Highlights from Andrew Lloyd Webber’s career - Marking the musical maestro’s 70th birthday
- Credit: Archant
As Andrew Lloyd Webber turns 70 on March 22, we’re looking back at some of the highlights of his amazing Technicolor career.
Since he first started writing as a teenager with Tim Rice back in the 60s, Lord Lloyd Webber has enjoyed unique success as a composer and creator of classic musicals like Cats, Evita, Jesus Christ Superstar and The Phantom of the Opera.
Yet the young Andrew once feared he might never make it as a songwriter. In his candid memoir Unmasked, published this month, he recalls how a visit to the historic Suffolk village of Lavenham as a teenager may have saved his life.
Lord Lloyd Webber tells how, battling depression as a Westminster junior school pupil, he stole painkillers from his parents and set off on a journey on the London Underground, considering suicide. But he then decided to take a bus to the Suffolk village, felt better after spending some time there amid its beautiful ancient buildings, and decided that things were not so bad as he had feared.
He has maintained strong links with East Anglia through his life. His wife, former equestrian Madeleine Gurdon, is from Suffolk, and in 1991 their marriage was blessed at St Botolph’s Church, in her parents’ home village of Burgh, near Woodbridge.
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In many ways a larger-than-life figure, the musical maestro has always had many strings to his bow. Recently retired from the House of Lords, after a sometimes controversial 20-year stint as a Conservative peer, he has also hit the headlines as an impresario, TV talent show presenter, and now an author too.
He has worked with a number of different lyricists, including Richard Stilgoe and Don Black as well as Rice.
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Over the years, many Andrew Lloyd Webber shows have been performed successfully by both professional theatre companies and amateur groups in our region, as well as achieving record-breaking runs in the West End and on Broadway.
A retrospective album, Unmasked: The Platinum Collection, has just been released, featuring some of his greatest songs and musical selections.
Here is a look back at some of his career highlights.
The Likes of Us
This musical might be one of the least-known Lloyd Webber works, but it marked the start of his famous partnership with Tim Rice.
The pair were introduced in 1965, when Rice was 20 and Lloyd Webber was just 17. Their first joint composition told the life story of Thomas John Barnardo, founder of the famous children’s homes, telling how he rescued children from the streets of Victorian London.
A demo tape, made in 1966, failed to find a backer, but finally achieved its debut performance in 2005, at the Sydmonton Festival on Lord Lloyd Webber’s Hampshire estate.
The show has since been made available for amateur groups around the country to perform. Children from the Dereham area of Norfolk took part in filming of promotional material in 2008, acting out scenes at the Victorian School in Great Cressingham.
Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat
Celebrating its 50th anniversary in 2018, this Biblical musical was written before Jesus Christ Superstar, but hit the stage second.
Rice and Lloyd Webber were asked to write a pop cantata for the choir at Colet Court School in London. When first performed in 1968, the piece was just 20 minutes long, but many more songs were added later,
The most famous number is Any Dream Will Do - which many years later became the title of a TV show presented by Lord Lloyd Webber, looking for the new Joseph for yet another stage revival.
Lee Mead was the winner and became one of the many stars to pull on the coat of many colours. Others have included Jason Donovan, Darren Day, who grew up in Colchester, Gareth Gates and Phillip Schofield. Donny Osmond played the role in a TV movie, and former X Factor winner Joe McElderry became Joseph in a national tour.
Joseph got a lot of support when we asked readers to choose their favourite Lloyd Webber show on social media. Trina Jones said: “Got to be Joseph and the Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat, brings back so many memories.”
Charlotte Underwood said: “Got to be Joseph - watched it so many times.”
Teresa Mulligan couldn’t choose between Joseph and Jesus Christ Superstar, while Charlotte Sim said it was one of her three favourites along with Starlight Express and Whistle Down the Wind.
Jesus Christ Superstar
Did you know that this rock opera from 1970 started out as a concept album? It might be regarded as a classic now, but at the time the BBC banned it from the airwaves on religious grounds! Superstar still quickly hit the charts, though, with the LP version starring Murray Head as Jesus and Ian Gillan of Deep Purple fame as Judas.
The stage show was first launched on Broadway, but found greater success when it reached London’s West End in 1972, starring Paul Nicholas as Jesus. It ran for a then record-breaking eight years, and went on to be performed by many companies and theatre groups around the world.
As with Joseph, Lord Lloyd Webber presented a TV series choosing an actor to take the role of Jesus on stage. Ben Forster was the winner of ITV’s Superstar show and starred in a production in 2012, also featuring former Spice Girl Melanie C. A “live in concert” production is due to be shown by NBC TV in the US this Easter, with John Legend as Jesus and Alice Cooper as King Herod.
The third smash hit for Lloyd Webber and Rice saw them move away from Biblical themes to focus on the life of controversial Argentinian political leader Eva Perón. Tim Rice came up with the idea after hearing a radio programme about her life.
Like Jesus Christ Superstar, the musical began as a rock concept album in 1976, featuring Julie Covington and Barbara Dickson, before making it to the West End in 1978.
The story follows Evita’s rise to power and death at a young age. Elaine Paige first played the role of Evita on stage, with David Essex as Che, while Madonna and Antonio Banderas later recreated the roles in the film.
Margo Paterson commented on social media: “The stage version of Evita has been fantastic every time I’ve seen it, but the film with Madonna was a mere shadow of the live show.”
After the end of his partnership with Tim Rice, Lloyd Webber came up with a surprising project - setting Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats by T.S. Eliot to music. The show opened in the West End in 1981 and was soon breaking every record in sight, with its production running for 21 years.
Lord Lloyd Webber said his mother read the poems to him at bedtime when he was six, and they were lifelong favourites for him.
In a short article he wrote for the show’s revival in 2014, he told how he first thought about setting the poems to music in 1978, and they were performed at his Sydmonton arts festival in 1980. TS Eliot’s widow, Valerie, went to see the performance and bought along an unpublished poem, Grizabella the Glamour Cat.
This inspired him to turn it into a full-scale musical. Ipswich-born Trevor Nunn directed the production, while Gillian Lynne was the choreographer. The amazing sets and cat costumes also contributed to the show’s enduring success.
On social media, Emma Brighton and Melanie North both chose the musical as their favourite. Melanie said: “Cats without a doubt.”
Song and Dance
Another successful early 1980s production, this is a show of two halves. With lyrics by Don Black, the “song” half is a one-woman show, Tell Me on a Sunday, about an English girl who moves to the US.
Marti Webb, Lulu and Gemma Craven are among the singers who have performed the show. Tell Me on a Sunday is also often staged on its own.
The “dance” half is a ballet set to the music of Variations, a work composed by Lloyd Webber for his brother, cellist Julian, based on Paganini’s Minor Caprice No. 4. Wayne Sleep originally performed in the ballet.
After taking inspiration from TS Eliot’s cat poems, Lloyd Webber went on to create another smash hit appealing to both children and adults, the tale of a train set which comes to life. Various engines compete, including underdog Rusty the steam train, who is inspired by the legend of the Starlight Express.
With roller-skating dancers and spectacular sets, the show became one of the West End’s longest-running musicals. It has also proved popular around the world, especially in Germany, where one production has been running non-stop for 30 years.
The Phantom of the Opera
Phantom is a phenomenon, quite simply one of the most successful musicals of all time. It has been seen by more than 100 million people around the world and is still running at Her Majesty’s Theatre in London, 32 years after its launch in 1986.
Based on the novel by Gaston Leroux, the show is the tale of a beautiful soprano, Christine, pursued by a sinister masked musical genius living beneath the Paris Opera. Michael Crawford created the role of the Phantom, with Sarah Brightman, then Lloyd Webber’s wife, as Christine.
The musical was turned into a film in 2004, starring Gerard Butler and Emmy Rossum, which received a mixed reaction from critics.
A musical sequel to Phantom, Love Never Dies, opened in 2010 and has its fans, but never achieved the same success as the original.
Phantom was definitely readers’ favourite on social media, getting a lot of support. Nicky Gilbody said: “Phantom - truly mesmerising from start to finish.”
Emma Oldershaw said: “Phantom! Love it so much, saw it in the West End when I was pregnant with my daughter”, while Tom Colley said: “Singing Phantom of the opera in church concerts is my musical memory of his musicals.”
Jill Wright, Kevin Howlett, Kim Coe, Margaret Chapman, Penny Carey, Jacky Marshall-Nichols, Thelma Saunders and Roland Atterwell all also gave their vote to Phantom as Lloyd Webber’s greatest.
Aspects of Love
The young Michael Ball memorably starred in the first West End production of Aspects of Love, in 1989, after taking over from Michael Crawford in Phantom. Sir Roger Moore was also lined up to star, but dropped out, after admitting he couldn’t cope with the singing.
Adapted from the novel by Bloomsbury author David Garnett, this tale of love tangles in France flopped on Broadway, but the song Love Changes Everything was a chart hit.
The show has had a number of revivals since its first West End run.
Based on the great Billy Wilder film of 1950, this dramatic musical centres on Norma Desmond, a silent film goddess living in a crumbling mansion in Los Angeles, in mourning for her glory years. Dangerous passions run high after a young screenwriter, Joe Gillis, crosses her path by accident,
With lyrics by Don Black, the show opened in the West End in 1993 and ran through to 1997. Glenn Close played Norma on Broadway and recently reprised the role in a revival last year.
Strictly Come Dancing star Danny Mac is currently appearing with Ria Jones in a touring production of Sunset Boulevard, which has just had a run at the Ipswich Regent. The UK tour is continuing and is also set to travel to Europe, with performances scheduled in Trieste and Amsterdam. See our cast interviews and review online.
Readers Tony Smith and Benjamin Lake chose the show as their favourite.
Whistle Down the Wind
Following Sunset Boulevard, Lord Lloyd Webber adapted another classic film, with power ballad king Jim Steinman writing the lyrics.
The show is about three children who find a fugitive hiding on their farm, and mistake him for Jesus.
After being launched in the West End in 1998, the show has had a number of revivals, and toured the UK in 2010.
A concept album was released before the show’s premiere, featuring stars such as Tom Jones, Donny Osmond and Boyzone, who had a massive hit with the song No Matter What.
The Woman in White
Based on the classic 19th-century Wilkie Collins mystery, this musical was one of the shorter-running Andrew Lloyd Webber shows, closing less than two years after its London launch in 2004.
However, a revised version opened in November 2017, for a limited run, and received a much better reaction from critics second time around. So this could be a musical that is set to gain more fans in the future.
School of Rock
The latest hit Lloyd Webber musical, this adaptation of the Jack Black comedy film opened in the West End in 2016, after premiering on Broadway the previous year, and is currently taking bookings through to 2019.
It’s the tale of an unemployed guitarist who cons his way into a job as a supply teacher at a wealthy school and then turns his students into a rock band to audition for the battle of the bands. The show features three numbers from the film, as well as songs by Lloyd Webber and Glenn Slater.
Memories of Andrew Lloyd Webber shows
Lynne Mortimer of Ipswich recalls: “I was in the cast of probably the first amateur production of Jesus Christ Superstar in the mid-70s in Ipswich. I was Mary Magdalene and my husband was Judas and it was performed in Rushmere Church.
“I was also one of Potiphar’s wife’s dancing girls in Joseph and His Amazing Etc - in an similar demotion, my husband was Asher, one of the brothers.
“We went to see Evita in the west end in the first week of its run with Elaine Paige, David Essex and Joss Ackland as Peron. Honestly, I wasn’t that struck. Thought the staging was sparse. That was 1978.”
Judy Rimmer of Ipswich writes: “I have seen many stage productions of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musicals over the years, but oddly my most vivid memory is probably of going to see the film of Jesus Christ Superstar, starring Ted Neeley as Jesus and Yvonne Elliman as Mary Magdalene.
“I know exactly when I saw it, because it was the day of Princess Anne’s wedding to Mark Phillips, November 14, 1973.
“This was a bank holiday and millions around the country were watching the royal wedding, but I missed it because my school, in Framlingham, organised a trip to see Superstar on the big screen in Ipswich. I don’t remember if we had the cinema to ourselves!
“Anyway, the film is a spectacular production, with the locations in Israel adding a lot to the whole feel of it, and Carl Anderson, in particular, who plays Judas, has an amazing voice. My favourite song is I Don’t Know How to Love Him, I’ve also seen Superstar on stage more than once, but still have a soft spot for the film, after all these years.”
Lena Korkovelou of Norfolk writes: “The Phantom of the Opera is my favourite Lloyd Webber musical.
“I read the Gaston Leroux book when I was little, but became a fan of Phantom when I discovered the musical (and Lloyd Webber) in my late teens – I am now 30- through the film with Emmy Rossum, as well as a cover of the main song by Finnish Gothic metal band Nightwish.
“My favourite Phantom has to be John Owen Jones, who I met backstage in 2011 and got his autograph. What fascinates me about the musical is that it is a layered, complex story that can be interpreted in many different ways. It is a classic Pygmalion and muse tale but the Phantom could also be seen as the dark genius within Christine’s own mind.
“Over the years I’ve loved other works by Lloyd Webber as well, such as Cats and my other great favourite Jesus Christ Superstar, but old loves die hard and Phantom came first.”
Bethany Whymark of Norfolk writes: “I remember belting out pieces from the Cats songbook in my primary school choir, and the first time I went to see Phantom of the Opera – the set and score had me spellbound from the start. I think Phantom has to be my favourite!”
Liz Nice of Bury St Edmunds writes: “My favourite Andrew Lloyd Webber musical has to be Evita.
“I never got to see Elaine Paige on stage, but I can recall singing ‘Don’t Cry for Me Argentina’ in our kitchen with my mother when I was a child.
“I never really understood the song then. Why would Argentina cry? Especially if she ‘never left’.
“It was a riddle.
“I really enjoyed the Madonna version of Evita on film and a particular favourite song of mine is ‘Another Suitcase in Another Hall’.
“It perfectly captures the heartbreak of a broken relationship and the sense that you will survive but not be quite the same afterwards.
“Madonna has never been as good in anything else in my opinion. The songs carried her through to excellence, although I don’t think they had the same effect on Mum and me in the kitchen.”
Katy Sandalls of Ipswich is another Evita fan. She writes: “Evita’s just so quirky as a musical and Lloyd Webber’s music really reflects that at each and every turn. You know how it’s going to end but you still want to see how she gets there: her rise and fall.
“Apart from the transformation of Eva, the character of Che always intrigues me, he’s so involved and not involved at the same time. I was lucky enough to see Marti Pellow from Wet Wet Wet in the role in the West End and his voice was just fantastic, belting across the theatre.
“In sum, a very powerful and political enterprise that works so well.”
Paul Geater of Ipswich went for a slightly lesser-known favourite. He writes: “It’s not a particularly tasteful subject for a musical these days with intertwining stories of love across different generations, but I’ve always had a soft spot for Aspects of Love – a show we saw early in its West End run in 1989.
“It has some of the finest songs in any Lloyd Webber musical, and despite its adult themes, it has an uplifting feel to it. Most people feel better when they come out of the theatre than they did going in!
“I’ve also seen productions at both the New Wolsey and Regent theatres in Ipswich and always enjoy the show.”