The Wizard of Musicals, Andrew Lloyd Webber, Talks to Playbill.com

By Mark Shenton
March 2, 2011

Composer Andrew Lloyd Webber talks about his latest project, The Wizard of Oz, plus Evita, Love Never Dies, his next show and more.



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Last year composer-lyricist Stephen Sondheim, of course, celebrated his 80th birthday with multiple celebrations of his work, around the world; but composer Andrew Lloyd Webber — born coincidentally on the same day, but 18 years later — has also been constantly in the news.

In the last 12 months, the wizard behind the curtain of such international smashes as Cats, Evita, Jesus Christ Superstar and The Phantom of the Opera and its sequel has appeared on the fourth series of a weekly BBC reality TV casting show that he has been lead judge on, to find an actress to play Dorothy in his new stage production of The Wizard of Oz, inspired by the M-G-M film, opening March 1 at the London Palladium (following previews from Feb. 7). For the new production, he has reunited with lyricist Tim Rice (Evita, Jesus Christ Superstar and Joseph…) to write new songs to augment the existing film score of Harold Arlen and E.Y. Harburg. Lloyd Webber is also now deep in discussion to launch a reality TV casting to bring The Wizard of Oz to the U.S.

He has also seen Love Never Dies, a long-planned sequel to The Phantom of the Opera, open in the West End to a mostly hostile press. But he and his collaborators substantially revised and re-launched it, far more successfully. Another production is planned for Australia, beginning performances at Melbourne's Regent Theatre May 22, with an American premiere to follow on a date to be announced.

Next year, Michael Grandage's 2006 West End revival of Lloyd Webber's Evita will play Broadway, bringing the title back to New York City for the first time since 1983, when its original run (which began in 1979) ended. And an all-star arena stage concert tour of Jesus Christ Superstar is due to hit the U.S. road in Easter 2012.

The composer recently sat down with Playbill.com to talk about these and other matters, after first proudly showing off the extensive front-of-house refurbishment of the London Palladium, which is under his company's ownership.

Let's begin with "The Wizard of Oz." Is it something you've loved for a long time and have always wanted to bring to the stage?
Andrew Lloyd Webber: Funnily enough, I wasn't brought up on "The Wizard of Oz" in the sort of way that a lot of people were. I was brought up with Rodgers and Hammerstein, and my interest was really pretty much with the theatre from the word go. It was only three or four years ago, when we were thinking of ideas for TV casting, that it was my wife, actually, who said, "But of course, the biggest one of the lot is Dorothy." And I said, "Yes, but the difficulty is that it hasn't worked in the theatre, and there's a good reason for that."

But I thought I'd try to get my head around it and see if it could be done, and as I dissected it, I found that there was so much more music in the film that I'd either forgotten or was in fragments, either in underscoring or that was slightly thrown away. And looking at what its history had been in the theatre, I don't think anybody had really ever taken it apart and said to themselves, "Now look, what do we actually need for the theatre as opposed to trying to just take the film and putting it onstage?"

The first thing that occurred to me in all the productions that I'd seen is that the act closes in the wrong place. Previously, productions have always had the interval with Dorothy at the gates of the Emerald City. That didn't seem to me right at all — it seemed to me that it had to end with the Wizard saying bring me the broomstick of the Wicked Witch of the west. That's real tension — whether they're going to get to Emerald City or not isn't particularly.

 

Danielle Hope as Dorothy.
photo by Simon Turtle. Copyright RUG 2011.

I then got hold of [director] Jeremy Sams, because we'd worked on The Sound of Music together, and he deconstructed it with me. That's when we realized that there's a problem with it in the theatre as it stood — in that there are no songs for either of the witches, there's nothing at all for the Wizard, there's nothing for Glinda and Dorothy to close the thing up, and there's obviously a massive cut in the movie where there used to be the jitterbug.

So I suddenly thought, hold on a moment, if it is going to work for the theatre it has got to have that material for it; so I went to Warner Brothers who own it with EMI and I asked if I could have permission to come in and write the new songs. They said yes; and the deal is that if this works, this will be theatre version of The Wizard of Oz. If it doesn't work, nobody is any the worse off.

How many new songs are there? And how did you come to be reunited with Tim Rice on writing them together after all these years?
ALW:
There are four-and-a-half new songs, but also quite a lot of new music throughout. For example, the tornado scene has been conceived for the theatre — we can't really do what's in the movie, so I've come in and done some of the linking. Working with Tim has been very exciting. In fact, we have written together in the years since Evita — there's a load of things we've done that may not have drawn that much attention. We worked out we have more than an album's worth of songs, that were done, for instance, for the film of Evita [their effort won them an Oscar] — or just done for odd occasions.

One of the things that Jeremy [Sams] and I felt very strongly about is that previously onstage — and, in a way, in the film — there's nothing that really sets up Kansas; you're suddenly into "Over the Rainbow." But Tim is very good at storytelling, so we've taken the dialogue of the movie and written not an opening number but something that I think sets the scene and takes you to "Over the Rainbow," and does it quite concisely, and I think with a lot of wit as well.

Of course, one of the things you are known for is writing through-sung shows, whereas this is more of a traditional book show.

Michael Crawford as the Wizard.
photo by Simon Turtle. Copyright RUG 2011.

ALW:
Well, there are scenes here, like when the Wizard gives out medals at the end, that can't be put into song.

Can you talk about why you have usually written through-sung shows, apart from Jeeves in 1975 that was written with playwright Alan Ayckbourn (and subsequently revised as By Jeeves in 1996, reaching Broadway in 2001)?
ALW: What I enjoy doing myself as a composer is through-writing, because it means the music is in control of the evening. Construction, as you know, being everything in musical theatre, I find it great myself if I feel I can control the ingredients. I may not always get them right, but at least you know that if you're dealing with something for me that is entirely musical, I am able to really think and ask, "Is this right that this song is there?," and making sure we are using it in right place. I sometimes find songs coming out of dialogue could be anywhere. Of course, with Rodgers and Hammerstein, a lot of their shows they use dialogue as if it is music anyway. I'm not against dialogue — sometimes there are moments where you do want it, because you need to stand back from music sometimes. I don't think there are any rules — as one gets older, in fact, one realizes there aren't.

…Or you wouldn't have written Evita.
ALW:
Exactly. Or Jesus Christ Superstar. Superstar is a slight accident, because it was never really written for the stage, it was written for a recording because we couldn't get anybody to even dream of staging it. It works at its best when it is in a staged arena concert, and that is a delightful cue for me to be able to say that by Easter of next year that is exactly what it will be in America again. We are quite close now to getting the ink on the page. It hasn't all been done yet, but by the end of next month I hope it will be announced that it will go on a big arena tour with big names in it.

Elena Roger in Evita.
photo by Johan Persson

You've also got Evita heading to Broadway again, in Michael Grandage's production that you produced at the Adelphi Theatre in 2006.
ALW: It was very good, but it didn't hit the spot, commercially. Elena Roger is quite outstanding, and of course she is going to do it on Broadway. I'm not producing it there, though, so I'm a little out of the loop about it. I'm, myself, going to wind down actual production now. Although I much enjoyed doing it, and obviously I would like to do Oz in America, I've got Bill Kenwright helping me on it here. The moment I knew we were going to do new songs, I thought I've got to have a referee. I'm not going to do another production where there is new material but I don't have anybody to bounce off. You do need an outside producer; you can see what has happened with Love Never Dies since Bill's been involved in it.

Yes, Love Never Dies has had a checkered history, hasn't it? You originally announced plans to open this sequel to The Phantom of the Opera on three continents simultaneously….
ALW:
Thank goodness we didn't!

 

Ramin Karimloo and Sierra Boggess in Love Never Dies.
photo by Catherine Ashmore

So what happened?
ALW:
A couple of things went extremely wrong there, and I think one was that due to dates. [Director] Jack O'Brien got involved in the workshop of Catch Me If You Can so we got shunted around; and then of course I got cancer. At the time I thought I was going to be able to control the show far more than I did, but whatever anybody may say, you do take a while to recover from these things. And although I'm in the clear completely now… I was not on peak form throughout. That's probably the best thing to say about it; if I'd had Bill [Kenwright] there as a producer from the word go, he'd have said there are certain things we can't go ahead with. But we'd recorded the album, and it had been very well received; a lot of people thought it was right up there with the others. I think it was a combination of me not being very well, the team perhaps underestimating what it needed, and perhaps everybody thinking it was going to be far easier thing to do than in fact it was.

But it has been overhauled now….
ALW:
Yes, I said to Bill, "I knew the order's not quite right," so he went in and did this extraordinary work on it, with no pay. It's completely transformed, even though for me as a musician it wasn't a big job to do. Some of them are thoughts that were going to happen for Australia anyway, but Bill has given me the most fantastic blueprint for it now to be got right around the world.

So what's happened to Jack O' Brien and Jerry Mitchell (who directed and choreographed the original West End premiere)?
ALW: They're not involved in the next production planned in Australia, which Simon Phillips from Melbourne Theatre Company is directing. But Bill is a great friend of Jack O'Brien's and a great admirer of his, but it got to a point where everyone was very close to it, and an outside mind was a good idea. We'll have to wait and see what happens: if the Australian production is phenomenal and everyone is extremely pleased with it, then that might be the production that then goes to America. There will be a production that will go to America, it's just a question of what and when. I've obviously got to get Oz to America and Superstar to get up, so it might be that I get another producer to do it there.

But it's a show I'm very confident about. I'm not remotely worried about it. Even though things have been slightly altered order-wise, I've always thought that the score to it will outlive me easily. That's all one can really think about. There are certain pieces of mine that might not: unless somebody can find a way of finding a better end to The Woman in White, for example, that piece ain't going anywhere! I did that [show] because I was bored, and the first act of it that we did at my festival worked an absolute treat, but we couldn't work out the second act. I realized when we were in rehearsal that there was nowhere for it to go from the moment that you discovered that the girls were switched. Until somebody can solve that, The Woman in White has a murky future!

Anna O'Byrne and Ben Lewis will star in the Australian premiere of Love Never Dies.

But The Woman in White does have some wonderful music…
ALW:
Well, thanks. I always remember Hal Prince saying something to me that has remained with me all my life. Long before I worked with him, he went to see Jeeves at Her Majesty's in 1975, and he wrote me a note, telling me to bank the score. Underneath it, he said, "P.S. You can't listen to music if you can't look at it." I have to say that's absolutely the case!

Of course Jeeves suffered from its reception by the critics, but Love Never Dies has had to deal with something else: hostility in the blogosphere.
ALW:
That was quite extraordinary. Obviously, you can't stop people who've genuinely come to see a show and don't like it; that's fine. But, as it was discovered in the end, a lot of the stuff posted on the net was completely fake — three months after it opened, we discovered most of those reviews that were put up couldn't possibly have been written by anybody who had actually seen the show. But it duped enough journalists, including The Times, and it came down to a couple who lived in Toronto and were mental Phantom fans, and just did not want anything else to happen to the Phantom. But it took everyone in, and it is a bother, because it was a highly professional done operation. I gave the dossier to Daily Telegraph who found what happened and published an article exposing it all, but damage had been done by that time.

But somebody said to me the other day what Love Never Dies is Madame Butterfly — Puccini thought it was going to be the big one, but opera claque booed it off the stage and it was taken off. He then re-wrote a bit of it, it was re-staged and brought back. And an organized opera claque is the 'Net — it's a modern day version of it.

But musicals often have their own momentum and challenges, don't they?
ALW:
When you look at Cats, Phantom or Les Miserables — and let's face it those three are the big ones of the '80s — one throw of the dice slightly the wrong way and any one of those could have been derailed. For example, Les Miserables opened to awful reviews — anybody who thinks Love Never Dies had bad reviews should read the Les Miz ones — but if it hadn't been at the Barbican first and it had that advance, which is inbuilt because it was the RSC, would it have ever moved to the Palace, which I'd just bought at the time? It's all about the throw of the dice — what if, for example, we'd done Phantom of the Opera with the Cats team? That could have happened; and if it had, would we even be talking about The Phantom of the Opera now?

You simply never know — the funny thing about musicals, you look at Chicago, for instance, which opened in the same season as A Chorus Line, and I remember seeing it because I knew the musical director Stan Lebowsky quite well, and thinking I preferred it to A Chorus Line, but it was wiped out. And now it's a bigger hit than it ever was.

 

Obviously we're about to see what happens to The Wizard of Oz in the West End, but how do you see it playing out in America?
ALW: I don't know what exactly we'll do at the moment, but I'm in quite advanced talks now with more than one U.S. network about doing the TV casting show over there, it having worked so well over here. There's a question in America, of course, if you are going to do a show like that, "Why if you live in Oklahoma would you vote for a girl who is going to be on the stage on Broadway?" So one of the things we want to do in doing this TV show is to try to work out what kind of end-game from the television point of view would be the best thing.

That might well be that we do a gala night of the whole thing in Kansas, or we do a television special out of Kansas; whatever happens, it is very heavily a theatrical production, it would have to go to a big theatre, but not necessarily on Broadway: one of things about Oz is that it is such a well known tale and a completely American story, so it doesn't depend on going to New York. The original musical did back in 1903 or whatever it was, and in fact I think if I'm not much mistaken it may have even opened the theatre where the Phantom is, the Majestic. It was the theatrical version of it that gave the book a huge new impetus, and apparently [the book's author] L. Frank Baum didn't like it particularly but once he started getting the royalty checks he seemed to change his mind!

People have changed their minds about the reality TV casting shows, too, haven't they? When they first launched, people like Trevor Nunn and Cameron Mackintosh spoke out against them, but then Cameron actually did his Oliver! casting through it and Nunn cast a Pop Idol winner in his production of Gone with the Wind.
ALW: We've been very, very blessed with the people we've found. The public chose right every time. Fourteen of the contestants we've had were working full-time professionally in leading roles in the West End last Christmas. What it also has done is open up to people like me a prodigious talent that simply would never ever have come through my door — there is not one chance in anything that Danielle Hope, who is playing Dorothy, would have come to my attention! Never! And yet talk to Michael Crawford [who is playing the Wizard] about her — a consummate pro like him says she's just extraordinary.

Finally, are you working on your next original musical yet?
ALW:
I haven't found anything I want to do at the moment. I don't want to rush into anything I have all sorts of ideas, but maybe it might be an idea to take a rest from musical theatre and do a piece like my Requiem mass was, which was a great break for me from everything. I'd just done Cats and Starlight Express and was about to come up with Phantom, and I don't know if I would ever come up with Phantom if I hadn't done Requiem first. So I'm looking at some Jewish poems I came across that were written in the Warsaw ghetto, at the moment — I just don't know if I'm capable of doing them, but I'm thinking about it.

(Mark Shenton is Playbill.com's London correspondent. He is also theatre critic for the U.K.'s Sunday Express and chairman of the drama section of the U.K. Critics' Circle. You can follow him on Twitter @ShentonStage.)