March 5, 2010
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Andrew Lloyd Webber: I still take risksTHE feverish atmosphere is almost unprecedented but not quite in the way the marketing people wanted. Next Tuesday sees the official opening of Love Never Dies, Andrew Lloyd Webber’s massively hyped sequel to his stage musical The Phantom Of The Opera, and it’s clear the show has a maze of dripping catacombs to wade through if it’s to win critical or commercial success.
The first preview was cancelled due to “technical demands” and since then advance audiences have clogged internet bulletin boards with negative feedback. Much of this comes not from Lord Lloyd-Webber’s usual detractors but from diehard Phantom fans who think a sequel is sacrilege. One reviewer reports getting daily e-mails as part of a guerrilla campaign to influence the notices, saying: “This has never happened to me in 26 years as a professional critic.”
There’s no doubt that the 61-year-old Lord Lloyd-Webber of Sydmonton is taking a big risk with the new show. But for someone who has just stared death in the face during a successful battle with prostate cancer the gamble is perhaps not such a big deal.
Lloyd Webber himself stresses that writing Love Never Dies predates his brush with death. “I had completed the score before I learned that I had prostate cancer,” he tells me. “I had long wanted to do a sequel to Phantom and not to any other of my shows because I felt that the way the original show ends is an unfinished story waiting to be told.”
But it’s not hard to relate the steely defiance that characterises his current project with the gritty determination to triumph over a form of cancer that kills one man every 13 minutes.
The original Phantom, which opened in London in 1986, has notched up more than 9,500 performances in the West End alone. It’s also Broadway’s longest-ever running show, has been seen by 100 million people worldwide in 149 cities across 25 countries and can claim to be the most successful single piece of entertainment of all time, surpassing ET, Titanic and Star Wars.
While film studios are always quick to trot out sequels to successful movies the stage musical equivalent is much rarer. Why bother when you can just roll out more productions across the globe? And whereas fans of Star Wars or Batman can be guaranteed to queue up for the next instalments in the franchise, musical theatre obsessives prefer to see the same show over and over – and they don’t want to see it dragged down by a potentially sub-standard follow-up.
SDLqWe feel strongly that Love Never Dies is a completely misguided venture that is a detriment to the story of the original Phantom Of The Opera,” say the organisers of a Facebook group cheekily called Love Should Die.
“It is not in the interest of or desired by the story’s many fans. Virtually everything about the show strikes us as illogical, irrational, offensive and frankly stupid. While there is little that can be done at this stage to stop the show from reaching the stage at all we aim to provide a platform for the many people out there who maintain that this should never have been given the green light.”
But it’s not surprising that such criticism does not deter a man who has just fought off a life-threatening illness.
The first sign that something was wrong came during the winter of 2008. The father-of-five was rehearsing and recording the score of Love Never Dies at his home in Majorca when he noticed he had a weak bladder. “Throughout the night I was desperate to go to the bathroom,” he recalls. “It was little but far too often. I had an irritating burning sensation, which I put down to a mild infection.”
Back in London he went to his GP for tests but no infection showed up. Only after reading an article about the symptoms of prostate cancer did he go for a specialist consultation and was referred to the private London Clinic for a biopsy. There followed a surreal episode where he was advised to leave by a back door to avoid a gaggle of paparazzi. He assumed they were waiting for him and it was only when he opened the papers the next morning that he realised they really wanted Amy Winehouse, who was suspected of having a boob job at the same clinic.
W hen he did finally get his cancer diagnosis he was urged by his PR team to hush it up and say he was simply run down. But he dismissed this secretive instinct. “Why? I thought. I have prostate cancer. Women talk about breast cancer. Look at Kylie.
“I suspect men are deeply embarrassed about any problem that suggests it affects their libido or masculinity. My specialist is certain that lives are lost because the symptoms can be the kind of stuff that the average macho male is embarrassed by. This is barmy. If the cancer is only in the prostate it is not going to kill you. But once it is big enough to take a trip out of your prostate, walk around your bones, your liver, your spinal cord, other complications begin.”
He decided to have surgery rather than laser treatment but a string of complications, including scarring from a botched appendicitis procedure when he was three years old, meant a relatively simple operation became a painful saga.
But he was eventually given the all-clear. “It is the hugest relief,” he says. “We have arrived at the end of a long journey at the best possible outcome.”
Although he was urged to take things easy he has plunged back into his work, including his latest series for the small screen. “I think the BBC casting series have proved that using television to find stars can work very well for the theatre,” he tells me, referring to the TV talent contests to cast productions of The Sound Of Music, Joseph and Oliver! in which he has emerged as a cuddlier, less scathing version of Simon Cowell.
“Five of our finalists for I’d Do Anything [the Oliver! contest] went on to star in West End productions and I hope we can repeat that success with the new series Over The Rainbow, which will search for a Dorothy to star in a new production of The Wizard Of Oz,” he says.
But his main energies have been channelled into Love Never Dies.
“He’s on a hiding to nothing because how do you improve on the most successful work in entertainment history?” says Mark Shenton, theatre critic of the Sunday Express and the West End’s most influential blogger. “I suspect he’s doing it because Phantom is such a personal story for him. There are obvious autobiographical echoes in a composer becoming obsessed with a soprano, particularly given that Christine in the original show was first played by Sarah Brightman, who was his wife at the time.”
The composer could easily rest on his extraordinary global successes, including Evita, Cats and Starlight Express as well as Phantom, rather than risk the jibes that will accompany failure.
“People judge him by a unique standard,” says Shenton. “The Beautiful Game was considered a flop but it ran for a year. So was Sunset Boulevard, which ran for two years, and Whistle Down The Wind, which ran for three. He has been so successful that people expect him to have huge hits but the truth is the last time he had a blockbuster that went global was Phantom.”
However the sequel, or “continuation” as Lloyd Webber calls it, shapes up on opening night, his willingness to expose himself to failure continues to impress admirers and critics alike. “It takes a lot to write a musical and I think he wants to prove he can still do it,” says one insider, who describes the score of the new show as “amazingly good”, while holding reservations about some of the casting.
“Andrew is remarkable for remaining the same throughout the months of anxiety and pain that his illness has caused him and it’s entirely in character that his determination to triumph over cancer is mirrored in his willingness to take on those who say he can’t do a successful sequel to Phantom,” he says.