Ready for something different

Andrew Lloyd Webber's "Phantom" is about to hit the big screen, but he's already thinking about what's next, like maybe a musical about his talking trousers.

Published December 6, 2004 5:08PM (EST)

There was a moment, a few years ago, when Andrew Lloyd Webber's trousers started talking. It wouldn't have mattered so much but he was at the first night of the musical "Summer Holiday." Onstage, Darren Day had just stripped down to his white Y-fronts. "It was the most embarrassing moment in my life," he says. "There was Darren singing, 'We're all going on a summer ...,' and all I could hear was my trousers."

"And when," I ask Lloyd Webber in an Austrian accent, "did your trousers start talking to you?" He reclines somewhat in his chair and thinks. "You see I was the Telegraph's restaurant critic at the time and, thanks to Conrad Black, they gave me a Dictaphone to record my thoughts about recipes and wine tastings. That afternoon I had been to Brackenbury [a west London restaurant], and afterwards I put the thing in my pocket and went off to the show. As soon as Darren piped up I heard 'Choose a large pair of sweetbreads and soak them in cold water overnight ...' I passed the wretched contraption to my wife, Madeleine, and she pushed what she thought was the stop button and it just changed tracks: 'Never regard wine as an investment despite the meteoric rise of Chateau Le Pin ...'"

It's a good story that goes on for a bit and ends with Lloyd Webber rushing out to his car and throwing the device at his driver before returning to see Darren in his fake tan. "Nobody could turn it off. It was still going when we got back to the car."

Haven't you got the subject for your new musical right there, I ask? It could be the farce London's West End has been crying out for -- "Where Did You Last Hear My Trousers?" Great song potential -- "Another Trouser Press, Another Hall"; "Don't Cry for Me Ancient Chinos. And, er, others. Lloyd Webber favors me with a sidelong glance: "It was quite funny but not at the time."

It is true, though, that Lloyd Webber is currently on the lookout for new material. "At the moment I haven't got a story and all musicals are story driven."

Maybe, instead, he'll do something unexpected. As we stroll from his office at the Really Useful Group down St. Martin's Lane to lunch, he says: "I must say that I've done 14 musicals now and I am wondering whether to change directions." To what? "Well, I've been sent a book of poems written in the Warsaw ghetto during the war. I'm thinking about it seriously. I'm ready to do something different. A song cycle."

We are walking through the epicenter of world Webberdom. "The Woman in White at the Palace" is to the right of him; "Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat" at the New London to the left of him; and over in the Haymarket, his greatest musical, "The Phantom of the Opera" (of which more later), is on at Her Majesty's. He is the 100 percent shareholder of the Really Useful Group, which jointly owns 12 London theaters.

Andrew Lloyd Webber is only 56 and has a personal fortune estimated at 450 million pounds, so, you might well think, he can do whatever the chuff he wants. "Do you have my reservation?" Lloyd Webber asks the maitre d'. There's a blankness in the man's eyes that makes me want to sing "Memories" at him to jog his, well, memory. To spare mutual embarrassment, the titan of music theater quickly adds: "It's under Webber." Typical: Your fame girdles the globe but doesn't reach two minutes down the street.

"Last time I came here was with Tim Rice. As we arrived he said, 'I've left my coat in Drury Lane. I'll just pop back and get it.' Fifteen minutes go, then half an hour. Then an hour, so I order. Then an hour and a half later -- nothing. And I thought, That's it -- I will never under any circumstances work with him again. Then in comes Rice and he says, 'I'm really sorry, but I think we've got the subject for our new show.' He said: 'Our subject should be a musical about, say, Oliver Cromwell and there's this poor customer who loses their coat and ends up starring in the musical.' Which I thought was a pretty good excuse for Rice."

Talking trousers, missing coats, Darren's pants -- there's a whole wardrobe of musicals crying out for Lloyd Webber to add to the one he and Sir Tim wrote about an implausible-sounding dreamcoat all those years ago. "It's Tim's 60th tomorrow. I think I might send him a note saying, What about 'The Coat'?"

Will you work together again? "It really depends on whether something comes along. He doesn't particularly enjoy writing musicals. In fact he goes out of his way, rather curmudgeonly, to say he hates them.

Do you? "Well, as I say, I'm thinking of a change. I quite like the idea of going back to writing for the cinema." He sips the St. Aubin 2002 ("the best white Burgundy vintage ever") that he, the oenophilic bon viveur, chose. "I wrote the music for 'Gumshoe,' you know." What -- Mike Hodges' 1971 film with Albert Finney as a wannabe Chandlerian private dick in Liverpool? "Yes, I'd forgotten what fun it is to write for a picture."

By this he means composing music to fit already edited scenes. He has been doing a lot of that recently, having collaborated with director Joel Schumacher on the film version of "The Phantom of the Opera" (which opens Dec. 10 in the U.K. and Dec. 22 in the U.S.). "In the last 10 years the standards of sound in the cinema have come along in leaps and bounds, and so to be able to take advantage of that is wonderful," he says over his crab surprise. "When 'Jesus Christ Superstar' was done on film, half the cinemas would show it in mono. It was an absolute joke."

His saucisson lyonnais arrives and there is a conversational lull while he gets stuck in. Lloyd Webber doesn't like giving interviews, which is a shame because he's a good storyteller. But who can blame him for being wary of journalists? Looking through the cuttings, I realize that if I had a penny for each time he has been called ugly, thin-skinned or borderline talentless, or had his marriage to Sarah Brightman torn into nasty little shreds, I would have enough to buy good seats for his recent musical adaptation of "The Woman in White."

But, really, would such expenditure be warranted? After all, the "The Woman in White" was hailed by the London Evening Standard thus: "Deserves to be stuffed and placed in a museum for deceased musicals," while another critic wrote: "About as spine-chilling as a Teletubbies tea-party." How unfair! Teletubbies tea parties are really scary.

Did the reviews hurt? "What is so dangerous is that you get a lot of lazy journalists around, as certainly happened with "The Woman in White." They find Internet reviews of previews of the show, and then they are picked up of course. What you're trying to do is a preview, you know -- you're working on it. It's just wrong to review a show in those circumstances."

True, but the show also got drubbings from some critics who attended the press night. In reply, Lloyd Webber reminds me of his days as a restaurant critic and the responsibilities such a job entails. "Being on the receiving end of criticism myself, I didn't like crucifying some poor restaurant. I didn't mind it if it was a new version of the Savoy Grill, but not some small venture." Fair enough, but Lloyd Webber, surely, is an institution, the musical equivalent of the Savoy, and thus fair game for a grilling -- if he deserves it.

In music theater, Lloyd Webber believes, he isn't resting on his laurels, but trying to do something new. And really, any good critic should give him credit for this, he says. And this should apply too to the film version of the "Phantom." "It has sold 40 million albums and 40 million to 60 million people have seen it before." Those are incredible figures, and only a fool would gainsay the "Phantom's" popular appeal, but is he steeling himself for hostile reviews? "Not really. Nothing like this has really been attempted before. I think it's fantastic." Warner Bros. bought the film rights for "Phantom" in the late '80s. "It hung in abeyance for years. I had one meeting with somebody from Warner in which he said to me: 'Andrew, you can understand why people sing in an opera house, you can't understand why people sing on an opera house roof.' And I thought -- it's a musical! It's like saying, 'I can understand why a nun can sing in a convent, but not when she's on a mountain.' It was after that meeting that I really saw that the only way to make the film the way I wanted was to buy the rights back somehow."

He has -- putting 4 million pounds into a project that accords Warner distribution rights and has been bankrolled by several international entrepreneurs. It is, he contends, the biggest independent British film ever made. "We had no help at all from the British film area funds that exist. It's absurd -- we couldn't even get anybody connected with government funding to come and look at the huge set we built." He sips his wine. "Doesn't matter, though. The wonderful luxury it gave us once we had got the money is that there were only two people who had to answer to anybody in this film, and that was Joel and I to each other."

Schumacher, director of "Falling Down" and "Phone Booth," isn't an obvious choice to direct. "Oh, but he is. I've been his friend for ages, ever since I wrote him a fan letter for that film "The Lost Boys." What -- the low-budget 1987 vampire thriller with Keifer Sutherland? "That's it. I thought it was wonderful, great music. You should always write fan letters," he counsels. "In fact, I've just written one to a girl called Nellie Mackay who's on Sony records. She's written some of the funniest lyrics I've heard."

Coffee arrives. Which is your favorite of your musicals? "It's difficult because in a way they're your kids, aren't they? They're all like a favorite child. I mean, there are different reasons for being pleased with them. I was very pleased with "Aspects of Love" -- because I'd done "Phantom" and "Cats," and people had forgotten at that time that "Evita" was very austere -- so what was basically a chamber musical was a good idea. With "The Beautiful Game" [his relatively unsuccessful soccer musical set in Northern Ireland], I'm quite proud of the fact that we tackled a subject like that and made it work for about a year, and got people to think a little bit about whether musical theater could do this."

But the "Phantom" has what he calls "a special personal place in the canon." He decided he wanted to adapt it as "a high romance" in those giddy, distant days when he was engaged to his first wife, singer Sarah Brightman, and very much in love. Soon after seeing a campy adaptation of the novel at Joan Littlewood's Theatre Royal at Stratford East, he bought a copy of Gaston Le Roux's novel. "It's one of the most confused books ever written. It can't make up its mind whether it's a detective story, a history, a horror story, but much the most intriguing for me -- which I'd never thought it was -- a love story. Because it ends up with a line saying that on the Phantom's finger -- he's exhumed, heaven knows why -- they found Christine's ring. And I thought, 'Hello.'"

What made you think "hello"? "It's that conflict in the adolescent girl. Her first love is Raoul, the gorgeous tenor who every mother would hope her daughter would marry, but the danger side of her, the rock 'n' roll side, is the Phantom. We all know -- us rock 'n' roll dads -- that she wants the Phantom. And the ring showed that she had a thing with him that you didn't initially imagine. I just wanted something where I could really let myself go and write a full-blooded romantic musical. So I did."

The question now is what will make Andrew Lloyd Webber go "hello" again. As he excuses himself and leaves, I realize I'm quite prepared to sketch out a storyline for "Where Did You Last Hear My Trousers?" if that whole ghetto song cycle doesn't pan out.

By Stuart Jeffries

MORE FROM Stuart Jeffries

Related Topics ------------------------------------------