Lloyd Webber backs Tim Rice in row over ‘political’ change to musical

As he picks up a lifetime achievement award, Andrew Lloyd Webber reflects, in an exclusive interview, on his career and the censoring of a Dreamcoat lyric

Andrew Lloyd Webber has intervened in a row about his much-loved musical Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat and backed his former lyricist Tim Rice, co-creator of the show, in calling for the words of their first theatrical hit to be left alone.

“Tim is quite right. You cannot re-invent a Bible story,” said Lord Lloyd-Webber, as he prepared to take a bow at the South Bank Show awards ceremony on Sunday night, where the Observer can reveal he is to receive the outstanding achievement award.

Rice complained last week that a New Zealand production of Joseph had altered the lyric in the song Close Every Door to Me so that Israel is no longer mentioned. To his annoyance, the climactic line “children of Israel are never alone” was changed to “children of kindness” because of concerns that it sounded political.

“That song is a serious moment and a key point in the show,” agreed Lloyd Webber, 69. “It is about the connection Joseph suddenly makes with Israel. Tim was paraphrasing the Bible and it should be kept that way.”

On the eve of his latest honour, and soon after finishing the first volume of an autobiography, Unmasked, Lloyd Webber has been reviewing his long career – but he is also looking to the future, actively searching for a compelling plot for his next show.

“That is what I most want to do next, as I am still passionate about musical theatre. I am sitting on a collection of tunes I have written, but I haven’t found a subject I really want to write about,” he explained. “And one thing I have learned is that it is important to have a great story – and a great story is rarely the obvious story.”

The multimillionaire composer of Cats, The Phantom of the Opera, Jesus Christ Superstar and Sunset Boulevard, who made showbiz history this February when four of his musicals ran concurrently at Broadway venues, said a key factor in the success of his most recent show, School of Rock, was the clear appeal of its story. “It is primarily a simple tale. Rather in the way The Lion King shares Hamlet’s basic plot.”

Lloyd Webber’s next project, he said, should be “exciting and challenging” and, most importantly, “relevant to today”. He meets writers regularly to discuss ideas. “It is not easy. When I wrote The Beautiful Game, about a serious subject like Ireland, with Ben Elton, I was happy with it, but it didn’t get a great reception. The same thing with Stephen Ward, which I wrote when I wasn’t very well. Happily, all that is behind me now. And the new American musical Dear Evan Hansen, which deservedly just won the Tony, is about a high-school boy with an anxiety disorder, mourning the death of a classmate, which on paper sounds the most ghastly premise.”

Bad times, the composer points out, can also be good times for new musicals. “When Rodgers and Hammerstein wrote South Pacific, just after the war, it tackled the issue of racism. It might seem quite tame now, but then it was daring. I want to find a subject like that.”

Lloyd Webber made showbiz history in February with four shows running concurrently on Broadway.
Lloyd Webber made showbiz history in February with four shows running concurrently on Broadway. Photograph: Nathan Johnson/The Really Useful Group Ltd. 2017

The impresario of musical theatre will add this weekend’s award to a long list of accolades, including seven Tonys, three Grammys, a Golden Globe, a knighthood and a peerage from the Queen for services to music.

Commenting on finishing the first volume of his autobiography, he admits he’s written so much the book “now vies with Gone with the Wind”.

“And I have only got up to Phantom of the Opera. I will find the next volume harder, I think, because until that point I had led a charmed life. After that, there were bumps in the road – and some finding out of people’s true colours.”

Musically, one of the inevitable sides of the Tory baron’s fame is that he has, he feels, had to “do a lot of my learning in public”. As a result, he has been quietly rewriting his classical work, Requiem. “I am improving it as I have just learned more. I was 30 when I wrote it, soon after the death of my father and the killing of a reporter I had known in the Harrods bombing.”

His father, the organist, composer and Royal College of Music teacher William Lloyd Webber, was “very reserved”, his son recalls, but musically broadminded. “He understood the Beatles and my interest in rock. I am more aware now than I was when I was young of how much of an influence he was.”

Unusually for a teenager in the Swinging 60s, Lloyd Webber was devoted to the musicals of Rodgers and Hammerstein. He now feels that he has often gone against popular musical trends, not acknowledging boundaries between genres of entertainment. “When I was a kid, around nine, the television show Oh Boy! went out on Saturday nights from the Hackney Empire. So it was rock music in a theatrical setting. I didn’t see them as separate things.”

Other fusty distinctions between high and low culture, or between opera and variety, have since broken down; something that Lloyd Webber welcomes. Yet he is saddened to see British musicals once more playing second fiddle to American shows. “America is pretty much back to where it was now. Nearly all the 14 new musicals that opened on Broadway last year were American.

“We had a great moment here in the 1980s, but whatever I started back then has not really got to where I hoped it would. I do also feel as if the thing that I do, and that’s melody, has become a little subservient to other things in some new shows.” A towering figure in British theatre, Lloyd Webber says it does not feel as if he has the same status in the US. “And even in the West End, frankly, there were 20 years where not a lot I did really took off. And I don’t mind that. After all, I’ve done the one thing I really wanted to do with my life.”

Much of Lloyd Webber’s energies are now directed towards broadening access to musical tuition across Britain and to widening routes into musical theatre. Most of this work is done with the hefty grants awarded by the charitable foundation that bears his name and which also supports historic buildings with its annual Angel awards. “You want to put something back, and whatever shade of politics you are, you have to admit the arts are often squeezed,” he comments. “For me, architecture comes second only to music and my next big project is the Theatre Royal Drury Lane in the West End. I want it to be the centre of Covent Garden again, and open it up during the day.”

Lord Lloyd Webber’s Really Useful Group is one of the West End’s significant theatrical landlords and he announced a major restoration of the London Palladium in 2010. “The problem with the Drury is that it was re-fitted inside in 1922 and that wrecked it. It made it feel cold. I want to bring back the warmth. We have got back to the right paint colours, but the rest of the restoration is going to cost around £35m. I have a model now for the house in which we have pretty good sight lines again, like the Palladium has.”

The restoration plans are the perfect marriage between his twin passions for architecture and entertainment and are likely to fill the composer’s hours until he finds the elusive subject of his next show.

The South Bank Show Awards will be shown on Sky Arts at 8pm on Wednesday 12 July


Vanessa Thorpe

The GuardianTramp

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