Ever since the chandelier first crashed in thunderous fashion, “The Phantom of the Opera” has been a fixture of Broadway, becoming as iconic a symbol of theatergoing as the celebrity caricatures that adorn the walls at Sardi’s. Its mixture of soaring romanticism and spectacle fueled the beloved musical’s history-making run. Since the show’s debut on Jan. 26, 1988, audiences have flocked to the Majestic Theatre to see more than 13,300 performances of the tragic love story — that is, until COVID-19 caused the curtain to come down for 16 months.
But on a September morning after more than a year of false starts, setbacks and dashed hopes, the opulent playhouse is showing signs of life again — crews are painting sets, lights are being taken out of boxes, racks of costumes hang in the wings and that infamous chandelier rises again, suspended over the plush seating that has hosted so many sold-out crowds over the decades.
At the center of the action is Andrew Lloyd Webber, the mega-selling musical impresario who has made his first trip across the pond since lockdown and is now staring quizzically at a bust of Julius Caesar that was taken out of storage and placed in the lobby at some point over the past year and a half.
“We really must dress him up,” Lloyd Webber jokes to an associate during his interview with Variety at the New York theater, where “Phantom” will have its grand reopening on Oct. 22. “Why not give him a hat? Or better yet, a mask.”
The mask, of course, is a reference to the crescent-shaped facial covering that the Phantom sports in a show that remains the longest running in Broadway history. There is a reason that Lloyd Webber is feeling so jocular. Throughout the pandemic he has waged a ceaseless campaign on both sides of the Atlantic to get theaters reopened, even vowing to defy authorities and risk imprisonment if the British government prevented his West End venues from operating at full capacity. Now, finally, London’s theater district is humming with activity and New York’s is welcoming back audiences.
“It’s slightly overwhelming, and it’s very emotional,” says Lloyd Webber. “This is my life. And for the past 16 months or so, the thing that one loves most in the world was taken away.”
Lloyd Webber is no COVID denier. He is fully aware of the dangers that the pandemic poses, and he’s embraced the science, signing up to be part of the Oxford vaccine trial in summer 2020. At the same time, he worked to integrate a new set of best practices at the five theaters he owns in the U.K. after seeing how successfully touring productions of “Phantom” and “Cats” were mounted in Australia and South Korea during the darkest days of the virus. These included instituting strict COVID protocols among cast and crew — mandating social distancing, mask-wearing and vaccinations, when the latter became available. It also meant overhauling some of the spaces that Lloyd Webber owned by updating their ventilation systems, adding restrooms so people would not be on top of each other and installing sanitizing door handles and thermal-imaging cameras at certain venues.
“He was the hero we all needed,” says Sammi Cannold, a theater director who chronicled Lloyd Webber’s advocacy in the recent documentary “The Show Must Go On.”
“It’s pretty universally acknowledged that he was there for us. He was a champion for the community, and he didn’t have to be. He could have sat back and seen what happened. Instead, he went to war.”
At a time when the theater industry was decimated by the pandemic, leaving hundreds of thousands out of work and playhouses on the verge of financial ruin, Lloyd Webber became the business’s most outspoken advocate. For months, he threatened, cajoled and pressured the authorities to loosen restrictions when COVID was easing and bolstered the creative community’s spirits with his passionate belief that theaters had a vital role to play on a planet riven by division and disease.
His campaign reached its apex last summer when he vowed to move forward with debuting his musical “Cinderella” to full houses in June whether or not Boris Johnson’s government eased restrictions. “Come to the theater and arrest us,” he challenged.
Months later and with “Cinderella” opened (to great reviews), Lloyd Webber downplays his willingness to exchange capacity crowds for jail time. His point, he argues, was that the science suggested the vaccines were effective, and authorities were already allowing sports events to play to packed arenas. There was no need to penalize theaters.
“It was slightly taken out of context, but there comes a point where if the law’s an ass, you just have to say that it’s an ass,” says Lloyd Webber. “You can’t perform a musical of any scale to 50% of your audience because you’re just losing money left, right and center. At the time if you were in an amateur choir, you were not allowed to gather with more than six people. In the meantime, 100,000 football fans were singing their hearts out completely uncontrolled at Wembley Stadium. The inconsistency bothered me.”
Broadway may be hosting audiences again, and the marquees of the West End theaters that Lloyd Webber operates have been relit, but the reality is that the industry’s recovery will be halting. The delta variant has complicated the economic rebound around the world, and tourism, which fuels attendance at shows in both London and New York, is still at marginal levels, resulting in sluggish ticket sales.
“It does look as if people are a bit nervous about coming back to the theater, particularly in America,” says Lloyd Webber. “We’re going to have to do quite a campaign of reassurance that we can actually do this safely.”
Lloyd Webber has a lot riding on the business’s return. When he wasn’t beating the drum for theatergoing, he was applying the final coats of polish to “Cinderella,” a reimagining of the classic fairy tale that features a book from “Promising Young Woman” writer and director Emerald Fennell and lyrics from David Zippel, whose credits include “City of Angels” and “Hercules.”
“What Emerald has written isn’t far removed from what she touched upon in ‘Promising Young Woman,’” says Lloyd Webber. “It’s very much about the fact that if you’re a young person, if you’re a girl, don’t alter your appearance and don’t think you have to change to please other people, because it’s likely to go wrong. It does for our Cinderella. We’ve taken the tale and turned it on its head. It’s really quite edgy, but it’s given me an opportunity to write a lot of good melody.”
During his fall trip to the city, Lloyd Webber is looking for a New York venue to host “Cinderella.” He would like to mount the show on Broadway by next summer. For now, his primary focus is getting “The Phantom of the Opera” in shape for its reopening, a task made more difficult by the 2019 death of the show’s director, Hal Prince. It was Prince who conceived the minimalist sets and the reliance on smoke machines, ornate costumes and lighting to move the audience seamlessly between the Phantom’s lair and the Paris Opera House.
“People think of ‘Phantom’ as this hugely great show to look at, but it’s not as expensive or extravagant as you might think because essentially it’s a black box but with impressionist scenery in it,” says Lloyd Webber.
It’s also a show that moves with a propulsive energy, with scenes bleeding into each other so that one starts before the other ends.
“Hal felt it was vital to keep the production moving so the audience was always on a bit of a roller coaster,” says Lloyd Webber.
The composer expects to be intimately involved in rehearsals, and he has tapped Daisy Prince, the director’s daughter, to serve as an informal adviser to the production.
“It wasn’t a show that my father directed and then moved on from,” says Prince. “My father regularly rehearsed the cast and picked and put in every major replacement. He made sure the show was always in a terrific place. The original creators made sure the quality was always maintained. And that’s a Herculean task. This is a show with 230 costumes and 111 wigs. It’s a production that requires 125 people every night to mount it, from the cast and crew to the orchestra. It’s a beast.”
Lloyd Webber always takes a hands-on approach to his shows, friends and collaborators say. Glenn Close, who partnered with him to Tony Award-winning effect on “Sunset Boulevard,” says that the composer is relentless in his pursuit of excellence.
“He demands as much, if not more, of himself than he does of those with whom he is collaborating,” she says. “He is open to ideas and doesn’t hesitate to leap back into the creative trenches to make things better. He has tremendous energy and high standards.”
The Broadway to which “The Phantom of the Opera” is returning may look markedly different from the one where it first electrified crowds in the late ’80s. Even before the pandemic, the theater industry was feeling pressure to present more work by and featuring artists of color. That effort intensified in the summer of 2020 following the murder of George Floyd and the social justice protests that sprang up in New York and around the world. Lloyd Webber says that his shows have always practiced colorblind casting, noting that going back to the original Broadway run of “Jesus Christ Superstar” his productions have cast performers of color in key roles. The approach has extended through subsequent versions of “Cats,” “Phantom” (where both the title character and Christine have been played by actors of color) and all the way up to “Cinderella,” where the prince is played by Ivano Turco, a Zimbabwe-born actor.
“I cast all of these actors because they were really very, very good,” says Lloyd Webber. “That’s the way one should approach it. If you are trying to find the right people for the right roles, you must be as open, inclusive and diverse as possible.”
Not everyone has embraced that philosophy. Cameron Mackintosh, the superstar producer who worked with Lloyd Webber on “Phantom” and “Cats,” recently ignited a firestorm when he said casting trans actors in roles that were not written for trans stars was a “gimmick.” He later attempted to walk back the remark, saying he was misinterpreted and that he was specifically talking about casting a trans actor in the title role of his show “Mary Poppins,” because doing so was against the intentions of the author of the original books, P.L. Travers. Lloyd Webber disagrees with Mackintosh.
“I wouldn’t have any issue casting [trans actors] provided they could perform the role,” says Lloyd Webber. “One’s got to think that if you had written a high coloratura soprano part, you’ve got to have somebody who can sing it. If you’ve written a part for a deep bass voice, you’ve got to have somebody who can hit those notes. But provided they could sing the role and you wouldn’t have to change the music, I’d have no concern at all.”
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At the Majestic Theatre, where Lloyd Webber is being photographed for Variety’s cover story, the composer grabs a spare minute between setups to craft Instagram and Twitter messages wishing the nominees for the upcoming Tony Awards good luck and sharing funny memories from past awards shows. He notes that the last time he was up for an honor was in 2016, when his “School of Rock” had the misfortune of being up against Lin-Manuel Miranda’s “Hamilton.” “We all just sat there watching Lin-Manuel and his mates and friends pick up all the prizes,” he says with a smile. That said, “Phantom” in its day won seven Tonys, including best musical.
Lloyd Webber has become an enthusiastic user of social media, guided in part by his daughter Bella Lloyd Webber, a creative strategist. During the worst of the pandemic, Lloyd Webber took to TikTok to host singalongs of his most beloved anthems and to share an unlikely mashup of the Cardi B-Megan Thee Stallion hit “WAP” with his own dramatic organ music from “Phantom.”
“It’s an opportunity to have a bit of fun, and we certainly needed some of that during lockdown,” he says.
Maybe it’s the connection he’s formed with the Twitter throngs, but Lloyd Webber, at 73, appears to have been reanimated creatively in recent years. Both “School of Rock” and “Cinderella” earned him some of the best reviews of his career and had a lightness and wit that had been missing from his work. They came after a grueling period in the wilderness, one characterized by failures, disappointments and missteps such as “The Woman in White,” “Stephen Ward” and “Love Never Dies.” It seemed, for a time, as though the Lloyd Webber formula, which relied on swooning, rapturous melodies and razzle-dazzle, had grown stale.
“There are shows that I’ve written that for whatever reason didn’t work, but I move on,” he says. “There’s no sense dwelling on them.”
Lloyd Webber has spent the pandemic fiddling with ideas for a new musical, and he’s meeting with potential collaborators while he’s in New York remounting “Phantom.” He refuses to divulge what the show will be about, but it sounds as if it will speak to the tumultuous state of things.
“I’ve been thinking of the kind of general direction where I want to go next, but I haven’t found the specific story I want to do,” he says. “I’d like to do something that’s of our time. You think all the way back to ‘South Pacific’ and how quickly after the second World War they wrote that piece. I’d like to do something that is about things that may be happening today.”
Lloyd Webber mounted his first Broadway show, “Jesus Christ Superstar,” in 1971, and thanks to hits like “Evita,” “Cats” and “Phantom,” he has had a production running there continuously since 1979. In the ’80s and ’90s no one loomed larger in the theater business, and he was richly rewarded, nabbing those seven Tonys for “Phantom,” three Grammys and an Oscar, as well as a fortune estimated to eclipse 525 million pounds (he reportedly lost more than 200 million pounds during the pandemic). But his establishment status has threatened to overshadow his greatest gifts. Just as Miranda achieved a hip-hop sublimity in “Hamilton,” Lloyd Webber injected a rock ’n’ roll swagger into shows like “Jesus Christ Superstar” that was revolutionary in his day, and his best works have tapped into and reconfigured pop music and other genres to remarkable success.
“Andrew has the gift of creating tunes that affect people emotionally,” says Close. “A great story enhanced by highly hummable, unforgettable music is a very potent recipe indeed. His music lingers in our minds, moving us again and again. His genius is knowing how to build tunes that become part of our subconscious. Certain notes, in a certain order, always elicit an emotional response, no matter who you are or where you come from. That’s why Andrew’s music has reached every corner of the world. It is truly universal.”
Close and Lloyd Webber have been laboring for years to bring “Sunset Boulevard” to the screen, with Chris Terrio of “Argo” contributing the most recent script polish. But the project, which is set up at Paramount, appears to have stalled out.
“I wish I could say it’s going into production tomorrow morning, but it’s not,” says Lloyd Webber. “Paramount has not wanted to go ahead with it. It’s not for want of trying. Glenn Close has been absolutely doggedly trying to get it made.”
Film has proved trickier for Lloyd Webber despite the Oscar he won for “Evita.” He’s not a huge fan of Norman Jewison’s 1973 adaptation of “Jesus Christ Superstar,” though he admits he needs to watch it again. And he believes that Joel Schumacher erred in casting Gerard Butler in the lead role in 2004’s “The Phantom of the Opera.” “The Phantom was too young, and the whole point of the Phantom is he needs to be quite a bit older than Christine,” says Lloyd Webber.
Alan Parker’s 1996 version of “Evita,” he concludes, was the best of the lot and that’s due to Madonna’s performance. “To this day, I don’t think anybody else could have done it better,” he says.
And then there’s “Cats,” which hit theaters in 2019 and was a cinematic bomb that launched a thousand memes, one that was excoriated by critics and ignored by the public. Lloyd Webber says the source material was sold to Amblin, which after trying to turn it into a Steven Spielberg-directed animated feature, eventually handed the reins to Tom Hooper, who had helmed “Les Misérables” and “The King’s Speech.” That proved to be a disastrous decision, according to the composer.
“‘Cats’ was off-the-scale all wrong,” says Lloyd Webber. “There wasn’t really any understanding of why the music ticked at all. I saw it and I just thought, ‘Oh, God, no.’ It was the first time in my 70-odd years on this planet that I went out and bought a dog. So the one good thing to come out of it is my little Havanese puppy.”
That puppy has been a constant companion of Lloyd Webber’s during lockdown. They have grown so attached that he’s even figured out a way to bring the dog to New York the next time he travels to the city.
“I wrote off and said I needed him with me at all times because I’m emotionally damaged and I must have this therapy dog,” says Lloyd Webber. “The airline wrote back and said, ‘Can you prove that you really need him?’ And I said ‘Yes, just see what Hollywood did to my musical “Cats.”’ Then the approval came back with a note saying, ‘No doctor’s report required.’”