It’s a big year for Andrew Lloyd Webber. “The Phantom of the Opera,” the longest-running show on Broadway, just celebrated its 30th birthday, and Lloyd Webber himself turns 70 later this month. In celebration, the Broadway mega-composer has a new memoir, “Unmasked,” hitting shelves, while a multidisc collection of his hits, “Andrew Lloyd Webber Unmasked: The Platinum Collection,” drops March 16, featuring songs from “Phantom,” “Cats,” “Evita,” “Jesus Christ Superstar,” “School of Rock” and more, recorded by the likes of Lana Del Rey, Beyoncé, Barbra Streisand and Madonna.
His first mention in Variety came on Nov. 19, 1969, when the release of the single “Superstar” (the precursor to the concept album “Jesus Christ Superstar,” which became the stage musical) sparked speculation about potential religious protests. The outcry never came, nor did much attention at all, at least not in the U.S. or the U.K. — not at first. But the release did serve to launch Lloyd Webber’s ultra-successful career.
What did you think, taking a look at this news clip now?
It rather amused me. It’s kind of like one of those wonderful pieces of journalism buried in the middle of the paper trying to suggest that it would be a huge controversy. It mentions a presentation at St. Paul’s. That never happened. Of course, at the time, we also had to contend with the rumor that John Lennon was going to play Jesus. That still sits in the cuttings and is now on the internet somewhere. There was never any thought of him doing it. That was a lovely bit of fabrication.
What was the reaction to that first single?
Well, nobody was interested in an idea of a musical of Jesus Christ. Conventional theater producers thought it was a pretty awful idea, and the single came out to resounding indifference in Britain. It did absolutely nothing. And in America, I can’t remember what chart position it was, but it was practically zero. But then it was No. 1 in places like Brazil and Holland, so we were commissioned to do a whole album.
Was there ever any controversy?
It wasn’t that controversial. The album came out in England in 1970 to quite nice reviews, but we thought it might get caught between being about Jesus Christ and being blasphemous. It sort of died a death. But in November of that year, we came across to America and suddenly discovered that it was a phenomenon. It just took off.
Did you enjoy the process of writing a memoir?
No. It was the most boring thing I’ve ever done in my entire life. I’m slightly joking. I was cajoled into doing it by family friends and a wonderful agent. My problem is that although I’m coming up to being 70, I really, really, really just enjoy writing new work. I like looking forward. I wrote the book at a time when I’d just written “School of Rock,” and I hadn’t found a subject for a musical that I really wanted to do. I kind of wrote it in the gap, but now I just want to get on. I hope it’s funny, at least.
Do you have a good memory for the specifics of your career?
I kept all of my desk diaries, the whole lot. My memory, frankly, is useless, but from those diaries I was able to piece together the timeline. I had quite honestly forgotten so much. On the other hand, some of the big things you can’t forget. I can’t forget that just after “Jesus Christ Superstar” finished casting in New York, I got a call saying, “Can you go and hear a girl who’s been singing in Turkish baths?” I go and it was Bette Midler. Oh, my God, Bette Midler could have been the original Mary Magdalene in “Jesus Christ Superstar,” but it was too late! Those things you remember.