My knees-up with the Queen: Andrew Lloyd Webber reveals all about his relationship with the monarch, Tim Rice and Simon Cowell
00:47 GMT, 18 May 2012
Maestro and the star: Lloyd Webber with Mel C, who features in his new version of Jesus Christ Superstar
Yesterday Andrew Lloyd Webber received the biggest slap on the back of his 40-year career: a fellowship award from the British Academy of Songwriters, Composers and Authors (BASCA).
The BASCA statuette (think Oscar but bronze) was presented at the Ivor Novello Awards in London and is about as high an honour as a chap with a tune in his head can get.
So, when we meet in his rather swanky Belgravia townhouse, is Andrew singing from the rooftops Dancing for joy Lordy no.
‘I always think once you get a lifetime achievement award it signifies your career is over,’ he says. ‘One wants to say: “Hang on a moment. I’m just about to write this new show, thank you very much. Can we wait” ’
‘This new show’ — as yet untitled —revolves around the ‘Greek tragedy’ of Sixties man-about-town Stephen Ward who, to Andrew’s mind, was dumped upon from a huge height during the Profumo Scandal.
‘This was the most popular guy in London. The guy everyone wanted to have around the dinner table. The guy everybody knew, from the Royal Family to Gandhi . . . How is it that a man who was so much at the centre of London society ended up as a waxwork in Madame Tussaud’s Chamber of Horrors’ Andrew, 64, waves his hands around like a windmill as he talks about the musical that’s grabbed his imagination.
‘Once I get the idea for a musical in my head, I’m a terrier,’ he says.
Andrew is, after several years of ‘boring’ health problems that have included prostate cancer and a dodgy hip, on Mid Season Form.
He’s lost two stone in the past few months by swimming and, well, I don’t know what he’s had for breakfast, but he’s as bubbly as a bottle of Krug.
‘I got through it and I’m fine,’ he says of the cancer that was diagnosed three years ago. ‘I’m lucky because it was caught very early, but it does make you realise there are lots of people who are less fortunate and it does make me determined to do what I can to keep contributing to what’s going on.
‘I don’t feel it makes you consciously think: “I have to do X”, but in the back of your mind you think you’ve got to use your abilities and your contacts. People come to me with specific things and if I can be of help, I try to be. I think one becomes more aware of wanting to do that and being less . . . I don’t know, more concerned about other people.
‘It’s made me realise again that the more I can use my talents and the things I have — the more my foundation [the Andrew Lloyd Webber Foundation which invests in the Arts] can do — the more pleased I am.
Let’s just say Andrew’s barely stopped since he recovered from a hip operation over Christmas. There’s been the staging of Jesus Christ Superstar and Evita on Broadway, the release of Love Never Dies on DVD, which has topped the charts in the States and here, national tours of Starlight Express and Phantom of the Opera and . . . well, you get the picture.
There’s also been an intimate knees-up at his country estate Sydmonton Court in Berkshire with the Queen on her birthday. On top of everything else, Andrew has teamed up with Gary Barlow to compose the official Diamond Jubilee song SING.
Partners: Lloyd Webber and Gary Barlow collaborated on a song to mark the Queen's Diamond Jubilee
Happy couple: Lloyd Webber, pictured this week with his wife Madeleine
‘She was staying with some friends of ours next door almost,’ says Andrew. ‘It was fun, because we did a little cabaret of songs which I knew she liked. It was a very small gathering. There were only about 20 of us — my kids, some neighbours and friends she knew from racing. That was the connection really. My wife is more involved than I am.’
His wife, Madeleine, is a keen equestrian and the mother of his three younger children Alastair, 20, William, 19 and Isabella, 15. He also has Imogen, 34, and Nicholas, 32, from his first marriage to Sarah Hugill.
‘I’ve had vague contact with her [the Queen] over the years because of Edward [Prince Edward cut his teeth in showbusiness with Andrew’s Really Useful Theatre Company in the late Eighties]. Edward and Sophie came, too, as did Gary. Then we had a fun time when Gary and I took to two pianos and the battle started.’
Crikey. If only pianos could talk. One of them is visible a room away in his office when we meet in a glass-topped room at the top of his house. We’re actually here to talk about his new ITV talent show, Superstar, that will be searching for a Jesus to play the lead role in the UK’s first Jesus Christ Superstar Arena Tour alongside Tim Minchin — who wrote the lyrics for the award-winning West End musical Matilda — as Judas Iscariot, former Spice Girl Melanie Chisholm as Mary Magdalene and Radio 1’s Chris Moyles as King Herod.
It is, as he says, a rather ‘sensational’ cast. How did it come about We’re back to pianos again.
‘I remembered seeing Chris Moyles on Celebrity X Factor and thinking he was rather good. I also remember singing a song with him round a piano one night, which he probably doesn’t.’ Chuckle. ‘I do, vaguely.’ More chuckles.
‘Chris is a great friend of Nigel Wright, who’s produced a lot of my music in the past. I just thought, “Why not, interesting person.” Mel C was under my nose. She’s a judge for the preliminary stages of Superstar. I said, “Mel, I remember seeing you in Blood Brothers. Let’s get round the piano.” End of story.
‘Tim Minchin has always wanted to play the role of Judas. I met him before Matilda opened and we got on very well. I said, “Are you serious about this.” He said, “Dead right.” He came round and sang for me. I thought he was sensational.’
Lloyd Webber with the cast of Jesus Christ Superstar: Tim Minchin, Melanie C and Chris Moyles
Which I’m sure he was, but not as, well, let’s say sensationally unexpected, as his choice of judge for ITV1’s Superstar: Dawn French. Now this is the comedienne who talked her way through her role as the duchess at the Royal Opera House in La Fille De La Regiment two years ago. Guess they didn’t get round the piano Andrew chuckles.
‘Dawn’s a great actress and has very interesting views on young talent. It’ll be very interesting to see how she and I work on TV. She was suggested by a great friend of mine. She’s a great friend of lots of mutual friends of mine, so I think we’ll talk the same language.’
Jason Donovan will also sit on the panel, which will have a guest judge every episode. ‘I’ve got a load of people up my sleeve,’ says Andrew — but not, I guess, Tim Rice, who wrote the lyrics for Jesus Christ Superstar and has criticised the ITV show as ‘relentlessly downmarket’.
‘I’ll ask him if he wants to,’ says Andrew. ‘I think he was not happy but it’s moved on. The record we’ve had — what’s happened to the artists from my shows — speaks for itself.
‘He’s very content for the show to go ahead now. He’s seen it happen once with Joseph and we didn’t do too badly with that.
‘I think he’s not a fan of reality shows — some people aren’t. But I love them because of the opportunities for people who come through the show that I’d never have remotely got to see otherwise.’
Six of Lloyd Webber’s ‘exes’ are currently in the West End in leading roles, while the brilliant Connie Fisher, who won his first BBC talent show, How Do You Solve A Problem Like Maria, is touring with the musical Wonderful Town.
ITV1’s Superstar will be Andrew’s fifth television reality show — as well as Maria in The Sound Of Music, he’s auditioned for a Joseph in Any Dream Will Do, a Nancy in I’d Do Anything and a Dorothy in Over The Rainbow — but this is his first show with ITV.
Llloyd Webber and Tim Rice (left) wrote Jesus Christ Superstar together, but Rice doesn't approve of his former partner's TV shows
‘I’ve got much more freedom to choose the music I want,’ he says. ‘One isn’t under the constraints you are at the BBC. They have tremendous difficulty with editorial policy about what one can and can’t do.
‘For example, there was one song the Dorothys particularly wanted to do as a final song before they were leaving, but it was written by me. The BBC said, “Well, we can’t do that because that’s promoting your own song.”
I said, “Well, that’s what the girls want to sing.” And it was the right song for them to sing.
‘The BBC, internally, have a name for it – PPU. When I had my first meeting with the BBC, they kept talking about “the PPU”, and as I was a new boy I thought: “I don’t know I want to talk about it without knowing what the PPU is, but I can’t admit I don’t know.”
‘I finally put my hand up and said, “Can you tell me what the PPU is”
“Oh, the programme prevention unit.” I said, “What’s that” They said: “Oh, that’s editorial policy.
'At the BBC we call it the programme prevention unit.” Andrew giggles mischievously. He really is in a rather puckish mood today.
Take, for example, mention of Simon Cowell’s Britain’s Got Talent and The X Factor. ‘I’m looking for somebody to play a specific role, so it isn’t a nebulous prize of, in quotes, a record contract or, in quotes, coming on the Royal Variety Show.’ Meow.
‘Oh, I’m an enormous fan of Simon’s actually.’ Which he is. So, what did he make of Tom Bower’s explosive ‘unauthorised’ autobiography. ‘I haven’t read it, but I think there’s probably a second edition.’ Second edition
‘Oh I don’t know. I think there’s quite a bit more around.’ More than the revelation that Simon had a fling with X Factor judge Dannii Minogue Cue more chuckles. ‘You’ve got to try to get a little bit of fun on the shows.’
Hang on. You don’t have designs on Dawn do you ‘Who knows Let’s see what happens. One has to have a little bit of humour.’
As well as the TV show and the arena tour, Polydor Records will be releasing a remastered form of Jesus Christ Superstar, the 1970 rock album Andrew wrote with Tim Rice, which is where it all began really. An arena rock tour followed in the States and from that the musical.
Andrew was just 21 at the time. An early appearance on Sir David Frost’s seminal ITV chat show is a reminder of the longevity of his brilliant career that includes Cats, Phantom, Aspects of Love, Sunset Boulevard, Evita, Joseph and some 125 million albums sold worldwide. Not bad for a boy who started out life in a flat over a Tube station.
Today, his fortune is said to be 700 million and, like the protagonist in his new musical, he’s ‘the guy everyone wants to have around the dinner table’.
‘I didn’t ever seek it, really,’ he says. ‘All I’ve ever loved and all I’ve ever wanted really to do — apart from possibly my love of art and architecture — was to write for musical theatre.
‘One thing that hasn’t ever changed is my belief I’m so lucky to be able to enjoy the one thing in life I’m able to make a living at. The most important thing one has to remember is, if you’ve got talent, you must use it.’
For which, I think, this genius of a man deserves another jolly good slap on the back.
n Tickets for the UK arena tour of Jesus Christ Superstar are on sale today from jesuschristsuperstar.com. ITV1’s Superstar airs this summer. The remastered album Jesus Christ Superstar is out on Polydor on July 16.