Andrew Lloyd Webber is 'Unmasked' in Career-Spanning Town Hall Chat

Sachyn Mital
Glenn Close and Andrew Lloyd Webber at Town Hall in New York

The storied composer was joined by Glenn Close, the Tony-winning star of his 'Sunset Boulevard' musical, to discuss his new memoir, out this month from Harper.

Andrew Lloyd Webber and Glenn Close sat down Monday night at New York City's Town Hall for a wide-ranging chat pegged to the launch of the composer’s memoir Unmasked. While the two Broadway titans commanded rapturous applause, Close’s dog Pip, who followed her out onstage and sat next to her through the evening, stole the show.

"I'm working with a dog act!" Lloyd Webber said after he entered.

The memoir and accompanying multi-CD set, The Platinum Collection, chronicle the composer's storied career in musical theater, from writing Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat when he was just 19 to hitting it big in the U.S. with Jesus Christ Superstar at 23. He went on to craft subsequent massive hits including Evita, Cats and Phantom of the Opera, along with the more recent School of Rock. A stage musical portrait celebrating Lloyd Webber's life and career, directed by John Doyle and also titled Unmasked, will premiere at Millburn, New Jersey's Paper Mill Playhouse in the fall. 

Close and Lloyd Webber first met when she was invited to audition for the composer’s musical adaptation of Billy Wilder's Sunset Boulevard. Close recalls being worried about the prospect of doing such a demanding role in a musical, but said, "I kind of love jumping off a cliff." She described the audition as "a moment that changed my life."

After she sang for Lloyd Webber and Sunset co-lyricist and book writer Christopher Hampton, Close says the composer “jumped off the couch and said, 'She has it in her voice!'"

"Which meant she doesn't have it now," joked Close, who went on to star in the original production, winning her third Tony for the role, and recently reprised her performance in a well-received revival of the musical on Broadway last year.

Lloyd Webber said he had seen Close in in Richard Rodgers' Rex, and the pair went on to discuss Lloyd Webber's long-held admiration for Rodgers, noting that "Some Enchanted Evening" from South Pacific is his favorite song of all time. Lloyd Webber remembers his father telling him: "If you ever write something as good as that, I'll let you know."

"I never heard from him," Lloyd Webber said. Although when he played his father "Memory" from Cats for the first time, he responded, "Andrew, it sounds like $10 million."

Lloyd Webber said that his first introduction to Rodgers' work began through films of his musicals, and when he was 13, he wrote the composer a fan letter. Rodgers then invited him to the London premiere of The Sound of Music. The two met again at the Pierre Hotel around the time Jesus Christ Superstar first came to the States. That ground-breaking rock musical will air live Easter Sunday on NBC, with a cast headlined by John Legend, Sara Bareilles, Brandon Victor Dixon and Alice Cooper.

Close chatted with Lloyd Webber about his longtime collaboration with director-producer Harold Prince, who has staged some of the composer’s biggest hits, including Evita and The Phantom of the Opera, which has been running for three decades on Broadway. Lloyd Webber revealed that he missed a telegram from Prince expressing his interest in staging the original Jesus Christ Superstar and wonders what would have happened had that material been in the director's hands.

Lloyd Webber recalled Prince telling him, "You can't listen to a musical if you can't see it," which launched a long discussion about the importance of production design.

When asked what draws him to a musical subject, Lloyd Webber said "a good story is vital," which is one of the reasons he pursued a musical adaptation of School of Rock. While he initially thought he might serve as a producer, he was drawn to the story's focus on teaching the arts. "I'm a passionate believer in the importance of music in education," he said.

He stayed true to his belief in good storytelling when asked how he handled critics, many of whom have not always praised his work over the years. "You have to write what you want to write," Lloyd Webber said. "It's very dangerous for writers to write to please what a critic might like."

Lloyd Webber admitted that there have been times when the writing process was difficult for him, but he had a hard time naming which score was the most challenging to write. "Musicals are like one's children," he said. He did concede that Evita was a particularly hard one, "because I didn't really empathize with any of the characters."

Amongt those asking questions from the audience at Town Hall, Lloyd Webber heard a name that sounded familiar to him, Meghan Picerno. She asked, "Do you prefer writing for sopranos or chest voices?"

Lloyd Webber was taken aback because Picerno plays Christine in the current U.S. tour of his Phantom sequel, Love Never Dies. "Love Never Dies is supposed to be being performed," Lloyd Webber said. "What the hell are you doing here?"

Picerno came onstage, and Lloyd Webber exclaimed, "This is a setup!" But it's hard to believe he wasn't clued in at least a bit, as the two then performed the show's title song.

"The answer to your question,” said Lloyd Webber in response to Picerno’s inquiry, "is that I prefer writing for dogs."

One of the final questions of the night was about advice for people looking to make a career in musical theater, to which Lloyd Webber said: "Get your work performed. It doesn't really matter where you get it performed. If you're a performer, you need to perform. Get yourself out there."

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