Andrew Lloyd Webber: I remember

Amanda Riley-Jones

Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber, 70, is the legendary composer of some of the most successful musicals in history and has reigned over the West End for nearly five decades

...We lived in a rented flat

When my parents met, Dad had close to zero income. He, Mum, my dear Granny Molly and Mimi, my mother’s pet monkey, shacked up under one roof in a rented flat in London’s South Kensington. 

 

...Mum's monkey disliked me

When Mum got pregnant, her pet monkey Mimi became horrendously distressed and violently attacked my mother’s stomach with bloodcurdling cries.

Posing in school uniform with brother Julian

 

...My father was a mild man

 My paternal grandfather was a keen amateur musician. As a child, Dad got music scholarships all over the shop. At an unprecedentedly youthful age he won a gong to the Royal College of Music. But for all his talent Dad wouldn’t say boo to a goose. He was content in his academic roles such as Professor of Composition at the Royal College of Music. Mum found his lack of ambition infuriating.

"I owe Cats to my childhood cat Perseus—a wonderful square-faced, seal pointed Siamese boy"

 

...Taking our cat for walks

I owe Cats not only to Mummy’s bedtime reading of T S Eliot’s Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats, but also to my cat, Perseus—a wonderful square-faced, seal-pointed Siamese boy. The family really shouldn’t have had an animal like that in a flat.  Such was Perseus’s deafening meowing that when I was around seven I asked if I could take him on a lead to Thurloe Square, the only bit of local greenery I knew. I became a regular spectacle walking Perseus like a dog.

 

...My first time on a magazine cover

Andrew's Nursery World magazine cover

Mum was an ace children’s piano teacher and her lessons gave me a head start in the basics of music.  When I was about four, Mum hired a photographer and thrust a violin and a bow upon my person. Mum’s idea was that I would emerge on  the international concert stage as some Yehudi Menuhin-style violin-toting child prodigy. Her hopes didn’t last long.  

 

...Family outings to pantos and musicals

We had an annual family Christmas outing to the London Palladium pantomime. The big names, big sets and contemporary pop songs captivated me. The Christmas holidays in 1958 brought me face-to-face with musicals for the first time. Over four weeks, I saw My Fair Lady, West Side Story plus the movies Gigi and South Pacific —which completely pulverised me. I remember the afternoon I saw it as vividly as the film’s legendary colour filters. I wrote tons of dreadful musicals. Bored relatives and friends would gather for the latest offering with my brother and me on vocals, and me alternating as pianist and scene-shifter. It was a complete world where I was truly happy.

 

...Dad playing me Some Enchanted Evening

Andrew’s father and Perseus

Before we went to the movie of South Pacific, Dad played me the tenor Mario Lanza’s recording of “Some Enchanted Evening.” Three times he played it, tears streaming from his eyes. When the record finally stopped, he looked me straight in the face. “Andrew”, he said, “if you ever write anything half as good as this I shall be very, very proud of you.” 

 

...The day my schoolboy life changed

I attended the junior department of Westminster School.  At the end of term concert I was slated to play some boring piano piece by Haydn, but I instead announced; “I’m going to play some tunes I have written that describe every master in the school.” By the end boys were shouting, “Lloydy, Lloydy!” I was no longer the little school swot, I was Andrew.   

 

...Meeting my future collaborator

When I was 17, I received a letter from a 22-year-old Tim Rice saying “Your agent told me you were looking for a ‘with it’ writer of lyrics for your songs.” He came to our flat and brought a demo of a song he’d written. It was catchy, with Tim singing in a laid-back, folksy way accompanying himself on guitar. I diffidently broached that my real love was musicals. To my surprise, Tim said he’d been brought up on his parents’ cast albums and he actually liked theatre songs. I really liked Tim. He had a laconic turn of phrase and a quick wit.

"By the time we got to the hotel, I knew that there was no alternative. I was in love and I proposed"

 

...The biggest decision of my life

Tim and I started writing together for The Likes of Us, a musical based on the story of Dr Barnardo. Then Tim started a job at EMI. He could easily have a hit on his own. I agonised about leaving Oxford.  Instead, I went to the Royal College of Music and, within a few years, Tim and I had produced Joseph and the Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat, Jesus Christ Superstar and Evita.

 

...Meeting my first wife

I met Sarah Hugill on 21 January 1970 at a friend’s birthday party. Sarah was just a slip of a 16-year-old schoolgirl. She offered to be my secretary. Falling in love didn’t take long. Sarah and I had long presumed we’d get hitched as soon as she legally could. I had the cash to buy a smart BMW so, as an unofficial engagement present, I gave her my old Mini which she promptly drove into the back of a lorry.

 

...1971 was a rather eventful year

I got married; Superstar opened on Broadway and I met my hero, Richard Rodgers, in his Manhattan apartment, which I remember being rammed with Impressionist paintings.

 

...Becoming a father

Andrew’s children Nic and Imogen

1976 brought a moment of real joy. Sarah was pregnant. As she was diabetic, she had to be in hospital weeks before her due date. When our gorgeous healthy baby girl was born the following March I was delighted. She was named Imogen after Sarah’s grandmother. Her middle name is Annie after the musical.

 

...Falling for Sarah Brightman

Andrew getting married to Sarah Brightman

When Sarah auditioned for Cats in 1981, it was how she looked and danced that grabbed me. So when I saw the children’s opera Nightingale the next year I was poleaxed that she also had a captivating soprano voice. After the show, I aimed for her dressing room. She and Mike Moran, a keyboard player and producer/songwriter, were going back into town. Sarah suggested I join them. It was a split second decision that changed my life. When I’d started working on Starlight Express, our relationship was sealed during a brief trip to northern Italy. We were driving to Portofino and the rain dictated an extremely long lunch. By the time we got to the hotel, I knew there was no alternative. I was in love and I proposed.

 

...Seeing Dad play for the last time

Being pushed by his father on a swing

In 1982 Mum and Dad came to New York to keep my mind off the opening night of Cats. I hate opening nights. Sarah and I took Dad to Steinway’s HQ where he toyed with a full-sized concert grand piano. Then Dad played the great Rachmaninov D flat Paganini variation. Here was this most reserved of men playing with a passion I’d never heard before in a New York public showroom. I didn’t know it at the time but I would never hear him play again.

 

...Buying the palace theatre in London

Buying such an important building as the Palace in London’s Cambridge Circus was a huge respite from domestic drama. It was the first time a West End theatre had been owned by a working theatre artist. The first thing I did was remove the vindaloo wallpaper. Underneath was solid Siena marble.

 

...Making a musical for her majesty

In 1986 I got a call from Buckingham Palace and met with HRH Prince Edward. He wondered if I could compose something to celebrate the Queen’s 60th birthday and also his father’s 65th. I invited Tim to co-write and we agreed on a short musical featuring cricket and horse-racing. It played one night only in the Chapel Royal, Windsor Castle. The Queen and Duke of Edinburgh made polite noises.

 

...Crying at my own music

Phantom of the Opera opened in London’s West End in 1986. I vividly remember the song “The Point of No Return” being rammed with sexual tension and how the audience gasped when Sarah ripped off Michael Crawford’s mask. However cloying it sounds, I was crying during the last scene and, when Sarah kissed the pathetic Phantom to the orchestra playing “Angel of Music”, I was as wiped out as the audience. Never had I had more at stake. It wasn’t just that Phantom meant so much to me as a composer. Casting Sarah had put my professional integrity on the line. The director Harold Prince ran up the aisle and clasped my hand, saying, “It’s the best musical I have even seen.”

 

...Meeting my wife Madeleine

With wife Madeleine Gurdon in 2004

I met my wonderful wife Madeleine Gurdon in 1989 through mutual friends when my marriage to Sarah had become rocky. Madeleine was a professional equestrian when I met her. She supported her horse-riding career by founding a successful country clothing business and has a mind like a razor. I have been blessed with an extremely happy 27-years-and-counting marriage and Madeleine has given me three more great children, Alastair, Billy and Bella.

 

...Being in a dark place

Madeleine has stood by me like a rock through some grisly career moments and four missing years thanks to health problems. In 2014 I was in a pretty dark place and it’s no secret that most people assumed that I wouldn’t compose again. Then I decided to give up alcohol, sold my wine cellar and went back to my roots with School of Rock, based on the Jack Black movie. I produced it myself as well as composing the score and it’s my first Broadway show to go into profit since Phantom of the Opera.

 

...How lucky I am

Since my 70th birthday, I’ve been looking back at how lucky I’ve been. You’re very lucky if you know what you want to do in life. I’m doubly lucky that I not only have made a living out of my passion but a hugely rewarding one. I hope through the Andrew Lloyd Webber Foundation and the restoration of my theatres that I’m able to give something back to the profession that has always been so good to me.

 

Andrew Lloyd-Webber’s first memoir, Unmasked, will be published on March 6 (Harper Collins, hardback at £20.00).