Speaking to Playbill.com, the prolific, popular British composer of Cats, Evita, Phantom, Aspects of Love, The Woman in White, Jesus Christ Superstar and more shared thoughts about the genesis of the Harold Prince-directed London, Broadway and international smash that is Phantom, spoke about people's perceptions of his shows as spectacles, and revealed he's looking at material that might inspire his next musical.
Lloyd Webber, 57, also shared details about the spring 2006 revised Las Vegas version of The Phantom of the Opera — directed by Prince using the original design team's work — that will be installed in a new opera-house-style theatre tailor-made for the production, at The Venetian Resort.
On Jan. 9, The Phantom of the Opera at the Majestic Theatre will surpass Cats to be the longest-running Broadway show.
Playbill.com: Do celebrations of these milestones feel like big birthday parties to you?
Andrew Lloyd Webber: I don't know, really. I've said many times that when I wrote Cats I never thought anything would come along that was going to top it. It's a fantastic occasion. I think the fact that Cats is the one it's taking over from is obviously, for me, very special because it's something I know I'll never ever achieve again, and even if I did achieve it, I wouldn't live to see it. [Laughs.] The Phantom has defied all gravity, really. There's no question about it. It's one of those things that I know I will never, ever repeat in my career, whatever one does — it just seemed to catch a chord, catch a nerve that when you start writing you can't predict.
Playbill.com: Something was missing in the mid-1980s — a show with a lush score, big tunes and pure passionate romance. Did you see that Phantom was filling a void?
ALW: It comes back to when I first found the book…at one of those book fair things in Fifth Avenue. By absolute coincidence I met with Hal Prince that evening at some pre-Tony Awards party. I said to Hal, "I've done Cats, I did Evita with you — which was sort of hard and political — and I did Jesus Christ Superstar, which in its way was pretty tough, too. I don't know — I'd just like to write something which is just an old-fashioned high romance." I said, "You'd never be interested in anything like that, Hal, would you?" He said, "I'd love to do a high romance!" I said, "I found the 'Phantom of the Opera' book this afternoon."
The plot of my Phantom is pretty much mine. It's based on the Gaston Leroux book — I've taken a lot of liberties with it. I sent the outline to Hal, and he said, "Once you've written some songs, let's get together." And we did. And that's exactly what happened.
Sarah Brightman [the original London and Broadway Christine Daae and Lloyd Webber's former wife] had been offered the role of Christine in some other production of it, that she never wanted to do: One of those campy, jokey things. I could sort of imagine what it was going to be: The Phantom jumping up and going, "Boo!" They wanted to use existing opera arias. It never occurred to me that "Phantom of the Opera" was the sort of subject that I'd want to do because I just thought it was something that would be a bit jokey. 'Til I read the book. I only bought it out of curiosity. I don't know that I'd have even bought it if it hadn't been for Sarah having been asked to do this other thing.
Playbill.com: Are you like hundreds of other practical musical theatre writers who search for public domain material, in order to avoid the burden of paying for rights?
ALW: I don't think that's the case at all. Some of the things I am looking at at the moment, in fact all of the things I'm looking at, they're all not in the public domain. I think it depends on what you find, what subject occurs to you. When I wrote Aspects of Love that was a novel not in the public domain.
Playbill.com: You have incredibly broad taste in subject matter. From show to show, you don't like to repeat yourself. The worlds of your stories are very different…
ALW: Well, one tries not to. The Woman in White appears to be closer to Phantom, and it isn't — it's not the same thing at all, but [both are set in the] 19th century…
Playbill.com: When you visit New York, do you pop into the Majestic Theatre, do you check up on the Phantom production? Do you give notes?
ALW: If I'm around, yes, I do periodically. But one has to rely on the fact that any good production will have a very good support team and you don't want to be going in there every minute and undoing the work that they're doing. I don't do it once every three months.
Playbill.com: There's a Las Vegas version of Phantom being created this spring, a 90-minute version of the London and Broadway production, at the Venetian resort.
ALW: It's looking very exciting to me. It's going to be its own show, but it's very true to the spirit of the Maria Björnson [scenic and costume] design. Hal's directing it, so it's not going to be allowed to become just a "Vegas show." But obviously we'll be able to do certain things that perhaps we couldn't really afford to do in London or Broadway.
Playbill.com: In terms of effects and scenically?
ALW: Phantom is not the great technological show that everybody thinks it is. It has, in actual fact, some great Victorian tricks and that's about it. In Vegas, for example you'll come into an opera house that is, of course, built [for the production]. It's a bit more like the film to that degree, where we built our opera house. There was no opera house in the Venetian. Because we've been able to do it from the word go, we've got…various things that you couldn't possibly do unless you had built it purely for the staging of the Phantom musical. I don't want to give away the tricks.
Playbill.com: It will be much more "environmental" than any Phantom we've known — the action will surround us more?
ALW: Yes, yes.
Playbill.com: It's a 90-minute version, intermissionless. Are the cuts painful for you?
ALW: No, not really, because quite a lot of them had already been done for the film. There are certain things that work well in the theatre that don't necessarily work in the cinema, and in the course of finding what those were, and what ended up not in the film, I was very much able to suggest [changes for the Vegas run] to them: "Look, if you take this scene out here, which we did in the film, it's not going to affect everything terribly badly."
Playbill.com: For example?
ALW: There's quite a lot that's different. For example, in the film you don't get the second manager's scene, which happens in the second act [and includes "Notes"/"Twisted Every Way"]. It's reduced down: Lines from it that are important have been taken but they've been put into other scenes. We've taken quite a lot of those things that we've done in the film [and incorporated them for the Vegas version].
Playbill.com: When we talk about scenic elements — spectacle — in your shows, I'm not one of those people who reduces it to the physical: The originally-grand Phantom and Sunset Blvd., for example, can certainly have a stock, amateur and regional life with the imagination of a good director…
ALW: Phantom has been done in other countries in a completely different way. Places like Hungary. It doesn't look anything like Hal's version at all.
Playbill.com: We don't need to see Norma Desmond's lavish Hollywood mansion in Sunset to know there's a large world there…
ALW: No. I think the production of Sunset Blvd. was a little bit too expensive, really. That's a show that could still be running if it was a little cheaper to run.
Playbill.com: Didn't it tour in the U.K. in a scaled-down version?
ALW: Yes, there was a smaller version in the U.K. and it did very nicely. It was much simpler. There's a production of Sunset which will one day emerge, I'm sure. It's an interesting show, that one. When Michael Crawford played the Phantom, we all thought, goodness what is going to happen when we replace him? And it didn't seem to make the slightest difference. Wonderful as Michael was, people wanted that show — they didn't really mind who was the Phantom, as long as they were good singers and actors. But with Sunset Blvd. what is very curious to me is that the reverse was true: You had to have somebody who an audience believed had a connection with movies. So you could have a Glenn Close, but actually, Elaine Paige — as wonderful a performance as it was — didn't connect to people as Glenn would. We found that consistently. Even Petula Clark was more acceptable to audiences than say somebody who was purely theatrically based. Interesting.
Playbill.com: Wasn't there talk of a Sunset film?
ALW: Well, we'd like to get that going. As you know, Hollywood is not a great lover of movie musicals at the moment. It's quite a battle to get these people to think that they work. But I would like to see the movie of Sunset done. It's one of the things of having a company like mine [Really Useful Group], which is really theatre-based: We don't really have the film contacts. It was quite something that we managed to get the Phantom made [into a film], frankly.
Playbill.com: As much as you shepherd and have to be present for existing properties, you consistently look ahead, correct?
ALW: Yes, I do. On the whole, I like to not look back too much.
Playbill.com: Have you made public what's next for you?
ALW: No. I'm reading various things at the moment. I'm not absolutely sure about any of the things that I've read yet. One I think I am going to reject, and one I think is a possibility. I will have an opportunity to have some talks in New York and see what happens. Musicals are very collaborative. Unless you find somebody who wants to do something with you and has equal commitment, it's not going to work.
Playbill.com: Wasn't there talk of a Phantom sequel — more than talk, you wrote a song.
ALW: There was. I sort of toyed with it for a month, but didn't really feel it was going anywhere.
Playill.com: Did I read somewhere that the action of it would be set in New York City?
ALW: If it ever happened, it was going to be set in New York.
Playbill.com: Is it something to explore in the future?
ALW: I wouldn't think so, I wouldn't think so…