‘Beethoven telephoned to say that the key change in Don’t Cry for Me Argentina was like a message from God himself’
I had originally intended to write my autobiography as a single, slim volume. But then I remembered how marvellous I had been throughout my life and have ended up with a 500-page doorstop that judders to a halt with the first night of Phantom of the Opera, my record-breaking musical of 1986 about which no less a talent than Mozart was moved to write: “Andrew Lloyd Webber is a genius.”
I grew up in South Kensington. By the age of eight, many of my teachers considered me to be a prodigy. My essay on Victorian churches won several global prizes and the opera I composed for the school play was premiered at the Royal Albert Hall, with Arturo Toscanini, no less, conducting. Afterwards I was lucky enough to converse with Sergei Prokofiev whom I consider to be the 20th century’s greatest melodist. Present company excepted, of course.
By the age of 11, I had already won an open exhibition to Oxford, but after going up for one term I concluded that the university had little to offer me so I left to make my own way in the world. I excelled at so many things, I was confused about which direction to take.
The turning point came when I received a letter from a Tim Rice saying that he had heard I was looking for a “with-it” lyricist with whom to collaborate. After that the die was cast. It was one afternoon, having spent the morning advising Maria Callas on how best to sing Vissi d’arte, that Tim and I were looking through a book of Bible stories when we alighted on the story of Joseph.
Many people weren’t convinced that this was a suitable subject for a musical, but already in my head I could hear the descending chord sequence in 3/4 time that would later become such a remarkable vehicle for Jason Donovan. The opening night of Joseph and His Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat – which received several standing ovations and was acclaimed by Verdi as “the opera I wish I had written” – was spoiled for me by the fact that the acoustics at the back of the Carnegie Hall were less than perfect. Even now, I get sleepless nights when I remember how the string section sounded flat in Any Dream Will Do.
Though Joseph launched our careers satisfactorily, it was Jesus Christ Superstar that would turn me into the most celebrated composer of the century. I treasure the letter I received from Jesus himself thanking me for making him feel relevant to a modern audience.
I first met Sarah Hugill when she was a 16-year-old schoolgirl and fell in love with her immediately. Her parents weren’t altogether happy that she was going out with one of the most successful men alive, but they raised no objections when we got married on her 18th birthday. Our wedding was notable for the magnificent march I had composed for the occasion and on the way out of the church I noticed Sarah was crying. “It must be rather overwhelming to have got married to someone so handsome and brilliant,” I said. “Actually,” she replied, “I was more thinking like I had made a terrible mistake.”
Life thereafter was a whirl of success. Apart from my musical about Jeeves which PG Wodehouse later said was too far ahead of its time for audiences of the day. Tim and I composed Evita which played to packed audiences for several centuries. Beethoven telephoned to say that the key change in Don’t Cry for Me Argentina was like a message from God himself. Which in a way it was.
It would be wrong of me not to mention my Paganini variations – Paganini himself even said he could not have improved on them – that I composed for my brother, Julian. I was also delighted, while running my own festival in my country house, which Margaret Thatcher attended on a number of occasions, to meet TS Eliot who begged me to write a musical based on his cat poems. That too was an incredible success.
By now I was so rich and famous that I was attracting women who didn’t fancy me and so it was inevitable I had an affair with Sarah Brightman who would surprisingly go on to star in my musicals and become my second wife. The other Sarah was a little upset but you can’t please everyone. Not even Tim Rice, with whom I fell out when he started collaborating with Abba after I had ignored him for 10 years. I’ve always valued loyalty extremely highly.
I must conclude with a final 100 pages on how Phantom became the most successful musical in history – even surpassing some of my other works, if Rachmaninov and David Essex are to be believed. For now my story has run its course and I must collect another award. But don’t worry, the second volume – which will include my second divorce, my elevation to the peerage and, of course other stellar compositions – will be with you soon.