"Unmasked" by Andrew Lloyd Webber; Harper (528 pages, $28.99)
It is Andrew Lloyd Webber's Auntie Vi – his Auntie Mame, to all intents and purposes – who inspires the most colorful language in Lloyd Webber's new autobiography: "clotted bollocks on stilts."
Somewhere deep in "Unmasked" Lloyd Webber purloins the phrase to apply it to anyone who dares to suggest London was lacking in gourmet dining prior to the invasion of the current crop of chefs and their sycophantic foodies. It is a cause that does not live up to the expression, but then Lloyd Webber's life has been one of privilege. You find your outrage where you can. And your language. When Lloyd Webber is writing in his own voice, you're more likely to get a phrase like "Back in Blighty we megabumped back to reality," which sums up its man quite nicely.
Or, "Back in Britain I proposed to Sarah which was a stupid formality." Seriously?
Never miss a local story.
The man was born, we read, of a sterling musical pedigree and, unlike his constrained and cautious composer-father, figured out that his formidable ability to compose both gorgeous romantic ballads and hooky melodies easily could be transferred to popular culture. His early work, originally titled "Joseph and the Amazing (Technicolour) Dreamcoat," trickled out from posh schools into the realm of Donny Osmond and popular consciousness, which was no small achievement, actually. And from there, Lloyd Webber's early life was charmed with more success: "Jesus Christ Superstar," "Evita," "Starlight Express" and "Phantom of the Opera," with which this tome concludes.
"My verbosity got in the way," Lloyd Webber writes in the final chapter, by way of explanation for his cutoff. His final chapter, "Playout Music," allows that the second half of his life was more challenging and that a just and fair account thereof would require him to reveal "toe-curling truths" about "so-called" friends and colleagues. "I really don't relish the thought of raking over them," he writes, in what feels like a genteel form of threat, when it comes to Volume 2 – forthcoming, he implies, only if there is sufficient interest.
Will there be? Hard to say.
"Unmasked" has the feeling of a reluctant autobiography, more a dutiful accounting under pressure to do so than an inspired one that comes from the heart. It runs up against Lloyd Webber's genuine valuing of discretion, despite his naughty little recounting of goings-on between the creative team of "Cats" (himself included) and the ensemble, behavior that hardly would pass muster today. And its form often feels random: Some people get their own chapter, but then the story behind "Phantom," Lloyd Webber's most successful product, does not unmask all that much at all. Which is true, really, of the whole book.
What might you learn? Some stuff, for sure. We learn that a very young ALW appeared on the cover of Nursery World magazine. We learn of his love for – and expertise in – architecture. We discover that he was bullied at his boys' school – some of us know how that feels – until music proffered peer acceptance. We learn that during the Paris riots, he was reading the reviews for "Joseph." We hear tell of his real-estate prowess. And we find out that Bette Midler almost made her Broadway debut singing "I Don't Know How to Love Him" in "Jesus Christ Superstar."
That's interesting – as is Lloyd Webber's accounting of how the musicals "Jesus Christ Superstar" and "Evita" were first conceived as LPs, meaning that Lloyd Webber and lyricist Tim Rice had to navigate not just the theater, but the music business. History shows they did so with extraordinary aplomb. Similarly intriguing for fans of his work will be the numerous places in the autobiography where Lloyd Webber discusses his repurposing of melodies, tunes originally written for one thing but that only became famous when they appeared elsewhere. Lloyd Webber has always been an efficient recycler, and there is no shame there whatsoever.
There are some mild grudges: Enraged by the treatment of Caiaphas, et al., the Jewish Defense League, he writes, effectively killed the movie version of "Jesus Christ Superstar" in the United States, not that Lloyd Webber much liked the film (he claims not to have seen the film in 45 years). There are a few digs at left-leaning artists and government-subsidized institutions. But the book hardly is political, and there is much sincere admiration. Theater director Trevor Nunn, we learn, wrote one of the more prescient notes in the early stages of Lloyd Webber's feline project based on the poetry of T.S. Eliot: "I believe all the characters must be Cats."
Yup. That worked out. Actually, Lloyd Webber is generous with attribution – it was British theatrical mogul Cameron Mackintosh's idea to package "Song and Dance" and, Lloyd Webber writes, Broadway director Hal Prince's contribution to "Phantom" cannot be overstated. Lloyd Webber's love for his brother, Julian, genuinely shines through the book.
"To so many of my theatre colleagues my marriage had been a rock of stability in a flaky thespian sea," Sir Andrew writes, describing the difficulties following his divorce, almost, but not quite, allowing that treacherous waters can swallow even the very best of us. In Part Two, perhaps. If he decides to really trash the mask.