By Mark Shenton
01 Mar 2011
|Photo by Aubrey Reuben|
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.
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.
|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.
|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.