Andrew Lloyd Webber is a self-deprecating fellow, and properly so, since his self has done much that is worthy of deprecation. Cats, Jesus Christ Superstar, Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, Starlight Express, Cats . . . the one about the chap with half a Chinet plate sewn to his cheek . . . the one about Mrs. Dictator. Lloyd Webber perpetrated them all. Your average war criminal at the Hague has less to apologize for.
So say the theater nobs, anyway. But not I. I thrilled to them all. Well, not Cats so much, and not Starlight Express at all, but still: The gift is there, and I’d call Phantom of the Opera, Evita, and J. C. Superstar three of the most enchanting works of the musical theater since Richard Rodgers laid down his pen. Still, there is a certain tendency to be overmuch in the composing and in the conceptualizing, to place a casserole atop a wedding cake atop a soufflé. It’s music to crash chandeliers by, isn’t it? You can picture Celine Dion or Barbra Streisand drumming her lacquered talons impatiently while awaiting issuance of the next bombastic ballad.
Lloyd Webber is cheekily aware of how much people hate him, but he has roughly one billion reasons to have a playful sense of humor about this, and — prepare for amazement — he does! Name me another billionaire who even half-heartedly pokes fun at himself. Lloyd Webber does it full-heartedly. His memoir Unmasked is a Wodehousian romp, generous and spirited and drolly understated about all the suicide attempts and instances of child molestation that a precocious lad deals with growing up in swinging London. Lloyd Webber is the “f***in poncy posh nancy-boy,” as a gang of youths once described him, a lad who, as the Beatles and the Stones rewire the culture of the entire North Atlantic, cries to the heavens, “I will write showtunes!” Talk about a successful contrarian: Today he is listed by those who list such things as the single wealthiest maker of music on this planet, one spot ahead of Paul McCartney. (That’s Sir Paul McCartney, to be precise, but if so, it’s also Lord Lloyd Webber, so Andrew wins at titles as well.)
The whole book is a merry justification for the wisdom of following your own aesthetic compass, especially when it points in what everyone says is the wrong direction. Aged 14, he visited Athens and Rome on a school trip and declared his favorite building was the American Church in Rome, citing its mosaics by the Victorian Edward Burne-Jones. Apoplexy ensued when Lloyd Webber put the case for the pre-Raphaelite in an essay. “How can you write such garbage?” his art teacher screamed at him. “Don’t you realize that church is full of Victorian tat?” Merely implied, not stated, is the rejoinder that a taste for tat made Andrew as rich as King Tut.
Unmasked (500 pages, ending with Lloyd Webber not yet 40) is essentially three volumes in one. Primarily it’s a gossipy memoir about the lovable eccentrics on and around the stage. It’s also a show business book with lots of detail about, for instance, what rights a young composer should jealously guard (Grand Rights, apparently); moreover it offers plenty of technical material about composition. Lloyd Webber says Lorin Maazel is the only person known to have laughed at a joke about 7/8 time in Phantom of the Opera; I wish I could say I also grokked it, but I couldn’t tell a 7/8 from a 7-Eleven. The technical stuff is nevertheless counterbalanced by a tabloidy style; I love that Lloyd Webber calls conductors “baton wavers.” For a somewhat posh boy (raised in South Kensington, he is the son of two music teachers, his father Billy holding the title professor of composition at the Royal College of Music), he has a populist streak. He refers to some of his fellow theater lovers as “queens” and salts his recollections with slangy turns of phrase such as “asap.” The prose is sharp, not flat.
Streisand makes an appearance; weighing whether or not to record Memory, she appears at the London production of Cats, where, for a drink at intermission, she requests milk. Baffled, one of Lloyd Webber’s pals goes off in search of the elusive beverage, returning only when he had managed to rip open enough of the sealed little containers used for lightening coffee to fill a glass. Then Streisand declined the drink anyway and flounced out before act two, claiming claustrophobia. Lloyd Webber sent her a note “apologizing for having an audience in the theater that night,” he says dryly.
The Wodehousian overtones are unmistakable when the film director Milos Forman relentlessly pursues Lloyd Webber, whom he pictures playing Mozart in a film he’s making called Amadeus. Lloyd Webber doesn’t want to decline but doesn’t want to act, either, though Forman insists the composer would merely be playing himself. So Lloyd Webber and Cats director Trevor Nunn kick up a scheme: In order to get Forman to reject him, he must insist that he’ll do the movie only if his own compositions are substituted for those amateurish noodlings of Wolfgang’s. Lloyd Webber says this in a conference room full of film executives, and somewhere at the table the following words ring out: “I think we have a deal!”
What’s most disarming about the book is the sense of gratitude that shimmers through it: Gratitude toward collaborators, toward relatives, toward fortune itself. In an anteroom where he awaited a professor who was to interview him about his application to Oxford (Lloyd Webber would later enjoy the distinctions of both getting in and dropping out, when his tunes for Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat began to attract attention), the teen made fast friends with a Siamese cat he found there and, unable to detach the animal, wound up doing the entire interview with the furry thing on his knee.
“Mr. Lloyd Webber,” the professor asked him gravely, “do you like cats?” The interview ended abruptly and the prospective student was told it would not be necessary for him to return for a scheduled followup the next day. Fearing he had blown it, he returned to the family flat, where his granny shared with him a dire prophecy: One day, she warned him, cats would be his undoing.