A young, dark-haired American woman approaches Andrew Lloyd Webber and begins to reminisce. In her college years, she recounts, she had narrated a production of one of Lloyd Webber’s most famous musicals, Joseph And The Technicolor Dreamcoat. It’s a line of conversation the composer has no doubt dealt with countless times in the past. Only this time, there’s a twist – his accoster is none other than Lana Del Rey.
“It is always a little disconcerting when these very famous names come up to you and you think, ‘These are people whose records I like and buy myself,’” chuckled Lloyd Webber in a Q&A at The Ivy in Covent Garden, held in March on the eve of his 70th birthday.
Lloyd Webber is to receive a Special Recognition Award for Musical Theatre & Education at tonight's Classic BRIT Awards and the reverence with which work continues to be held should come as no surprise. In February, Lloyd Webber became the first composer since Rodgers And Hammerstein in 1953 to have four shows simultaneously on Broadway: The Phantom of the Opera, Cats, School Of Rock and Sunset Boulevard.
“I know people talk about the earworms but, my goodness, the man has a knack,” marvels Really Useful Theatres MD Rebecca Kane Burton. “He's got that rare skill that we all wish we had of being able to get something and plant it right inside your head, so it doesn't leave you, in the best way possible. His music is incredibly uplifting, emotive, or poignant - it gets you - and that's why it endures.”
Really Useful Group (RUG), the entertainment empire set up by Lloyd Webber in 1977, has licensed and supervised more than 90 productions in 34 countries over the past five years. Madeleine Lloyd Webber, Andrew’s wife, is the company’s vice-chairman.
“RUG is a small, family-owned business,” she explains. “The core of its success lies in the quality of its blue chip IP. RUG owns the largest collection of arguably the best-loved and recognised musical theatre titles in the world. The company is totally focused on producing and licensing these titles to the highest standard possible. If the quality control slips so will the enduring success. Of course, having the founder and creator overseeing activities is also very key to long lasting success.”
In all, his musicals have grossed $13.6 billion (£9.6bn), playing to a total of 302 million people in 44 countries. He has also sold more than 40m albums worldwide.
“Andrew has uniquely combined these amazing earworm melodies with universal stories that people want to hear,” RUG MD Jessica Koravos tells Music Week. “One of the things that amazes me as I go around the world putting Andrew's shows up is you see people from Seoul to Kuwait to Helsinki to Detroit - those are just places from this year - all watching the same show, in different languages, to the same response. It's somehow a universal language and it makes you hopeful about humanity.”
She continues: “As a businessman, he's unique - and RUG is unique - in the number of hats that he wears. To be able to look at the theatre business from the point of view of a composer, and cross over between the creative side and the business side, is very unusual. The secret of his success is understanding what audiences like and want, and being able to give it to them, But also, he thinks big: When he's working on a show, he's thinking of it all over the world.”
Kane Burton was VP and general manager of The O2 in London prior to joining RUG in 2016 and cites Lloyd Webber as a crucial factor in her decision to make the switch.
“Without being a complete sycophant, Andrew was a large part of that,” she laughs. “The first ever musical I saw on a West End stage was Joseph at the London Palladium: I saw Jason Donovan play Joseph and then I saved up all my pocket money and went back and saw Philip Schofield do it. I can still remember every single word and that goes back to that point of how enduring the music is and how clever the lyrics are and the people that Andrew works with.
“He is so astute as a businessman, which shouldn't really surprise people but I think a lot of people assume a creative is not necessarily a comfortable bedfellow with someone who is also incredibly commercial and Andrew is. He understands this business inside out and backwards, and we all learn from him.
“I’ve watched him dismiss a press release, strip things out of it and ask for it to be rewritten with a completely different angle and he was absolutely spot on. He understands his audience, he understands stories and good storytelling, but he also understands how to get people to buy tickets. I suppose that's why his shows work so well and why he can help nurture them and keep them onstage for as long as something like Phantom has.”
A clear No.1, The Phantom of the Opera is the highest-grossing entertainment event of all time. It has taken more than $6bn (£4.2bn) at the box office to date - more than any other theatrical show or film in history. Some 180m people have attended productions of Phantom worldwide in 30 countries. The original soundtrack has sold more than 20m copies and has been certified platinum in six countries.
“Something like Phantom is timeless,” notes Kane Burton. “It doesn't really matter when it is set, because it is about love and death and loss, which still resonates. I guess that's why Shakespeare's so successful even now.”
“Phantom is as perfect as you can make a musical,” asserts Koravos. “That combination of Andrew's music, Charles Hart's lyrics and Maria Bjornson's amazing design was a kind of alchemy. The story, the music and the look of the show all merged perfectly together - and that isn't always the case.”
Lloyd Webber’s latest success, School Of Rock, is a musical adaptation of the 2003 film of the same name, which opened in New York in 2015 and made its West End debut the following year. The composer has stated School Of Rock “is really about how music empowers children”.
“School Of Rock is one of the most uplifting stories where music furthers and heightens the plot,” says Madeleine, who lists buying the theatrical rights to the production as one of RUG’s proudest achievements. “The story and the show is up there with The Sound Of Music, There is no demographic that doesn’t love this story, all the characters are charming and funny and they all go on a journey that resolves positively in the end, what’s not to like?”
“That show is turning out some incredible rock musician kids,” beams Koravos. “There's a British boy called Toby Lee, who was the guitarist when we opened the show, and another boy from New York - Brandon Niederauer – who was the same. They will be big somewhere in the music world and it's worth noting that link between theatre and the wider live music industry because they interplay more than you might think.”
RUG also owns six West End theatres – London Palladium, Theatre Royal Drury Lane, Cambridge Theatre, Her Majesty’s Theatre, Adelphi Theatre and New London Theatre – which host more than three million people a year. It has committed £19m towards investing in its theatres over the next five years, with a £40m redevelopment of Theatre Royal Drury Lane also on the horizon.
The legendary London Palladium has staged 255 performances and increased its concert content by 25% over the last year, hosting the likes of Morrissey, Gary Barlow, Bob Dylan and Coldplay, and has been given the green light to introduce a standing area from 2019, which will take its capacity to almost 3,000.
Last year saw the Palladium recruit former Roundhouse music chief Dave Gaydon as head of programming and Koko’s Mike Hamer as venue manager.
“A real focus for the team was to up the concerts side, not least because it is a stunning central London location for gigs,” explains Kane Burton. “Andrew's vision was to not put a long running show in necessarily and actually allow the venue to be used a bit more like The O2 and Royal Albert Halls of the world, where you have constantly changing content.
“It has brought a different dynamism to that venue, we've had some big names and we're happy to announce that we've had permission granted to do standing gigs. We're busy working with promoters to get acts booked in for that at the moment. I think that's testament to the fact that Really Useful Theatres doesn't sit still and Andrew has a real ambition and a vision for these buildings to just keep being relevant and reinventing themselves if they need to.”
RUG also acquired the Off West End venue The Other Palace, previously known as St James Theatre, in 2016 with the mission of turning it into a development house for new musical theatre under artistic director Paul Taylor-Mills. In its first year, The Other Palace presented 28 musicals, establishing its role as a stage to nurture new talent.
“The decision to buy The Other Palace came out of Andrew's experience putting on School Of Rock in New York,” explains Koravos. “Instead of the traditional workshop process, where you keep running the show over and over again in front of a small circle of industry people, he ran it to an audience at the Gramercy Theatre. The result was real audience reactions and feedback, which meant we ended up with a very different show from the one we started with when we went into rehearsals and that show was a big hit on Broadway, the West End and across the world now.
“He bought The Other Palace to provide a space for creative teams to work on their material in front of an audience and Andrew is enjoying bringing that advice to new up and coming composers and creators.”
Through his charity, the Andrew Lloyd Webber Foundation, the impresario has exhibited influence of another kind – 75 new grants worth a total of £2.7m have been awarded to projects that break down barriers to engagement in the arts, specifically targeting those from hard-to-reach and minority backgrounds.
“I think it’s absolutely disgraceful that music is leaving the school curriculum and I have an initiative to try and plug the gap,” Lloyd Webber told the March Q&A.
“Andrew is an incredible proponent of everything his foundation exists for in terms of his mission statement and helping with education,” says Kane Burton.
“It marries nicely with things like School Of Rock, where the kids who perform don't necessarily go to stage school, they are just kids who love their instruments and get the chance to play on stage in the West End, which is testament to the 360 nature of his beliefs and passion. We are constantly charged to think about how we can make that true in the work that we're doing.”
Andrew Lloyd Webber: The Platinum Collection was released through UMC/Polydor on March 16 in celebration of the composer's 70th birthday. The collection has been personally curated and overseen by Lloyd Webber to include classics from his earliest work starting with Joseph. His new autobiography, Unmasked, was also released to mark the milestone on March 6 by Harper Collins.
“Family businesses must always think long term in quarter centuries not quarters and try to excite the next generation along the way,” notes Madeleine. “To survive as a family business RUG has and will continue to have a strong sense of purpose and family values at its core.
With the ever changing digital landscape there are very exciting opportunities for reinvention of our titles without forgetting our core business of live entertainment.
“We are in the unique position of having the founder and owner still creating new work and titles, producing these will always be a privilege and priority for RUG and sets it apart as a company from any other.”
And despite turning 70 on March 22, there are no signs of Lloyd Webber scaling back his day-to-day involvement. “He's in the business every single day,” smiles Kane Burton. “As well as it being his 70th year, he's very much looking forward to making his custodianship of these theatres really meaningful, so there'll be an incredible legacy. We're about to spend about £40m on Theatre Royal Drury Lane and he's very engaged with that, he's choosing the seat colours for the auditorium, he's helping advise on colour schemes and paintings that should be in there and the sort of ambience we create. He cares and is passionate about all of those things."
“He is [still hands on], maybe more so,” adds Koravos. “He’s got a new set of people working across his businesses - maybe not people who grew up with him through his career in theatre - but from other parts of the entertainment business and I think there's people within his organisation that are now looking at his work with new pairs of eyes. And part of it is just that he's a working composer and he keeps on producing new shows. School Of Rock, which was the last one, was a big hit, so we're off again.”
Rest assured, Del Rey won’t be his last celebrity fan.
PHOTO: Gregg Delman