“Autobiographies are by definition self-serving and mine is no exception,” Andrew Lloyd Webber states upfront in Unmasked: A Memoir, his 500-page “medium sized doorstop” of an autobiography, which covers a good chunk but not all of his life, spanning his childhood days (playing with a toy theater and listening to South Pacific) to the first preview performance of The Phantom of the Opera. According to Lloyd Webber, he has written the memoir unwillingly, mainly to shut up the people in his life who have asked him time and again to write one. He insists that he is “the most boring person I have ever written about.” In other words, while he may have had four musicals running simultaneously on Broadway, he is no Judas Iscariot or Mr. Mistoffelees.
As is the case for many musical theater aficionados, my feelings about Lloyd Webber are complicated. The first Broadway musical I ever attended, at age 10, was the 90s revival of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. I got hooked on it, big time, and proceeded to listen to a cassette of the cast album every day for a year. (It’s too bad I never got the chance to appear in the giant kiddie chorus of a local production.) At age 14, as I was starting to become a genuine musical theater geek, I attended Cats and found it utterly bewildering and disappointing, primarily due to the lack of plot. (I have since come to appreciate the show’s choreography and much of its score.) The film version of Evita (released around the same time) did nothing for me. A few years later, I was also unmoved by The Phantom of the Opera (in spite of my father’s fondness for it) but got hooked on Jesus Christ Superstar, via a newly released video recording of the revival with Glenn Carter. Even so, being a steadfast Sondheim worshipper at the time, it was practically required protocol to convey utter disdain for everything Lloyd Webber. (Fun fact: The first show that Lloyd Webber saw on Broadway was Sondheim’s Company, which he admits he could not appreciate at the time.)
Despite having written as a theater critic since 2002, I have still not gotten the opportunity to attend a production of Joseph as a reviewer, but I have reviewed a lot of other Lloyd Webber musicals, both revivals and new shows, and I have re-attended Phantom a whole bunch of times with different actors in the lead roles. Now being slightly more mature than I was at 17 years old, I can acknowledge that Lloyd Webber is more than just a writer of lush melodies with an eye for commercialization, and I welcomed the opportunity to get a closer look at the man in Unmasked, which is a much needed addition to musical theater scholarship due to the limited number of books exploring Lloyd Webber’s output (again, probably a result of the snobbishness of musical theater geeks).
In a testament to Lloyd Webber’s corporate thinking, the release of Unmasked: A Memoir coincides with the release of Unmasked: The Platinum Collection, a four-disc playlist of earlier recordings of his songs curated by the composer himself. It was also intended to be accompanied by another Unmasked, a new revue of his songs with a biographical bent, which was to be directed by John Doyle and premiere at New Jersey’s Paper Mill Playhouse. (For whatever reason, the premiere has been placed on hold.)
Lloyd Webber’s defiant and unapologetic stance at the top of the book is important to remember because, as he warns, it can be self-indulgent, self-serving and ridiculous. He frequently segues into his love of medieval cathedrals, something I couldn't care less about. He is compelled to give us his take on the drama between him and lyricist Tim Rice that led to the unfortunate dissolution of their very successful partnership (which resulted in what are Lloyd Webber’s best pop-rock scores, and maybe his best scores, period). Lloyd Webber also gets bogged down in making snarky comments about the actresses who have starred in his shows, including Patti LuPone (“My notes have ‘Diction, Warmth?’ scrawled across them”…“Her performance [in Evita] was frequently inconsonant.”) and Betty Buckley (who “got it into her head that Trevor and the rest of the company were ostracizing her” and “continued to sing ‘Memory’ every conceivable way other than give the audience the big notes”). On the other hand, he praises Yvonne Elliman as Mary Magdalene (whose voice was “quirky, youthful, sexy and highly individual”) and Elaine Page as Evita (“Her chest voice seemed cast-iron, yet she could show real warmth and vulnerability. In short, she had star quality.”).
Lloyd Webber also insists on bragging that having sex with Sarah Brightman was terrific and that, as past rumors have suggested, he does indeed have a big penis. (“Dana Gillespie was rumoured to have organized a cock measuring contest in her dressing room. I didn’t enter. Aunt Vi told me it was bad form to enter a contest you know you’re going to win.) There is also the story of how Milos Forman apparently wanted Lloyd Webber to play Mozart in the film version of Amadeus, much to Lloyd Webber’s consternation. (Haven’t we all found ourselves in the awkward position of being asked to star in a Hollywood movie against our will?) He also goes off on tangents about politics (unlike others in his industry, he sure does love the late Margaret Thatcher), taxes (“there’s nothing like an 83% going on 98% income tax rate to concentrate the mind”) and union regulations (which required an inflated orchestra size for Cats on Broadway).
But in the midst of the rampant egotism and endless notes about ruined castles and the programs of each Sydmonton Festival, Lloyd Webber does provide keen analysis on his shows and what makes them work. His commentary on Joseph (“nothing in Joseph is random”) is especially valuable, explaining the importance of its sung-through structure (“the musical structure, the musical key relationships, rhythms and use of time signatures, not just the melodies are vital to its success”), the character (Joseph is an “irritating prick who in the end turns out to be okay”), and “the use of everyday colloquialisms” in Tim Rice’s lyrics.
It is unfortunate that Lloyd Webber could not bring himself to cut out the gratuitous excesses in the book, which may have allowed him to cover his work up to the present day, including the many less successful shows that he wrote between Phantom and School of Rock a quarter century later, not to mention the backstage drama of Sunset Boulevard. Lloyd Webber may be less than eager to revisit that period. But considering that the man made a sequel of Phantom, a follow-up memoir is probably not out of the question.