind for years and years. It’s been a labour of love’ © Silvana Trevale

His most memorable songs — Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat’s “Any Dream Will Do”, Cats’ “Memory”, Evita’s “Don’t Cry for Me Argentina” — are overtly sentimental. But is the man? “I probably would err on the side of being a romantic, even though I might be a rock romantic,” he insists. Madeleine offers an alibi: “Any of those [Richard Rodgers] musicals, I won’t sit next to him, because he just cries all the way through them!”

His love for theatre has been rivalled by his love for architecture and art, especially pre-Raphaelite painting. He bought up country homes and West End theatres, and made them his own.

A playhouse has stood at Drury Lane since 1663. Lloyd Webber’s aim is to return it to the grandeur of its 1812 reincarnation, with less social segregation. It is a statement of marble pillars and stone floors, a rebuttal to those who see the West End as synonymous with cramped seats and collapsing ceilings. Although conceived well before the pandemic, it could become a Phoenix-like symbol of theatreland’s rebirth.

Lloyd Webber says he wants to “prove wrong” two people, no matter that each has been dead for at least two decades. The first is Robert Nesbitt, once the king of variety, who said that Drury Lane was cold. “[Nesbitt said:] ‘When you’ve half an audience, the London Palladium is half full, but The Lane is half empty’. It’s stayed with me all my life.”

The other is Gielgud, who, Lloyd Webber says, lamented on the last night of The Tempest that Drury Lane had been lost to US musicals. The 1812 theatre was declared on its opening night by Lord Byron to be a “shrine for Shakespeare”. Lloyd Webber says he’d “love to see Shakespeare come back here” — although paradoxically he’s renting it out to Disney’s Frozen the Musical for the foreseeable future. He has commissioned and installed eight large oil paintings by the artist Maria Kreyn representing Shakespeare plays. He has also included a young version of himself in a new grisaille artwork alongside his hero, Rodgers.

Storerooms have been ripped out, staircases unboxed. “With a Greek Revival building, the one thing you don’t want to do is to clutter it,” says Lloyd Webber. Neon advertising has been torn from the facade and relocated to the building next door. “I’m not having bloody hoardings . . . When you’ve got a theatre that’s an architectural work of art, you want the theatre to be the star and the show will follow from that.”

The stage has been extended and the circle has been brought forward, increasing the intimacy. The circle itself can be dismantled in sections, allowing the theatre to play in the round. “It could be done in theory in 24 hours, let’s give it 48.” He takes a look at the fixtures installed for Frozen, and grimaces at the clutter. “It’s very inconsiderate putting on a show.”

One of the theatre’s teapots
The theatre’s new café-bar The Garden offers afternoon teas and lunch. ‘The most important thing is that the place is alive, that people . . . just come here’ © Silvana Trevale

A row of seats, each embellished with a crown
Lloyd Webber has extended the stage and brought forward the circle, taking the theatre’s capacity from 2,250 to just under 1,900 © Silvana Trevale

I mention that Cameron Mackintosh, his collaborator-cum-rival, once added a few extra boxes to the Gielgud theatre to maximise revenues. “You don’t want to do that,” he says. “I’ve gone the other way.” Drury Lane’s capacity has slimmed from 2,250 to just under 1,900.

The project has faced various disasters since work began in January 2019: a contractor going bust, a radiator flooding the dressing room, a warehouse fire destroying furniture. Restaurateur Richard Caring agreed a 15-year concession but put the project on hold after the pandemic. At least “it hasn’t burnt down yet like [Richard Brinsley] Sheridan”, says Lloyd Webber, referring to the fire that destroyed the theatre in 1809, when the famous playwright co-owned it.

He insists that he ploughs all the profits from his seven theatres, which sold 2.3 million tickets a year pre-pandemic, back into the buildings. (His separate licensing business paid him £14m in royalties in 2019 and made £7m in pre-tax profit.) The refurb has been financed through a mix of borrowing and his own funds (after personal experience, he is contemptuous of private equity). Kreyn, the artist, likens him to a Renaissance patron.

“We’re lucky in the West End that three of the four major theatre owners are private,” says Lloyd Webber. “There’s me, there’s Cameron Mackintosh and there’s Nica Burns and Max Weitzenhoffer. I don’t regard the theatre as a business — I regard theatre ownership as custodianship.”

In fact, his and Madeleine’s desire is for more than a theatre, with afternoon teas served upstairs, lunches downstairs and a Cecil Beaton-themed bar by the foyer. Compare that to Broadway, he says, where “the theatres have tiny front of houses. Even the queues for the men’s loos are such that they send a lot of people across the road to the café opposite.”

At Drury Lane, people should be lured in whether or not they have tickets, whether or not there is even a show in the main auditorium. “The most important thing is that this place is alive, and people feel that they can just come here and that there’s always new work going on. Otherwise, it’s just a great big mausoleum in the middle of Covent Garden.”

Lloyd Webber has history with pandemics. In 1979, his then father-in-law — who he suspects may have worked for MI6 — came to him very depressed. “He said [a new disease] was going to wipe out a huge amount of the world’s population . . . He said it will manifest itself in America, probably through San Francisco or something . . . I didn’t think anything of it, apart from, oh God, he’s obviously having a rough day.”

Madeleine says she deduced from a text message from a senior scientist in February 2020 that things were bad with Covid. Despite his connections, Lloyd Webber feels neglected by those in power. He was anti-Brexit, Madeleine was pro. Perhaps ministers think theatre is a leftwing preserve? “They had a wonderful opportunity to show the Tories did care about theatre . . . But they’ve sure as hell made it a leftwing preserve forever.”

One of the theatre’s gilt pillars
Lloyd Webber says all the profits from his seven theatres, which sold 2.3 million tickets a year pre-Covid, go back into the buildings © Silvana Trevale

One of the theatre’s lamps
The refurb has been financed through a mix of borrowing and Lloyd Webber’s own funds. His personal fortune is put at more than £500m © Silvana Trevale

He says his theatres have been losing £1m a month, and that any further delays would lead him to close Cinderella in London “and do it somewhere else”, costing the UK tax revenues. Les Misérables, Cats and Phantom have each “grossed 10 times what [the biggest-grossing movie] Avatar’s done . . . Chancellors don’t see this. ‘Oh, we must subsidise the film industry’. Theatre’s irrelevant — a nice thing to have.

“My economic lesson to Rishi [Sunak] would be: why do you think the then head of Disney [Michael Eisner] came to see me about setting up a theatre division? Answer: because he realised he could make far more money exploiting The Lion King in the theatre than he ever could out of an animated film in the cinema.”

Yet such hits don’t come easily. Lloyd Webber’s last new one was arguably Phantom in 1986. A great musical is a symbiosis of score, lyrics, story and choreography. “It doesn’t happen that often. It hasn’t happened to me that often,” he says, giving the last word its royal pronunciation, closer to how most English people say “orphan”.

He lost two years to prostate cancer and two to back problems. At one point, illness prevented him from going and looking at buildings: “That’s my therapy — looking at architecture.” He contemplated Dignitas. “When you’re living with pain all the time, you do get very low.” He was struggling when Love Never Dies opened in 2010, and on morphine through the musical Stephen Ward in 2013. “Luckily, I’m fine now. School of Rock was the first show I’d been really on top of for a long time.”

“Do we mention the other lowest of the low moments?” says Madeleine. “The Cats film. I’ve never seen Andrew so upset.” He had sold the rights and was sidelined. “I’ve never known anything so ghastly. It was disgraceful, the whole process,” he says. “I actually wrote a letter to the head of Universal Pictures, Donna Langley, which I didn’t even get [a response to] and I said, ‘This will be a car crash beyond belief if you don’t listen to me.’”

He blames the director Tom Hooper. “You’ve got to have somebody who understands the rhythm of music . . . I had right of approval over some of the musical elements. But they really rode roughshod over everything.” Things were so bad that he had to console himself by buying a Havanese puppy.

Meanwhile Madeleine, 15 years younger than him with a background running a horse-breeding business, had become “a bit frustrated on some of the subjects he was writing about, which were inherently uncommercial”. She pursued Paramount for the theatre rights to the film School of Rock. “I thought, we’ve just got to get him back to his really fun days of Joseph and some of the rock operas.”

Cinderella is in that vein, with a modern twist that the fairy godmother is now an evil plastic surgeon. “I’m always restless and looking for projects. I really want to get on and do the next one,” says Lloyd Webber. “I don’t really analyse. I just like writing musicals.” After Hamilton, could British history generate a musical? “Well, I didn’t clock Henry VIII, which others have done extremely well . . . I’ve always thought historical musicals are tricky.”

Lloyd Webber’s work does not have an obvious moral like Hamilton. He dramatised parts of the Bible, but is an agnostic. He lionised Eva Perón, but is a conservative. Perhaps the real lesson of his work is his desire to have it all, over and over again. He craves the approval that only a packed audience can bestow.

Some lean into it: Madeleine joined her husband on the Drury Lane renovation because if you don’t work with him, you might not see him. Some tire of it: Rice is temperamentally different. “We haven’t written together since 1976,” says Lloyd Webber. “I’d have loved to do another show with him. But I think now we have really moved on.” He assures me their relationship is “perfectly fine”, which, it occurs to me, is not a standard he would normally regard as acceptable.

Even sitting in his own theatre, with his own selection of overtures playing in the background, Lloyd Webber cannot quite seem to relax. He has to dash to another of his seven theatres for a meeting. It was Rice who described a 17-year-old Lloyd Webber’s contradictions: “awkward and confident . . . innovative and derivative . . . generous and self-centred”. You could add one more to the mix: Andrew Lloyd Webber is desperate to leave a good impression, but only on his own terms.

Henry Mance is the FT’s chief features writer

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