UNMASKED, by Andrew Lloyd Webber. Harper, 518 pp., $28.99.
Andrew Lloyd Webber is never afraid to go big, so it’s not surprising that the word “mega” pops up often in his new memoir, “Unmasked.” Gillian Lynne, the choreographer of Lloyd Webber’s planetary hit “Cats,” is said to have done a “mega rethink” of a number; Suzi Quatro’s turn in a revival of “Annie Get Your Gun” is praised as simply “mega.”
Also not a shocker is the book’s length: more than 500 pages are still not enough to cover Lloyd Webber’s entire life, and the story ends with the London premiere of “The Phantom of the Opera,” in 1986. (A second volume may or may not eventually appear.)
Restraint is not this composer’s forte, but there is something joyously shameless about his embrace of over-the-topness. Indeed, the book comes out at the same time as “Unmasked: The Platinum Collection,” a four-CD anthology of hits. Lloyd Webber has written many, many earworms, though this does not appease his many, many detractors — especially plentiful in an America that has never fully accepted this British interloper. Guess who is laughing all the way to the bank? The man who, last year alone, had four shows on Broadway at the same time: “Phantom” (it celebrated its 30th anniversary in January), “School of Rock” and revivals of “Cats” and “Sunset Boulevard.” No doubt productions of, say, “Jesus Christ Superstar,” “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat” or “Evita” were also running somewhere in the world.
Lloyd Webber dutifully, and often amusingly, retraces his childhood with music-minded parents (dad was also a composer) and his beloved Aunt Vi, a cookbook author who likely fostered young Andrew’s affinity for eccentricity — there is no other way to describe someone who would go on to write musicals about singing trains (“Starlight Express”) and singing felines (you know which one).
Very early on, Lloyd Webber developed an obsession with both architecture and music. Born in 1948, he came of age during a golden age of British pop in the 1960s, and was equally in love with Rodgers and Hammerstein and rock. It’s fascinating to read about his friendship with such musicians as keyboardist Rod Argent of the Zombies and guitarist Gary Moore, at one point of Thin Lizzy, both of whom played on many of his songs.
And how, you may wonder, did these rock dudes end up on cast albums? Well, technically they were not cast recordings, because another of Lloyd Webber’s singularities is that he would make concept albums of his shows before they were shows. Sometimes there would even be a single before there was a production — imagine if Lin-Manuel Miranda cut a single of a song from a forthcoming musical and released it as a download.
Lloyd Webber, who admired Elvis, has always openly embraced commercial success. And when he had it, he proved to be as shrewd a businessman as he was an arranger — this, of course, made him even more suspicious to purists for whom art and commerce are mortal enemies. One of the first lessons the composer learned was to retain the rights to public performances of his works, and he created his own company, the Really Useful Group, back in 1977. He took it public less than a decade later, but a debacle occurred after the book ends, so we are spared the details. Lloyd Webber did manage to buy back the shares, and Really Useful is now a powerful theater landlord in addition to handling the Lloyd Webber musical empire.
Despite its length and a title that would suggest frank tidbits, the introspection never goes all that deep and the book skirts some subjects. There is no hint about the future dust-up with Northport’s Patti LuPone over “Sunset Boulevard” when Lloyd Webber discusses their collaboration on “Evita” — unless you count snarky references to LuPone’s diction as foreshadowing. While he is open about his musical influences, Lloyd Webber does not deal with the accusations of unoriginality and even plagiarism (the Puccini estate once accused “The Music of the Night” of borrowing a theme from “La Fanciulla del West”) that have tailed him for years. In the epilogue, he casually mentions giving up alcohol. This would suggest that he might have had a problem, yet Lloyd Webber never dwells on it aside from a few jokey references, as when he told a doctor that neither he nor his (first) wife indulged in illegal substances: “wine yes — me, gallons of it — but drugs were not our scene.” Phew!
The epilogue is also where Lloyd Webber offers his best insights about his love for melody, a subject he broached earlier but could have investigated at much greater length. Surely even his haters must acknowledge that the man has come up with a few mega tunes over the years.