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Interview: Andrew Lloyd Webber for "The Phantom of the Opera"

By Paul Fischer Friday December 24th 2004 11:38AM
Andrew Lloyd Webber for "The Phantom of the Opera"

Andrew Lloyd Webber has been defined as the Shakespeare of his day, a musical impresario, with his fingers on the pulse of modern culture. As a composer, Webber is certainly responsible for some of the most commercially successful musical stage shows of all time, from Jesus Christ Superstar and Evita, to Cats and Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. A London native who began coaxing melodies from his violin at the tender age of three, Webber had penned nine musicals by the time he had graduated from college.

Though the composer would make the occasional foray into cinema with scores for Gumshoe (1971) and The Odessa File (1974), it was his compositions for such timeless stage epics as The Phantom of the Opera and Evita that truly made him a household name. Of course, many of his most affecting stage works were adapted for film and television as well over the years, with Jesus Christ Superstar (1973) and Evita (1996, Oscar winner for Best Song) garnering especially strong followings. As production on the film The Phantom of the Opera drew to a close in 2003, Webber began preparation for a film version of his musical Aspects of Love, while his latest stage show, Woman in White, is another hit. Clearly one not used to the process of movie publicity, it was a timid and nervous Webber that talked about his legacy and this film version of Phantom of the Opera, to Paul Fischer IN New York.

Question: Emmy Rossum said when I asked her about the first time she met you, she said that she was quite surprised at how shy you were? Answer: I am quite shy. Question: How does a shy guy, like yourself, survive bad reviews, the British tabloids, all the things that seem to have come your way in the last three years? It must be tough. Answer: I mean I don't really think about it. You know, do you know what I often say to myself? I think you're very lucky in life if you know what you want to do. If you know what you want to do, as I always loved musicals, and then to have been lucky enough to be successful with them, I think that's all you can ask isn't it? I think I don't really think too much about it. I am a bit shy socially, yeah, I admit that. Question: But a thick skin . Answer: I don't think I have a thick skin. I don't worry so much about these things you see. Question: Is the time right now for . I mean when you first started working on this movie 15 or so years ago, did you think now is the time for Phantom of the Opera as against when you were originally hoping to do this? Answer: When we originally talked about it, quite honestly, all my collaborators and colleagues, and it's not just me, the Hal Prince and Cameron Mackintosh's and all the others, you know, were very against the idea of a film happening at that time. For the obvious reason, nobody knew what impact that would have on the theatre and at that point a lot of productions had not opened. Like Germany or Japan or touring companies here, and Hal particularly really didn't want it to happen and so we just sort of forgot about it. And about four years I began to think, now is the time. I found quite a lot of opposition in Hollywood about the idea of doing a film musical and we ended up having to buy the rights back. I'm glad we did because it meant John and I were able to make exactly the movie we wanted. Question: Could you have made this film do you think without the successes of Chicago and Moulin Rouge? Answer: I think the success of Chicago which sort of happened while we were getting it all together. That really was a help, it certainly was a help. Question: Why do think modern audiences are likely to respond to a classically structured screen musical which sticks very closely to the original material as opposed to a kind of beefed-up version as Chicago was for modern tastes? Answer: I don't know. We'll have to see, we'll have to see. Question: Why do you think it resonates still? Answer: I think it does, and I think that the wonderful advantage we have in the film of being able to cast a girl as young as Emmy and which we couldn't do in the theatre of course because no girl of 16 or 17 could sing 8 shows a week, couldn't sing two. Because her voice is, it's like the muscles and it develops all the time. That was the fantastic thing for us. Question: If you'd still been married to Sarah, do you think she could have, in the original film version she would have been more likely to have been cast as --- Answer: Well I think back at the time, if it had been 1988, I would have thought Michael and Sarah probably would have been cast but I don't think, I think it's much better that the girl is younger and if Sarah would have been 26 or 27 then. Question: But Michael wasn't particularly upset over the fact that he was passed over? Answer: I think he realised, I think we all realised, once we'd gone the route of casting a very young girl, you can't really cast a 65 year old man opposite. Slightly different resonance I think. Question: It wouldn't be the first time. Answer: No, we weren't going to go there. We'd have Jack Nicholson in the lead. Question: You were obviously comfortable with Gerry's voice. Answer: Yeah, I mean, what I did, obviously because I'm not a vocal trainer myself, I obviously put it together with people who are, and experienced voices, coaches and things, and the conductor of the movie, Simon Lee, was very very experienced in that area. I said, look, do you think you could bring him through, and they said yeah, absolutely, they thought that. Joel was very keen to cast him. If all my music team were happy, I was happy. Question: Why do you think Joel was? Answer: Well we'd just seen Gerry. I think he wanted somebody who had that authority and was handsome. The thing is, he's a big hunk isn't he? All I can say, if you look at his chat line, or the Phantom website, it's quite worrying. Because the girls really seem to love him. Question: What surprised you about the movie world that you weren't expecting, having been entrenched in the theatre world for so long? Answer: Yes, I knew nothing about film at all. I suppose the biggest surprise is all these things. In the theatre we sort of do, I might do two or three key interviews and that would be it. I've been doing these round tables around the world now for the last three weeks. That is the biggest difference. Question: Are you enjoying it? Answer: Yes I am actually. Another thing I am quite keen to do is try and answer the questions in a fresh way. I like to try and say something different each time. Question: How hard is that? Answer: Very. Question: What's your least favourite question? Answer: Well the least favourite question is the one that one's asked particularly about in Japan is what's the difference between theatre and cinema and I think, well, that's. Question: What about eighty bucks? Answer: That's a good answer. Question: What's the relationship between you and Joel? Were you surprised at how that worked? Were there any problems there? Answer: I guess the thing is that we remained huge friends after the original Phantom movie, when we decided it wouldn't take place and we just saw each other socially over the years so we were friends. When we finally came to start work on this, the joy was it was only Joel and I, we didn't have to answer to anybody, and we didn't have to submit a screen play or anything like that. We just wrote it and then made it. I guess we've had a very close relationship because I don't pretend to know about cinema and I think I do know a bit about theatre but he does, he respected that and so we really just had a collaboration which went completely like this. I saw every other day, the dailies, and if there was anything there that was at all a worry that we didn't have, he'd just go and shoot it again. And the other advantage which we had on this film was, we devised a way of being able to make scratch tapes as we went along so most of the performances that you see are in fact the performances. There's no pre-recording on this film. Question: Did you find any aspect of the cinematic expression of your work especially rewarding, something that surprised you, that was able to be accomplished in cinema that was not accomplished on stage? Answer: Yes, obviously being able to cast a girl as young as that was probably the most obvious. And yet of course there were things. You'd approach this as a film, we very much approached it in a way, we knew for example, that in the theatre you can get away with things that you can't in cinema, like Carlotta croaking like a toad, you just take that for granted in theatre but in the film we thought we'd better have an explanation because people would ask so we just came up with a little file and the voice broke. Question: How do you compare this experience with other experiences in terms of film work, Evita, Superstar I guess. Answer: Superstar was made so early in my career I had nothing to do with it at all. The first time I saw it was the opening screening. In Evita I wasn't really hugely involved with it. I gave a little bit of help but they needed a bit of technical help on the movie and so some of my music people went in at the end of the movie and helped out with it. Question: Something I particularly liked about the film was that it opened up, particularly the characters of the Phantom more. We got more of its background, we understood more. Answer: We felt we had to know something of his back story. I don't think people in the cinema would just accept that he's there. I think we had to learn how he (got there). Question: Was the back story that you gave us, the film back story, you always had in your head or was that a creation? Answer: It was a creation really for the film. Because in the book, he used to work for the Shah of Persia or something and it's all very confused in the book, but we thought it would be easier if he were at a fair and Madame Giry saw him as a little girl. Question: It's very Elephant Man. Answer: What was lovely about that was Joel shot that sequence and I scored it to picture. The music didn't come first there. Question: You've made such an extraordinary contribution to our culture and our cultural vocabulary. Is there something that you're the proudest of, that you've accomplished? Answer: Corny answer is of course is that everyone who wants musicals are children in different ways, aren't they? So you think of them in different ways. There are things of mine I'm sorry haven't come here. I'd have loved audiences to have seen The Beautiful Game, for example, because it was about terrorism. And of course there was no way that was coming here. But I would love to get it here one day because it shows another side of me. The Woman in White's coming next October. Question: How, that show has been getting mixed reviews. Answer: It's had some very good reviews and some very bad reviews. Question: How surprised are you by the way that show's going commercially? Answer: It's going very well at the moment. It's sold out. Question: How does it compare dramatically to a lot of your work? Answer: I don't know, I think it's probably, musically, probably the most sophisticated I think. There's a lot more daring harmony in it than in some of my pieces. Question: Does that sophistication come from you getting older, trying new things? Answer: I think it's, everything is so story-driven, I think, in musical theatre. I think the story in a way dictates where things are going to go, and the Wilkie Connor story's quite complex, so I guess possibly the harmonic structure of this has to reflect that. Question: How has musical theatre changed in the decades that you've first began? Is it much more . Answer: I think the thing's that perhaps sad really is that younger people haven't come in and I think it must have been absolutely fantastic to have worked in the 50's when you had all of the great Broadway composers and when West Side Story didn't win the Tony Award. It must have been an extraordinary time. I guess the worrying thing about musical theatre to me, is if you look at the London season this year, mine is actually the only one to have come in. Billy Elliot will be I suppose (another), when that comes in, and Elton (John) has done a great score for that. But when you think about it, I guess The Producers, that has been around before. Mary Poppins has been around before. I just wish there were more. You've got all these endless compilation shows now. I just wish there were more new writers. Question: What's next for you? Answer: I don't know. Question: Are you working on a play? Answer: No, the Woman in White's only just opened so I'm into, just let this go. I've got to find something and if I find something that I like, I'll do it. If I don't, I won't. Question: You were saying that you don't have a thick skin. Was there ever a point or a view or somebody saying something about someone as you were getting it ready, caused you to be concerned and not go ahead, or have you always just gone right ahead? Answer: I would have gone right ahead but the only thing, the only phenomenon that's going on now of course, which is different in my experiences, is that you are getting things planted in the Net by people and unfortunately I was told by the website What's On Stage, came to me, and said that there are people in the business, planting things about the Woman in White on the Net. That's not a nice change. Negative things, and they were all deliberate and I'm not going to say who they were but I know who they were and it was in the business, and that's not a good sign. Question: Is there other of your shows you'd like to see on the screen? Answer: Yeah, I'd love to see Cats. Question: But there were rumours that Spielberg was going to be doing. Answer: It stopped between, it's at Universal and they haven't made it. There's a screenplay in existence by Tom Stoppard which is very good and it's a shame. Sunset Boulevard I'd love to see done too. Question: How would they do Cats? Were they thinking of doing it as a . Answer: It was originally going to be animated and then of course it fell between the political cracks when DreamWorks happened and so you can see what happened. It just sat on the shelf. And it's a shame because it's a good screenplay. Question: You seem to not have anything planned right now. I'm just wondering if you're planning a vacation and if there's any place you particularly like to go. Answer: I'm going to take the kids away over Christmas but I don't, I've written 14 musicals now, I don't want to rush into doing something just for the sake of doing it. I want to do it when I find a story. Two years ago I hadn't even thought of the Woman in White, and I was doing a television show and I said I hadn't found a story and the next day somebody rang me and said have you ever thought of the Woman in White. And it sort of jogged a memory of something that I read at school and I read it, and I thought God this is it. So you never can tell. I could find something this afternoon. Question: Who are your musical heroes? Answer: Who are my musical heroes? Well, I've got so many. We're talking about musical theatre now; I suppose Rogers and Hammerstein, obviously. I think Rogers was the most phenomenal melodist. Bernstein, of course. I think Sondheim is absolutely brilliant. Frank Loesser is a brilliant melodist too. I love melody. So it's not surprising then that I like Prokofiev. Question: What about lyricists? Answer: Well, Sondheim is absolutely wonderful and Alan J. Lerner was wonderful. And Tim (Rice), I think. Question: Would you work with Tim again? Do you have any plans to collaborate with anyone else, or is there anyone you'd like to collaborate with. Answer: I had a very good time with David Zippel, I must say, and I'd like to work with him again. And Tim, I don't know. Tim is not really actually that into musical theatre. He kind of, he hasn't done a stage musical for a while now. Question: The Elton John thing, right? Answer: Yes, but there were films before. The last stage musical he did, straight for the theatre, it must have been Chess I would have thought. Question: Who was your favourite fan in the movies as a kid? Answer: They were so different, I treated it with so different. Question: The Chaney original, was that? Answer: I saw that ages ago, but it was very much the horror story, wasn't it? Christine was the frightened girl. Of course, my Christine is not frightened of the Phantom at all. Question: Is there a show here on Broadway that you'd like to see? Do you go to the theatre as a member of the public? Answer: Yes I do. I haven't, the last musical I saw here was Wicked and I haven't caught up, I haven't been here. Question: What's your favourite musical? Answer: I think West Side Story. I don't know. I've also very fond of South Pacific. I know everyone thinks it's rubbish, but I loved South Pacific.

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