How Life magazine missed the boat on a big one

Any theater reporter who has ever covered the celebrity beat has a Liz Taylor story, a Bob Fosse story, a Liza Minnelli story — some backstage dish that never made it into print but still burns bright in the reporter’s memory bank. Well, here’s my Andrew Lloyd Webber story.

It was December 1987. “The Phantom of the Opera” was due to open on Broadway in a month, and people were mad with anticipation. Everyone wanted to get a look at Andrew Lloyd Webber, the 39-year-old British wunderkind who was going to “save” a moribund Broadway with his seventh and reportedly most spectacular musical extravaganza to date.

Among the curious was Life magazine, which decided to assign me a cover story on Lloyd Webber and the phenomenal “Phantom.” So off I went, the week before Christmas, to interview the young genius in his $6.5 million duplex at the top of the Trump Tower on Fifth Avenue, which in those days was the most glamorous spot in town for a visiting celeb to pitch camp.

The interview was scheduled for early in the day, even though Lloyd Webber and his 27-year-old wife, Sarah Brightman, had only arrived the night before from Germany and were clearly sleep-deprived. There were shopping bags of Christmas presents in the front hall and open suitcases at the foot of the stairs leading to the composer’s studio. All the same, I expected to be shown into an office for the interview and was surprised when Lloyd Webber and Brightman curled up on one of the plump sofas in the living room and proceeded to bill and coo throughout the Q&A session.

My agenda was to find out what made “Phantom” different from all his other shows — to get past the spectacle of the falling chandelier and discover the inspiration for the most nakedly romantic music Lloyd Webber had ever written. His agenda was to snuggle with his wife. “It’s a love story,” he kept saying, gazing at Brightman’s neck. “It’s a great romantic plot about a musician who writes beautiful music for the woman he loves.”

Well, there it was, confirmation that Lloyd Webber had written this one from the heart, as a gift to the funny-faced soprano he clearly adored — and at no small cost to his reputation. The real-life fairy tale of how the frog prince had won his princess bride had been a huge scandal back in England, beginning in 1981 when Lloyd Webber left his wife of 12 years and their two children to run off and live with then-21-year-old Brightman, who was herself married at the time. They wed in 1985, on the very day he was to be presented to Queen Elizabeth, at the opening of “Starlight Express.” To say that Brightman owed her career to him was a jaw-dropping understatement.

At some point in this unorthodox interview for Life, Lloyd Webber went into another room and returned with his Christmas present to his wife — two Scottish Fold kittens that became the objects of much surrogate stroking and petting and thinly veiled pillow talk.

“They have extraordinarily fine hair,” Brightman said, giggling.

“Like silk,” Lloyd Webber said.

“Very soft,” Brightman said, blushing. 

“Soft to the touch,” Lloyd Webber said.

The kittens were getting groggy. Frankly, so was I.

Except for the scene with the two fur babies, most of my above observations got into Life magazine.

Now, here’s what didn’t get into the profile, which was rewritten inhouse and editorially pummeled into an unflattering account of how this “arrogant, thoughtless, inconsiderate, selfish, and thoroughly obnoxious genius” (to quote “one business associate”) was poised to destroy the proud tradition of the Broadway musical theater.

The editors at Life magazine, which back in the 1950s ran several covers of Broadway subjects, had grown increasingly skittish of the theater over the decades. By December 1987, they fretted: Would Andrew Lloyd Webber sell on the newsstand? Was a megamusical juggernaut from Britain a big enough story for Middle America?

Apparently not, the editors thought, unless they created some controversy by trashing the composer in print and posing him on the cover between two sexy chorines from “Cats” and “Starlight Express,” which were also running on the Great White Way in 1987, and Michael Crawford in full “Phantom” drag.

In the end, even that visual overkill wasn’t enough to land Lloyd Webber the cover of Life.

For its February 1988 cover, America’s favorite picture magazine instead ran a photograph of speed skater Bonnie Blair, who went on to win one gold and one bronze medal at that year’s Olympics.

Lloyd Webber, for his part, defied the oddsmakers at the monthly Life, which went bellyup a few years later. Despite their blithe dismissal, his “Phantom” went on to become the longest-running musical in Broadway history.

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