When TikTok Met Andrew Lloyd Webber
The famed and legendary composer broke the internet in summer 2020 with his “Phantom Of The WAPera” TikTok, but with his new update of “Cinderella” in the works, what else keeps him awake at night? “I wish I could redesign the sound of a fridge humming,” Lord Lloyd Webber tells Kieran Yates…
Lord Andrew Lloyd Webber is on the second floor of his creative studio playing the opening notes of “Don’t Cry For Me Argentina” on his piano. He pauses. “Am I singing?” he asks his daughter. “You’re not singing, people will be singing with you,” she explains, as he records a TikTok video. He’s just checking, because by now, after amassing almost 200,000 followers and becoming a breakout star on the app in 2020, he knows his way around a duet. Never one to shy away from an unlikely pairing, back in August he almost melted the internet after he posted a TikTok, in which he added the chords from “Phantom Of The Opera” to Cardi B feat. Megan Thee Stallion’s summer hit, “WAP”.
Today, in London’s musical theatre holy ground – also known as Catherine Street, Covent Garden – we’ve been invited into Webber’s fantastical world for the morning. Every inch of the space has an absorbing detail: a faux stained glass print of a deified Lord Lloyd Webber on the wall, thick stacks of sheet music piled on tables, even the clanging of metal to mark the historic renovation of his Theatre Royal Drury lane next door.
Lord Lloyd Webber’s work has always asked us to look beyond what is immediately in front of us, and spending a morning with him is to share in an energetic, ambitious mind. He chats enthusiastically about plans for a Birmingham based remake of “Bombay Dreams”, of ideas for new productions that might explore the refugee crisis, and of course, his newest work, “Cinderella”, which has been written over lockdown, shared over Zoom and is waiting impatiently to open. His universe is contagious in its belief that that we should be creatively limited by nothing, and it’s a timely medicine for a world in stasis. As he plays tinkling melodies during conversation, you can’t help being swept away by his magic, by the idea that on this stretch of road, anything is possible. After more than 50 years as one of the world’s most decorated composers, 74-year-old Lord Lloyd Webber is still thrilled by new frontiers. He shares some of his passions with us, which include calling out for cadenzas on TikTok, his love of his original posters for “Cats” and the otherworldly enchantment of a G note.
Hi Lord Lloyd Webber! How have you been trying to find solutions to keep theatres open during the pandemic?
Lord Andrew Lloyd Webber: I’ve been with my team, trying to persuade governments around the world about what we could do. [At the time of writing, just two of 38 shows remain open: “Cats” in South Korea and “Phantom of the Opera” which has been newly shown in Taiwan]. The South Koreans have been able to keep going, because they had measures in place to counteract this thing from January. We’re terribly behind in Britain. I hope that some of the news about the vaccines is going to be good. I am vaccinated. Apparently the Oxford one works better the older you are [at the time of writing this vaccine was still awaiting further results]. I heard that this morning, so I’m feeling really happy today.
In the absence of physical spaces you’ve been keeping musical theatre alive on TikTok. What do you like about it?
Well, I sort of knew about TikTok over a year ago, and thought it was intriguing. I mean, what I like about TikTok is quite simple, it’s the fact that you’re actually asking people in a way, to dramatise something. I know that might sound silly or a bit pompous, but it’s not really. What you’re saying is, here’s a bit of music, put your interpretation to it. So it can be great fun introducing people to what I do, which is theatre. Seeing what people have done with my music has been quite amusing for me.
What were the songs that you played to your children in their formative years that you thought they absolutely had to hear?
I don’t think I ever did really, because I slightly took the view that you shouldn’t force music down anyone’s throat because it was around in the house a lot anyway. But we did play the Tom and Jerry soundtrack and a bit of Peter and the Wolf, and a major introduction to A.R. Rahman. When the kids were around 10 or younger, they were obsessed with “I’ve modified Big Ben in ‘Cinderella’. I sampled it but it didn’t fit my key, so the bell has gone up a couple of tones. I should write to them really and ask if they could alter the bell please” Rahman so they had a varied diet. A family favourite being “Chaiyya Chaiyya” [from Bollywood film “Dil Se”].
What music takes you back to the house that you grew up in?
It was a flat over South Kensington Station and it was extremely noisy. Although I was a bit young for Elvis, (and discovered him quite a lot later), I was around for musicians like Roy Orbison. Roy Orbison is really interesting because he’s one of the few composers, in fact, about the only Western pop composer or songwriter, who never stuck to any kind of conventional shape. I was talking to a couple of other musicians the other day about a song of his called “In Dreams”. There were 14 different melodies in it, 14 different musical ideas. The only other person I think who really writes in that way is A. R. Rahman.
Have there been any examples where young listeners have enabled you to hear your music with new ears?
It’s more about how creative people have been. One of the things is that you see how young a lot of the audience is for “Phantom of the Opera”, and how timeless the subject matter is. We’ve asked people to make up a cadenza for “Phantom…” that we could put in on the night where we open. There were some very funny ones and I find you can sometimes spot people on something like TikTok. You’d say, “That person is really talented. Perhaps we should see them,” you know? One or two people who’ve sent in things, we’re following up on.
After doing a live rendition of the opening of My Chemical Romance’s “Welcome to the Black Parade” you made the G note go viral. What is your relationship with single notes?
It was great fun to do the whole business of the G. The fact is that certain keys do certain things for certain bits of music. A D flat is a fantastic key, for instance. A G major, which is the key of My Chemical Romance’s songs, when put in an A flat is quite different. It becomes magical. Why, I don’t know, but there is something to do with keys. There are some songs of mine that if they’re in the wrong key, you say, “Oh, ouch.” They’re not right. That was what was interesting about that one note idea, because it was actually taking people into the essence of music.
I enjoyed the songs you recommended in some of the Isolation playlists you posted online. Especially choices such as Little Richard. How much music do you love outside musical theatre and classical?
There are a whole load. As Duke Wellington put it better than I could, “There are two kinds of music: good and bad”. I might suddenly say this morning that I’ve woken up and I want something from Taylor Swift’s new album, or Ariana Grande’s new album, or even Kylie’s. But I might also say, “This morning, I’m feeling like hearing a bit of the Benjamin Britten War Requiem.” I’m afraid that’s me. I don’t categorise music at all. The only slight gap I have, which I’m not great about, is I don’t really get modern jazz. I’ve tried and I’ve tried and I’ve tried. I find Wagner a bit too much to take as well, but that’s another story.
Did you wake up with any particular song cravings today?
Something that I’m writing in my head. The funny thing about this whole lockdown is I’ve written “Cinderella”. We recorded the whole album in lockdown. It’s like my “Jesus Christ Superstar” 50 years ago, which nobody would put on stage because they thought the idea was so terrible. So we had the album come out first and was a massive hit in America, and therefore it got staged. Now I find myself 50 years later, unable to get my “Cinderella” on stage because of all the problems and the regulations, and not knowing when we’ll get back up again, although I’m optimistic. So the album comes out next year and it’ll be heard on record first. It’s so curious.
Are there any everyday sounds you wish you could recompose or would like to redesign?
I find I’m either blessed or cursed, depending on how you look at it, with perfect pitch. So if I hear something that isn’t quite in tune, it drives me nuts. What is really good news at the moment is that the days of recorded tapes and all of that have gone, because it used to be terrible. You’d go to a restaurant and you’d hear something like piped music on a cassette machine near the restaurant, that was slightly slow or slightly fast and you go, “Oh God.” It’s like having a dentist drilling in you. So I do sometimes hear odd things, like I wish I could redesign the sound of a fridge humming because it’s extremely annoying when you’re trying to write, but I don’t know. Though, actually, I’ve modified Big Ben in “Cinderella”. I sampled it but it didn’t fit my key, so the bell has gone up a couple of tones. I should write to them really and ask if they could alter the bell please, for me?
People have been really excited about one of the TV moments of the year, Princess Diana singing a song from “Phantom of the Opera” on “The Crown”.
Princess Diana went to “Phantom…”, we had to smuggle her into the building loads of times, actually. She came once officially but what “The Crown” doesn’t say really is how many times she actually went in and we had to get her in.
How did you smuggle her in?
I’m not telling you that!
In my mind you have floors and floors of sheet music and set-pieces in your house. What form does your personal archive take?
I found a whole lot of bits and pieces from the “Phantom…” movie in one of our farm barns and I was like, “What the heck is it all doing here?” When the film finished, I said I wanted to keep a few bits as a souvenir, and of course, completely forgot about it. So we’ve got this huge model of the Opera House, and I’ve got to put it together and put it somewhere. So, to answer your question: chaos.
Are there a few specific objects or bits of merchandise that you have a particular soft spot for?
Well, I think you have to go a long way to do better than the original “Cats” poster 40 years ago, with the dancers, and the eyes, and just the word Cats. It was a work of brilliance. Also, the original “Cats” T-shirts were pretty fantastic. It’s funny, things that were just merchandise hold a certain value after a time. I should’ve kept all these things, but I didn’t. We have all the old letters connected to productions about what went on, in those days when you had handwritten letters to directors or writers or whatever. I’ve got quite a lot of original first draft lyrics, not so much first draft music because I tend to keep and work on that in my head, but there are quite a lot of fragments of music that are adapted and turned into something else.
Didn’t the Phantom used to write letters as well?
The Phantom used to write letters to talk to his fans so we found some of those. We are aiming to get back that idea so it might be that the Phantom’s TikTok is launched imminently! We’ve been instructed that he will want to. I got a note from the Phantom the other day saying that his production has been off for too long and if Boris Johnson doesn’t listen to him and get it on again then disaster will happen to him beyond his imagination.
What are you hopeful for next?
Well, I just hope “Cinderella” actually works and is a big show because I think it could be. It is about Cinderella changing herself to go to the ball and the way our story goes but this doesn’t work for her. And the message of the show is, be yourself. So, our Cinderella is a very alternative girl. It’s Carrie Hope Fletcher. I think she’s very, very beautiful but she’s not little Cinderella who shrinks by the fireplace with a broom and mopes. She’s a feisty, slightly goth girl in our show, but the central message is, don’t alter yourself to be what you think other people want you to be. So, don’t watch the Kardashians and think that you want to be like them. Beauty, actually, is not necessarily about how you look. It’s timeless.