Unmasked: A Memoir

 

In his new memoir, Andrew Lloyd Webber tells a lovely, mildly self-deprecating anecdote about an encounter with Lorin Maazel. Maazel was rehearsing a performance of Lloyd Webber’s classical Requiem, and during a break the composer asked the conductor to explain the minimalist music of Philip Glass.

Maazel tried. Here’s Lloyd Webber on what happened next: “Abruptly he stopped and looked me in my glazed over face. ‘Andrew, there’s no point in my explaining this. You are a maximalist.’ ”

In a single pithy word, Maazel nails Lloyd Webber’s preference for the grand musical gesture — the soaring, emotional melodies that have captivated Broadway and West End audiences but often earned him critical disdain. There are many such pointed, intimate moments in Unmasked, whose title is ripped from the climax of Lloyd Webber’s mega-hit The Phantom of the Opera. (In a reconsideration of the composer in the March 12th issue of The New Yorker, Adam Gopnik calls Phantom, still running in New York and London after three decades, “both absolutely terrible and sort of great.”)

From a literary standpoint, Lloyd Webber’s memoir, published in connection with his seventieth birthday, is something of a mess. It is sprawling and overlong, formally inelegant, at once needlessly detailed and riddled with lacunae. More surprising, Unmasked covers only the opening portion of the composer’s career, through Phantom‘s creation and 1986 West End premiere. Lloyd Webber sums up his often rocky subsequent decades in an epilogue titled “Playout Music,” in which he suggests that his financial and personal challenges have taught him “toe-curling truths about so-called friends and colleagues.” Addressing why a single volume hadn’t sufficed to chronicle his life to date, Lloyd Webber concedes that “my verbosity got in the way.”

Unmasked mostly compensates for its self-indulgence with a sprightly tone, a high gossip quotient, and, best of all, a sense of authenticity. Readers gain entrée to Lloyd Webber’s sensibility — neuroses, obsessions, vanity, and all — and to a turbulent backstage world in which his perfectionism about sound quality sometimes collides with the practicalities of making theater. He frets endlessly over royalties, reviews, and especially casting and learns from his idol Richard Rodgers that “critics were afraid of sentiment,” a prescient warning indeed.

The young Lloyd Webber was, as one might expect, a musical prodigy, eager for accomplishment and acclaim — though also a passionate aficionado of art and architecture. The son of a composer and music professor (his father) and an “ace piano teacher” (his mother), he dropped out of Oxford University to work with the lyricist Tim Rice on a series of “through-sung” musicals. Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, a pop cantata, began as a short concert for schools and was subsequently expanded. Jesus Christ Superstar launched as a rock album before becoming the duo’s Broadway debut. The critically reviled, Tony Award−winning Evita, based on the life of Argentinian political leader Eva Perón, turned out to be their swan song.

For Cats, Lloyd Webber drew on the verses of T. S. Eliot; for Phantom, based on the novel by Gaston Leroux, he enlisted Charles Hart, as well as Richard Stilgoe. The great lyricist Alan Jay Lerner had originally signed on to work with Stilgoe, but lung cancer forced his withdrawal. Lerner’s touching letter to Lloyd Webber bemoans missing out on “the wonderful opportunity it would have been to write with you.”

He also missed out on Lloyd Webber’s sometimes brutal frankness. The composer worries, for instance, about Patti Lupone’s diction in the title role of Evita, for which she eventually won a Tony Award. (In a letter prior to the 1979 Broadway opening, he admonishes her to concentrate on her musical performance.) In the memoir, he lambastes director Tom O’Horgan (of Hair fame) for a Broadway production of Jesus Christ Superstar with “the vision and subtlety of Caesars Palace.” He refers to Perry Como, who sings his theme for the film The Odessa File, as “Perry Comatose.”

His early partner Rice provokes both admiration and irritation. He paints the lyricist as a dexterous rhymer and a “blond bombshell of an adonis” who regularly bedded ingénues and was easygoing to a fault. We learn that Rice nevertheless threatened legal action over the unauthorized inclusion of his lyrics in a hybrid early version of “Memory,” the anthem from Cats. The breach has since been sufficiently repaired for Rice to permit his correspondence to be quoted.

Lloyd Webber makes clear that he himself was no saint. But he offers little emotional insight into the dynamics of his two failed marriages, both with women named Sarah. His first, at age twenty-three to eighteen-year-old Sarah Hugill, began with a head-over-heels infatuation, produced two children, and survived Hugill’s near-fatal, misdiagnosed bout with diabetes-related blood poisoning. (A doctor had insisted she was suffering only from stress.)

That marriage famously fell victim to Lloyd Webber’s romance with the soprano Sarah Brightman, whom he would eventually cast as Christine in Phantom. At once “devastated yet resigned,” Hugill, to avoid divorce, was willing to allow him to lead a double life, Lloyd Webber says — a heartbreaking detail. He declines but later buys her a country house.

The composer’s union with Brightman turns out to be precarious, too. It fractures, he writes, after the singer has an affair with a keyboard player and he becomes involved with another woman, leaving Brightman “shattered.” Her voice, he adds consolingly, “will always be very special to me.” Because of the memoir’s timeline, Lloyd Webber’s third wife, Madeleine Gurdon, a retired equestrian to whom he has been married twenty-seven years, makes only a cameo appearance.

In more recent years, Lloyd Webber has struggled with prostate cancer, alcohol, and a series of musical near-misses and flops. (Ever heard of Stephen Ward, about one of the central figures in Britain’s 1963 Profumo scandal? Lloyd Webber hopes to revamp it someday.) He rebounded in 2015 with School of Rock, still playing both Broadway and the West End. This idiosyncratic memoir will delight his many fans, provide invaluable grist for theater historians — and perhaps inspire an even grittier and more revealing sequel.

Julia M. Klein, a cultural reporter and critic in Philadelphia, reviews theater for the Philadelphia Inquirer. Follow her on Twitter @JuliaMKlein.

 

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