He has his critics, but Andrew Lloyd Webber is nothing short of a master at knowing what makes a musical a hit. After 25 years, Phantom of the Opera is the longest running show by a mile on Broadway and the third longest in London’s West End. At 63 and with 18 shows to his name, Lloyd Webber is still writing and producing for the stage without thought of slowing down. Last October, Phantom of the Opera was performed in a special 25th anniversary show at the Royal Albert Hall in London and next month that performance will be available on Blu ray and DVD. His sequel to Phantom, Love Never Dies, follows the Phantom and Christine to turn-of-the-century New York, where the Phantom has come to Coney Island. The troubled show received mixed views; it played in London, and is still running in Australia, but never got a Broadway premiere date after various rewrites and Webber’s bout with prostate cancer. It, too, is coming out on DVD along with its predecessor and will be shown on the big screen.
EW spoke with Lloyd Webber about continuing the Phantom story and what went wrong, how reality TV is helping create a new generation of theater geeks, his thoughts on the current state of musicals, and what it really takes to make a show work – he is, after all, the expert.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Love Never Dies is about to be released in movie theaters. Do you think it’s possible to replicate the live theater experience at the movies?
ANDREW LLOYD WEBBER: I don’t think the skill to have been able to have done something like this would have really happened if Peter Gelb and the Met hadn’t sort of gone this way and I think what’s happened is there are people who now understand how to capture live performance in a way that perhaps even three years ago we wouldn’t have realized, and certainly five years ago we wouldn’t have done.
Phantom of the Opera was groundbreaking in its production design and effects, like the chandelier crash. Do you think audiences are still wowed by that or have we become blasé in a world of film special effects?
Surely, you go to the theater because you want to have a great evening in the theater. You could throw technology, you could throw chandeliers at people, but that’s not going to make the show. Phantom of the Opera started in my little 100 seater-converted church in Britain with a stage where we did what we did. But it was the score itself was what made it. What was fantastic when we took it on further was that the production design was also extraordinary.
That’s the thing you have to remember with musicals. The fine line between a production that’s right and a production that’s wrong is tiny. If you see a show you don’t enjoy it may be that the design is not fitting the music or it may be any number of different reasons.
Do you think Love Never Dies will make it to Broadway?
What happened with Love Never Dies, and let me be completely frank about it, is that it didn’t work in London completely. I was very, very proud of it, something just went slightly wrong; I had cancer just before the production, and it was just that crucial 5% off-beam. I had the thought to do it again in Australia, in Melbourne and Sydney, and the production in Melbourne and Sydney was absolutely wonderful and the guys from NBC Universal saw some of the footage of the press stuff for that and said they’d very much like to film it. And I thought “What a fantastic opportunity,’” because at least there will be a record of a show that I am very, very pleased with. Now other people are saying that they think it should have a wider showing.
I don’t want to try and second guess everything, but all I do know is we have had a few people see it so far [in New York] and it would seem that people like it.
Story-wise Love Never Dies feels like a very New York production. What was it like moving the characters away from Paris? Why would the Phantom go to New York?
I thought long and hard about ever doing a sequel to the Phantom. But then of course I love the characters of the Phantom and Christine, both of them are very personal to me. But I think how and where could one set it if one were ever to move it on, where could the Phantom could have possibly gone to? The obvious thing would be if he were an outcast from France that he would come to America. And then the one place a freak or somebody who was frightening, abnormal in one sense, would be recognized as completely normal, no questions asked, would have been Coney Island. And the more I looked at the old footage of Coney Island and what really, really happened there I thought it would make a wonderful area in which to set the show.
What kind of pressure did you feel, bringing back characters that you are so close to, and that the audience is so close to as well?
Not pressure, it’s just that it all hinges on the moment where the Phantom and Christine meet each other years later. And it’s all about somebody who, in their life — in this case Christine – had moved on. She’s married now and the Phantom is long gone. In her heart of course, she knows where she wants to be. I don’t know if it’s happened to you in your life, but it’s certainly happened to me, where you say, “I’m never going to meet that person again so long as I live and if I do I’m absolutely going to go mental and berserk and scream at them, because I just dislike them.” And then you meet them and it’s that moment where it’s fabulous, everything’s back.
Is Love Never Dies a sequel? In previous interviews, there has been some confusion over how you view the show.
Clearly, it is a sequel, but I really do not believe that you have to have seen Phantom of the Opera to understand Love Never Dies. I really don’t. But I hope if you see them together, if you wanted to see them back-to-back, that what you would get from them — from both of them — is the extension of where the story goes. The ending of the show is the ending of a chapter of my creative musical life because it has to be with what happened at the end of it, that shut the door for me with what happened with Phantom and Christine, because I can’t take it any further.
What do you think of the musical craze happening on TV, with the reality shows you’ve worked on and shows like Glee and the upcoming Smash?
It’s very interesting. Sometimes these things happen in different places at different times and they don’t seem connected but in the end they all connect. Certainly when I started with the Sound of Music casting program six years ago, everyone thought it wasn’t going to work. But we ended up winning an Emmy for it. It did create a completely new perception in Britain about what you could do. I don’t need to work on a TV reality show, even though I enjoy it, but I don’t need to, and the reason I do it is that I love working with these kids and getting something out of them.
This week, your former collaborator Tim Rice said that the reality shows you’ve been involved in, and specifically the new reality show to cast Jesus Christ Superstar in the U.K., were doing a disservice to the original work. What do you say to detractors?
Well I think we just say look, we won an international Emmy for the first show we did. And the fact that one of the girls has just been cast by the National Theatre in a leading role — that’s the answer to that.
What musicals are you seeing on Broadway or the West End now that inspire you to continue your work?
I have to be open and say I think right now, there are very, very many shows around that are very big hits, but they are not about the music. They tend to be about other things, about brilliant lyrics, or whatever. Right now to be honest I don’t think the music is the reason for going for most of the shows at the moment.
What are you working on next?
I haven’t found a subject I really want to write about at the moment. As a composer at a point where I can absolutely pick and choose what I want to do, I don’t want to write about anybody I don’t care about. But I have got various ideas and one day when I get back to my piano and my day job… I’ve got so many tunes in my head at the moment it’s silly. I don’t come from anything other than being a musical dramatist who loves to use melody.
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