Acquisitions Archive

Overtures Fond Memories of Sheila O’Neill (1930-2017)

Sheila O’Neill, dancer and choreographer has died at the age of 87.  She was born on 5 May 1930 and died on 16 October 2017.  Her long career spanned classical and jazz dance, revue, musicals, cabaret and film.

Sheila trained in classical dance but sought a career on the musical stage.  Impresario Jack Hylton chose her to play the small part of Yvonne Sorel and to be one of the principal dancers in his London production of Paint Your Wagon.  

Again for Jack Hylton she was given the part of one of the three dancing Princesses of Abadu in the original London production of Kismet in 1955.  Sheila so impressed Hylton that she was given featured billing in the new Crazy Gang revue Jokers Wild at the Victoria Palace.

 

Having found a voice to match her dancing talent she went on to appear in many other fifties and sixties revues such as Six to One starring Dora Bryan, One Over the Eight with Kenneth Williams and the less successful Chaganog.  There was also the Lyric Hammersmith musical How Now Brown Cow which unfortunately disappeared quickly.

Sheila was a regular dancer / performer on television and also in the world of cabaret appearing all over the world and including New York and Cunard.  She made a few films, notably Dream Maker and Half a Sixpence with Tommy Steele and Summer Holiday with Cliff Richard.

When Matt Mattox came to the Palladium Sheila became his dancing partner.  Mattox could boast of dancing with Marilyn Monroe in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes and as one of the brothers in Seven Brides for Seven Brothers.

She returned to the West End stage to feature in original London production of Sweet Charity and eventually took over the lead role.  There was also a return to Kismet in its 1987 revival in which she again played a Princess.  Her last West End show was Applause.

At this stage in her career she became a choreographer for the 1970 Kiss Me Kate revival. The King and I and The Beggar’s Opera in Chichester.  She was the National Theatre’s adviser in movement for a number of years.  

Sheila met her husband, Don Lawson, during the run of One Over the Eight.  Don was a hugely successful modern jazz musician.  He died in 2015 after a marriage of fifty years.

RSB

 

The Night ‘West Side Story’ Opened in Washington

When West Side Story premiered in the summer of 1957, Felicia Montealegre wanted to be in Washington.

Felicia, wife of composer Leonard Bernstein, had come down with the flu while on a trip to Chile and was missing the August 19 premiere of Bernstein’s show at The National Theatre. A contemporary retelling of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet that takes place in New York’s Upper West Side, the show was scheduled to open in Washington for a three-week pre-Broadway tryout.

“Well, look-a me. Back to the nation’s capitol, & right on the verge,” Bernstein wrote to Felicia days before the premiere. “This is Thurs. We open Mon. Everyone’s coming, my dear, even Nixon and 35 admirals. Senators abounding, & big Washington-hostessy type party afterwards.”

After hearing news of the premiere’s success, Felicia sent her husband a letter from Chile.

“I’m bursting with pride and frustration — of all the moments to miss sharing!” she wrote. “Oh God how exciting it must have been! Were you very nervous — did you sit through it or pace?”

Bernstein wasn’t nervous, and he didn’t pace. It was opening night, and Bernstein stood in the theater among senators, ambassadors, Mrs. Robert Kennedy, and Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter when an acquaintance grabbed his arm and felt his pulse. It felt normal. Bernstein was calmer than she was, the woman announced.

According to National Theatre staffers, the audience was the dressiest they had seen in a long time. But perhaps less renowned than the prominent political leaders in the theater that night was a woman named Helen Coates, whom Bernstein described as “someone I couldn’t live without.” Coates had been Bernstein’s music teacher when he was 14, and had worked as his secretary since. Also in attendance was associate producer Roger L. Stevens, who had decided to buy his own ticket. He sat in the last row, in the center aisle. A superstitious man, he refused to sit anywhere else.

Throughout the evening, Bernstein remained a dynamic presence in the theater — he joked with friends, hugged and kissed audience members, and spoke to reporters and admirers. At one point, a woman approached Bernstein and said that she used to be a social worker in a rough neighborhood with a lot of gang activity, just like the setting of West Side Story.

“It’s all so real, so true,” she told him. “It chills my blood to remember.”

“It isn’t meant to be realistic,” Bernstein said. “Poetry — poetry set to music — that’s what we were trying to do.”

In the weeks leading up to the premiere, Bernstein had talked a lot about poetry. He wrote to Felicia near the end of July complaining that the “‘big,’ poetic parts” of his score — which were also the parts that he liked the most — were being criticized for being too operatic, and a show that was too operatic wouldn’t be as profitable. “Commercial success means so much to them,” he wrote. “To me too, I suppose — but I still insist it can be achieved with pride. I shall keep fighting.”

“You are so far ahead of all that mediocrity,” Felicia wrote back, “and in the long run they’re only interested in the ‘hit’ aspect of the theatre. What you wrote was important and beautiful. I can’t bear it if they chuck it out — that is what gave the show its stature, its personality, its poetry for heaven’s sake!”

One of the critics of Bernstein’s big, poetic score was Stephen Sondheim, the show’s 27-year-old lyricist. Sondheim also talked a lot about poetry. But for him, poetry meant simplicity.

“My idea of poetic lyrics is, because music is so rich, I think you have to underwrite them, not overwrite them,” he told NPR in 2007. “And that accounts for lines like, ‘Maria / I just met a girl named Maria,’ because with music that soars that way, if you start trying to put ‘poetry’ — or purple prose — into it, it just becomes like an overly rich fruitcake.”

Sondheim was a late addition to the show’s creative team. Before Sondheim — and even before Bernstein — it was Jerome Robbins who originally thought to turn Romeo and Juliet into a modern love story.

 “I remember all my collaborations with Jerry in terms of one tactile bodily feeling: composing with his hands on my shoulders,” Bernstein said. “I can feel him standing behind me saying, ‘Four more beats there,’ or ‘No, that’s too many,’ or ‘Yeah — that’s it!’”

Robbins, who was also the show’s director and choreographer, came to Bernstein in 1949 with the idea to create a show about the Jews and the Catholics at the overlap of Easter and Passover. The collaborators eventually abandoned the religious conflict (the Jews and Catholics became Sharks and Jets, rival gangs on the West Side). Later that year, Bernstein and Robbins asked Arthur Laurents to write the book, and Laurents asked Sondheim to write the lyrics.   

The collaborators revised and rewrote through the summer up until the premiere, and Bernstein was getting frustrated (“I never sleep: everything gets rewritten every day,” Bernstein complained to Felicia). Scenes were switched around, the opening number was changed, and entirely new songs were added.

But when the surprisingly calm composer of big, poetic scores attended the premiere and saw the first performance of the finished show, he was satisfied.

“All the peering and agony and postponements and re-re-re-writing turn out to have been worth it,” he wrote in his log on August 20. “There’s a work there; and whether it finally succeeds or not in Broadway terms, I am now convinced that what we dreamed all these years is possible; because there stands that tragic story, with a theme as profound as love versus hate, with all the theatrical risks of death and racial issues and young performers and ‘serious’ music and complicated balletics.”

Reviews of the show were largely positive. And soon, it had sold out for the entire five-week run. Bernstein had lunch at the White House, and he said everyone there was talking about West Side Story.

“It’s only Washington, not New York; don’t count chickens,” Bernstein wrote to Felicia. “But it sure looks like a smash.”

WEST SIDE STORY – ITS BEGINNINGS – STEPHEN SONDHEIM & CHITA RIVERA

Stephen Sondheim, lyricist, tells us that:

‘I was at a party with Arthur Laurents who was about to write a musical with Leonard Bernstein based on Romeo and Juliet. I asked who was doing the lyrics and he said: “Gosh, we’ve been thinking about that. We don’t have anybody.” Lenny wanted Comden and Green (Singin’ in the Rain) but they were in Hollywood under a contract. Arthur asked if I’d play for Lenny.

I really wanted to be writing my own music as well, not just lyrics, but thought it would be nice to meet Bernstein. So I played him some of Saturday Night, about a group of kids at the time of the stock market crash. It was a very New York show, all colloquial. Lenny liked to intimidate people. He asked: “Haven’t you got anything poetic?” I said, well, they’re kids in Brooklyn in 1929. It wouldn’t be terribly appropriate. But he liked what he heard.

December 1956: Conductor/composer Leonard Bernstein (C) with choreographer Jerome Robbins (R) and lyricist Stephen Sondheim discussing rehearsal schedule for the upcoming Broadway opening of West Side Story. (Alfred Eisenstaedt/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images)

When we worked together, Lenny would sketch out something that was purple prose not poetry. It screamed: “Look at me! I’m being poetic!” I’d learned from Oscar Hammerstein, my mentor, that the whole point is to underwrite not overwrite because music is so rich an art itself. Poetry makes, generally, very poor lyrics unless you’re dealing with a certain kind of show. It’s too allusive, that’s not what you want. When Lenny failed, he failed big. He was always jumping off the top of the ladder. When you’re young, you want to take chances but you get discouraged by failure. I learned, as a composer, to be less square – that you don’t always have to write in four-bar phrases.

Jerome Robbins was a taskmaster, as choreographers are. He’s the only genius I’ve ever met but he was demanding and easily offended. You came out scarred, but you came out with good work.

There’s a lot of plot in West Side Story but its scenes are probably the shortest of any book musical that’s ever existed. Arthur packed so much into it. He also did something very smart. He said the trouble with street slang is that it dates. So he made up a lot of language and has the guys say things like “riga tiga tum tum”. It’s a sort of Alice in Wonderland language that doesn’t date. There is almost no real slang. The simplest songs, like Maria, were the hardest to write. Gee, Officer Krupke was easier. I wanted to be the first guy to use a four-letter word in a musical. I did but the line became “krup you” instead. The record couldn’t have been shipped over the state line if I’d used an obscenity. I Feel Pretty still bothers me. It’s just too elegant for a girl like Maria to sing.

We knew we were going to write a number about America for the Sharks and their girls. Lenny went on vacation to Puerto Rico and said: “I’ve been listening to this wonderful musical form called huapango.” He played this very fast tune and I said, boy it’s going to be hard to shoehorn lyrics into that but I’ll try. It’s a very crowded lyric: some of it works and some of it doesn’t. I found out, years later, that he’d written the tune in his teens for an unproduced ballet called Conch Town. Someone at the Library of Congress sent it to me and said turn to page 17. I looked and found: “yuh-duh-duh yuh-duh-duh durr-durr-durr.” Lenny had made up this entire story to make it seem more spontaneous, then just pulled out an old tune that he liked.

We opened out of town. By the time we got to New York the audience had heard the show was a “work of art” and sat as if at church. The first half hour was just deadly. They forgot they were at a musical until the girls came on and did some fancy dancing and shook their skirts for America. The reviews were great but the danger is always: don’t get complacent.

You know something? There aren’t any fantastic rhymes in West Side Story. They’re almost all day and may, go and show. It would have been betraying the characters if they’d rhymed too well. I Feel Pretty still bothers me. It’s just too elegant for a girl like Maria to sing. I mean, “It’s alarming how charming I feel”? That wouldn’t be unwelcome in Noël Coward’s living room. I don’t know what a Puerto Rican street girl is doing singing a line like that.’

In a separate meeting with Chita Rivera she reflected on her involvement with West Side Story in its early days:

‘I must have had about five auditions. I decided to perform My Man’s Gone Now from Porgy and Bess, which is usually sung soprano but I’m sort of bass baritone. Lenny chuckled when he asked me to do it again. He was either thinking, she has a lot of guts or she’s pretty stupid.

I loved playing Anita: she’s a mother image to Maria, protective of her, but also saucy and passionate, very much in love with Bernardo. We had a whole cast of young, excited dancers and all that energy in a room feeds off itself. America was tremendous fun to perform because of the tempo, the Latin rhythm. Stephen’s lyrics for that song are so biting and comical. I got letters from Puerto Rican people who had totally misunderstood it – they thought that I really meant it was an “ugly island” and didn’t realise that Anita was joking to make a point. They were highly emotional about it. The Sharks and the Jets weren’t allowed to socialise in order to make things much more tense when they meet on stage.

We were taught how to sing America so every word could be heard clearly. You had to put air through certain consonants and hit the “k” in “like” very hard. You’re dancing at the same time so it’s hard, but it’s your job to make it seem easy. We desperately wanted to please our choreographer – that’s how dancers should think. We expected things to be hard and we liked it that way. But Jerry Robbins only allowed me to do the taunting scene – in which Anita is tormented by the Jets – once a day because he wanted to keep it as fresh as possible. I wouldn’t have wanted to be Mickey Calin, who played Riff. He had to be pushed a little harder. He was perfect for the role – smooth, handsome, and the girls loved him. During rehearsals he’d take breaks upstage and the girls would be all around him. One time I walked past Jerry and he was about to let Mickey have it. I said: “Please, don’t do it!”

We came out of the stage door one night and there were six or so gang members who’d come to take a look at the guys portraying their lives on stage. After the Broadway run, we went to Manchester – I’d never seen so much fog – where we opened at the Opera House and then to Her Majesty’s in London, where Terence Stamp was a stagehand at our theatre. One day Judi Dench took class with us.

I was offered the part of Anita in the movie version but had agreed to be in Bye Bye Birdie in Philadelphia with the delicious Dick van Dyke. My agency asked if they’d hold the film until I’d finished the show. I’m a little embarrassed to remember that. I’d signed up to do Birdie and just thought it was wrong to leave.’

 

The Stage Debut Awards 2017 – the Musical Category Winners

Our Memories of Sir Peter – A True Hallmark Of British Theatre

It has been announced that Peter Hall has died at the age of 87.  One of the major figures of post War Theatrical Britain he was renowned for his direction of the classics and modern plays and operas.  However, Sir Peter directed three musicals.  The first was a Vivian Ellis children’s show (see also our feature on Ellis published today) and the other two much larger adult animals.

Listen to the Wind happened at the beginning of his career when he was directing for the Arts Theatre in London in 1956.  The cast included Clive Revill, Ronald (Ronnie) Barker, Roderick Cook and Miriam Karlin.  Hall also directed a production of this at the Playhouse in Oxford with some of the London cast and a then unknown Margaret Smith – better known now as Maggie.  It was a success but, in the way of things, a minor one.

In the seventies Peter Hall became the artistic director of the National Theatre.  He had an eye on producing a hit musical that could transfer and earn money for the theatre (two years later the RSC would have Les Miserables to help their coffers).  Earlier he had worked in the States with the playwright Julian Barry who came forward with an idea of a musical based on the life of Jean Seberg, a tale of Hollywood, fame and disaster.  Originally the score was to be by lyricist Christopher Adler (the son of Richard Adler of The Pajama Game fame and the one who approached Barry with the idea) and with music by Nathan Hurwitz.  However, the offer of composer Marvin Hamlisch to take over was too much (the success of A Chorus Line made him a hot contender) and Hurwitz left the production while leaving some musical interludes without credit.

Jean Seberg was considered an American musical for obvious reasons, something the British press and others thought was not quite right for the National Theatre – if the show had been a success then they may well have changed their minds.  But it was not.  The show opened on 1 December 1983 with a valiant cast headed by Kelly Hunter and Elizabeth Counsell playing the younger and older Seberg.  It closed with no original cast recording or transfer and has never been seen since.  Amongst the cast was a young Bill Deamer who is now back at the National as choreographer for Follies.

 

Sir Peter’s last attempt at directing a musical was at the Chichester Festival Theatre in 1990 in a collaboration between the theatre and his Peter Hall Company.  The piece was Born Again based on the play Rhinoceros by Eugene Ionesco which had been fairly successful especially in New York some years before.

It was obviously another attempt to produce a Broadway hit.  The stars were American Mandy Patinkin and Jose Ferrer.  Described as a ‘daring modern musical’ it was set in a Californian shopping mall where rhinoceros roam.  The librettos was written by Julian Barry (of Jean Seberg fame) and Peter Hall with music by Jason Carr.

The vivid memory of Many Patinkin’s escape from the stage in a Mary Poppin’s style umbrella in the sky maneuver over the audience was, next to the life like animals on stage, all that remains in the memory.  There was no original cast recording.  Peter Hall refused from that day to tackle another musical.

British Theatre owes a lot to Sir Peter Hall and his moments with the Musical should not be forgotten.

Rexton S Bunnett                                                                                             Illustrations from the Overtures Archive

 

Barbara Cook – a personal good-bye – Rex Bunnett reflects

Barbara Cook has died just before reaching the age of ninety.  For many, like me, it seems a very personal loss.  There are thousands of wonderful tributes out there and every aspect of her career and private life have been recounted in detail.  And, there is her own account of her life in the book Then and Now which was published last year.

Of the post war Broadway singing actors she without doubt was one of the most significant – certainly for her part in the golden age of the Broadway Musical – for that alone she will never be forgotten.  One simply has to think of three shows: Candide, The Music Man and She Loves Me to recognise her place in Musical Theatre history, and, of course, there were many more shows in which she starred.

Unfortunately she did not perform a book show in London but she did perform here in cabaret and in her theatrical one woman shows.  Her first appearance here was at a long lost venue called Country Cousins set in World’s End (the less salubrious end of Chelsea).  This courageous early London cabaret venue, remembered also for its dubious food, brought to London the likes of Cook.  It was there that I first saw her ‘live’ and I’ll never forget her singing ‘Ice cream’ from She Loves Me which brought tears of joy.  Her wonderful Marion in The Music Man singing ‘My White Knight’ still causes tingles down my back.

Her gradual move to cabaret was enhanced with her instinctive understanding of the importance of the lyric, a gift she shared with the great Mable Mercer.  Barbara Cook brought new life to many a song.  Age obviously caught up with her but she commanded a stage right up to the end.  Although by the end she may not have been able to reach the high notes of ‘Ice cream’ she made up of that in her immaculate style and lyrical warmth.

Barbara Cook is hopefully sleeping happily in the knowledge that she left so much love.

My last thoughts are simply ‘Goodnight MY Someone’.

RSB

Broadway Musicals – the ones that London has yet to see

Recently Mark Shenton, the Stage critic and Musical Theatre show buff came up with ten Broadway Shows he would like to see professionally produced in London.

The ten were as follows:

The Act – the 1977 Kander & Ebb vehicle for Liza Minelli.

Woman of the Year – the 1981 Kander & Ebb vehicle for Lauren Bacall.

The Will Rogers Follies – the 1991 Coleman, Comden & Green’s tribute to the great American vaudeville and radio artist.

The Boy From Oz – the 1998 Australian tribute to Peter Allen that played Broadway in 2003 starring Hugh Jackman.

Legs Diamond – the 1988 Peter Allen flop Musical.

Catch Me if you Can – the 2011 almost ran based on the film of the same name.

The Last Ship – the 2014 Sting flop that brought back memories of Lionel Bart’s Maggie May.

The Bridges of Madison County – the 2014 Jason Robert Brown award winning show based on Robert James Waller’s successful book that was also filmed.

Far From Heaven – the 2013 Off Broadway Scott Frankel & Michael Korie show.

The Tap Dance Kid – the 1983 Henry Kreiger flop starring the young Savion Glover

For Mark’s reasons for these 10, go to The Stage page:

https://www.thestage.co.uk/opinion/2017/mark-shentons-top-10-musicals-yet-to-be-seen-in-london/?login_to=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.thestage.co.uk%2Faccounts%2Fusers%2Fsign_up.popup

While not disagreeing with Mark’s suggestions we have come up with a further ten.  And, we would love to hear of other people’s ideas.  Producers should take note as there is no doubt that lingering out there are potential London hits. 

Let us know by clicking here and adding your suggestions – http://overtures.org.uk/?page_id=67

Our further ten, listed in no particular order, are:

 

Redhead – a 1959 murder mystery multi Tony award winning show set in London in Jack the Ripper time set in a wax works.  Written by Arthur Hague and Dorothy Fields for Gwen Verdon.   It is very much a dance show and the original choreography was by Bob Fosse.

 

Walking Happy – seen in 1966 and based on the ever popular play Hobson’s Choice.   This became a vehicle for Norman Wisdom on Broadway, although not actually written with him in mind.  The score is by Sammy Cahn and James Van Heusen and has plenty of openings for a choreographer.

Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder? – A more recent Broadway show, this musical comedy by Robert L Freedman and Steven Lutvah is based on the book that inspired the film Kind Hearts and Coronets and the original novel by Roy Horniman.  It was Tony winning and had respectable run.

  

The Girl Who Came to Supper – something for the National to think about!  A Noel Coward score to a Terrance Rattigan story (the Prince and the Showgirl) is crying out for a London production.  Not a great hit on Broadway when produced in the sixties but why not now? 

The Golden Apple – a 1954 cult ‘handle with care’ piece that requires a director with ’inspiration’.  It originally caused a stir Off-Broadway but an up-town transfer was not a success.  Recently revived in New York as a part of the Encore season.

Li’l Abner – a colourful, funny dance packed show seen in 1958 and later filmed using the Broadway production as its base.  The inspiration was a long running newspaper Comic Strip with a score by Gene de Paul and Johnny Mercer.

  

New Girl in Town – 1958 and subject to a recent article (use the search button to read it).  I think now we are ready for an adult musical – especially one that can home in on dance. 

Ben Franklin in Paris – 1964 show by Sidney Michaels and Mark Sandrich Jr (includes a couple of songs written by Jerry Herman) set at the same time as Hamilton and about another founding father.  However, this is told in a far more traditional Broadway way.  Perhaps a fringe venue would be a good starting point.

Carmelina – 1979 – based on the movie Buena Sera Mrs Campbell (available on DVD in Spain) about a girl with three guys believing they are her father and set in a Mediterranean setting.   However, it doesn’t have a score by ABBA just a delightful one by Alan Jay Lerner and Burton Lane.

 

Jelly’s Last Jam – a strong 1992 Broadway hit based on the songs and story of Jerry Roll Morton it could be another Dreamgirls in waiting.  This piece boldly talks about race and colour within the creole community ‘down south’. 

RSB                                                                                 Illustrations from the Overtures archive

 

Looking at Wind In The Willows in musical theatre

Like Peter Pan there have been many stage versions over the years.  But unlike Peter Pan which was written as a play this was originally a book.  Wind in the Willows was written by Kenneth Grahame and published in 1908.  Grahame had retired from The Bank of England and was living by the side of the Thames, his inspiration for stories he would tell his son and later the book.  From the start it was a remarkable piece, perhaps only equalled in its use of animal characters to show human foibles by Animal Farm many decade later.

 

England in 1908 was a joyous place.  It was re-finding itself after the long Victorian period and was a period of many changes, especially in the field of entertainment and travel.  The book itself was a celebration of modernity and the central character, Mr Toad, wealthy enough to partake of all the new things devised to enhance his life.  He is indeed lucky to have friends that care and stick with him while he does unacceptable things – he is a naughty boy in a man’s clothing.

The story meanders along the river and brings to life the animals that inhabit it.  They represent river life in human form.  It was a messing about in boats tale in a way that Jerome Jerome’s Three Men in a Boat had been.  It was not until 1929 that the first stage adaptation arrived and that was by the astute children’s writer A A Milne who is still remembered for his Christopher Robin tales.  His adaptation centred on Toad and was indeed called Toad of Toad Hall.  It was a play that would be performed year after year.

There have, of course, been American versions but, perhaps, the subtlety of the original is lost in its three thousand mile journey and there have been no real successes. 

On the other hand Alan Bennett’s 1991 adaptation for the National Theatre, which stayed true to the original, was an outstanding success and was revived and toured.  This no doubt this will remain the classic version.

Film and Television especially has revisited the story many times without producing a classic.  It is a case that the original was so perfect it has been difficult to improve.

The latest version has attempted to bring in what is almost a love interest, the invention of the character Portia, the daughter of Mrs Otter, the originals are a male Otter and his son Portley.  Now the daughter is flighty and forever disappearing (quite the average teenager) and eventually gets caught with the invasion of Toad Hall.  She is eventually saved from ‘a fate worse than death’ or, as it would seem, a simple fatting up to death.  In fact the ending of the show does not leave one thinking that the animals can live in peace together – a great shame and not the moral of the book.

Like Harry Potter, the original book may appear a children’s novel but in truth is for all ages and one can read into it more as one ages.  But perhaps the thing to remember is that it should remain a ‘read into’ and not one to add to.

RSB 

 

Ashley Day talks about his journey to An American In Paris

Ashley Day, one of Britain’s most accomplished young performers in musical theatre is settling into his lead role as Jerry Mulligan in the West End’s latest hit musical An American In Paris. Garnering more five star reviews than any other production in living memory, An American In Paris is probably the most demanding of shows on its cast members – it’s not just singing, dancing and acting in one of London’s largest theatres (the huge Dominion, where We Will Rock You played for 10 years), it’s singing to new arrangements of some of Gershwin’s best loved classics, it’s dancing that embraces the most challenging techniques of the ballet stage and it’s acting that requires the projection of emotions from the body as well as the voice and the face. It is a show that places huge demands on the physical and mental make-up of its cast, 8 times every week.

For Ashley Day this is no overnight success, it is something that he has worked for all his life. Although, going into this show he may not be the best-known star in the West End, he has certainly been part of some of the most successful shows of the past decade. Here he talks to Overture’s CEO Pat Hayward about his journey which for now, ends with him in an ice bath in the star dressing room of the Dominion, which many of his theatre and music idols have used before him.

“My first introduction to An American In Paris was when I was 9 or 10 and I sat down and watched the video of the film. Even at that age, I recognised that this was different and that for me ‘An American In Paris’ was Gene Kelly and I formed an emotional attachment to the film. I saw it before ‘Singin’ In The Rain’, and only say that because people talk about Gene Kelly and Singin’ In the Rain; whereas my Gene Kelly film is ‘An American In Paris’.”

Ashley went on to say, “In fact I’ve never really had an emotional attachment in the same way to ‘Singin’ In The Rain’. What gave me the relationship with the film was the ballet, which was unlike anything I had ever seen before and then “I Got Rhythm” with the kids, it was him tapping, just funny and being a kid myself, I guess.”

“My next exposure to An ‘American In Paris’ was when I saw it advertised as a stage production in Paris and I can remember being really angry and thinking why didn’t I know about this, why didn’t my agent tell me about it or get me an audition? I can remember the first poster for the Chatelet production and thinking that looks cool, like it doesn’t look like a commercial West End or Broadway show. I then looked into it and saw who was playing the roles and who was directing it, Chris Wheeldon, and thought okay, now I understand.”

“I knew about Chris, in fact I’d seen his ‘Alice’ which was probably the first ballet I had actually sat down and watched on tv. It seemed to have a lot in common with the musical theatre world and that is what excited me. It was funny, the Red Queen and the tapping Mad Hatter and the set was, wow, an amazing design by Bob Crowley who has done a lot of ballet but his main focus is theatre. I can remember googling everything about Chris Wheeldon and seeing footage of the Paris rehearsals, not knowing that the show would move to Broadway and then on to the West End.”

“When the show did move to Broadway my mum was over there and I said that the first thing she had to see was ‘An American In Paris’. She called me straight after seeing the show and told me that this was the show for me. Because I knew about the show and who was playing the lead roles, principal dancers from the world’s leading ballet companies, I thought it would never happen for me and so I told her to see another show, one that I thought I would stand a good chance of appearing in if it did make a transfer. I didn’t see the show myself until the 6th July 2016 and I wasn’t disappointed. In fact by that time, I had already secured the role and so when I sat down in the Palace, 7 rows from the front, I thought “right this is what I’m about to do”, a scary thing watching a show you are going to be in and in unknown territory. Garen Scribner was playing the Jerry role and I kept thinking is he going off? No; is he going to take a water break? No; gosh this part is bigger than they told me. The whole thing inspired me, it was very different from what I thought a musical interpretation of ‘An American In Paris’ would be like.”

“It was just over a year ago when I secured the role, the spring bank holiday at the end of May in 2016. When I registered my interest in the show, as soon as it was talked about making the London transfer, I considered it a long shot, but one I would be prepared to move mountains to get. The audition process was arduous; we were at Rambert, Sadlers Wells, Pineapple and other spaces, all in London, I think there were 9 auditions in total. The first audition I had was with 7 musical theatre guys who all dance, so they were sussing out who could do it or had classical technique and could develop through a project. For the first six or seven auditions, I just went along with the process, enjoying them and having a laugh with the other candidates. They were seeing all these guys from the Royal and other major ballet companies, ones that might fit the casting profile of the Broadway show. So, I don’t think I’ve ever been as relaxed as I was through this process. Believing that if I made it as far as meeting Chris, he would take one look at me and say no, you are not the classically trained ballet dancer I need.”

“I learned ballet a long time ago and I thought in my head, ballet choreographer, they are a certain way and they want a certain thing. When I did meet Chris for the first time, we had a morning; there were six boys and six girls, all from leading ballet companies apart from me who was the only one from a musical theatre background. It was one of the strangest days of my life because I was in a holding room with a bunch of people that don’t belong in musical theatre, yet I was the one that felt very out of place. There was little talking and I was trying to be the clown and calming everyone down as the tension was horrendous. They were confident through the morning dance sessions but by lunchtime, the nerves kicked in as they prepared for the acting scenes in the afternoon.”

“So the first time I danced for Chris it was the first solo in ‘Beginners Luck’ and I did it having been with Emma Harris, the resident dance supervisor and we’d spent a lot of time getting everything as technical and clean as possible. I was thinking very much as I’m a ballet dancer for this and then I did it once for Chris and he said, “Great, now let’s do it your way, just relax and forget about your technique and just dance”. That was the first moment that I thought, interesting, all the others here are ballet dancers and here I am being asked to do something different.”

“He was so open to seeing someone do it a different way, which I don’t think the others could do. In the afternoon I sung and did the scenes; I can remember going in there and thinking here I am the token musical theatre boy, you’ll probably all having a laugh at my expense. They then made a cut, which left two boys and one girl. I popped out to Pret to grab some water, thinking this is crazy I’m still here, I got back and then Leanne Cope appeared (the original Lise, who happened to be in town on a 4-day break from the Broadway production). Apparently, she’d been in a café waiting to be brought up to read with whoever and I went in and read with her and sung. At that moment something happened, it felt right and it felt like a partnership.”

“The following day I was called back and I danced, I was there for about 50 minutes, just me and a table of 15 people, sweating like I’ve never sweated before and then a nervous week later I got the call. That’s when it all began, the training, the reshaping and a complete restructuring of my regime. I had a week’s break when I went to New York and saw the show and on my return I had a couple of week’s intense preparation before having to focus 6 days a week on being Jimmy for a new production of ‘Thoroughly Modern Millie’. I did manage to keep up my training and pilates, as well as doing Millie rehearsals, which were in the heart of Leicestershire, and then once we opened I’d come back to London on Sunday and see ‘An American In Paris’ choreographer, Jackie Barrett on Mondays, to set out the week’s routines for me to follow.”

“I’ve always been super fit, but for this role I needed to be fit in a different way and so every aspect of my life had to be changed. Jackie was so strict with me from the outset, now I couldn’t get off that plan. She has taught me so much about nutrition, health, my body and life – she is just the best what I call ‘Ballet Doctor’. She has incredible experiences looking after the dancers in The Royal Ballet and has built me into the performer that can handle 7 performances a week in what is the most demanding role in the West End.”

“We have a daily routine which culminates with a 30 minute ballet bar routine ahead of the evening performances, a normal day involves ballet classes, pilates and specific gym exercises. The physical aspect of the show does not allow you to ignore the fitness programme. Only occasionally, do I allow myself a day off and have a lie in. There is also Moira McCormack, a physio from The Royal Ballet, who is part of the team and is with us every day, a luxury that probably no other West End show has. She looks after us and can coach us through injuries.”

“With Robbie returning to the States, some say the pressure is really on me to carry the show; but I find that exciting and I’m more than ready to take the weight on my shoulders. I know I can do it; it’s been a long time coming and the grafting that I’ve put in has prepared me for this like nothing else I’ve ever done.”

The NEW trailer for the London production of An American In Paris

“People ask me what am I, a dancer, a singer, an actor? Well over the past 10 years if someone had called me a dancer I would have been offended, just because in musical theatre the term can be deemed as degrading, referring to individuals in the ensemble. It’s somewhat sad that I think like that and probably that is why I haven’t danced for a while, but also I couldn’t make a career out of what I really want to do just as a dancer. But now I am proud to call myself a dancer, knowing that the world is beginning to recognise all the other skills I can bring to the stage”

“However, dance is where it all started for me. I was three and pushed my way into my older sister’s dance class. There was never any doubt in my mind that I wanted to dance, there were no pressures, if anything my parents tried to calm the enthusiasm. The class was ballet, tap and jazz and I must admit that ballet was my least favourite, but that’s what we all did every week at Mrs Blake’s little studio down in Bexhill. She was great and had a lovely school. I made my stage debut aged four at Bexhill’s splendid De La Warr Pavilion, a venue that holds so many wonderful memories of my exposure to musical theatre. I think the show was called ‘That’s Entertainment 93’ and Mrs Blake was very proud of us.”

“Every year for my birthday treat I would be taken on a trip to the West End to see a show. I think it was my ninth birthday and we’d been to see Oliver! at the Palladium and upon making enquiries I was invited to audition and I was in the show. I was still at primary school and I remember my whole class came up to see me in the show, my first professional gig. Its where I discovered that I could sing and so an elderly lady, local to where we lived, Mrs Margerson, who was a vocal coach, put me through my paces with her musical theatre repertoire, learning vocal disciplines that would stand me in good stead for the future.”

“It was around this time that I started going once a month to Junior Associates at Royal Ballet on a Saturday, I could have gone twice a month but that would have meant missing jazz class in Bexhill. I enjoyed the Royal Ballet class, as it was all boys, a change from Mrs Blake’s where I was the only boy, so it was good to see that I was not on my own.”

“When I was eleven, there was the crazy period of changing school and I already knew I wanted to pursue performing arts and that academia was not high on my personal agenda and so the local comprehensive school was not up for consideration. It was a choice of White Lodge, The Royal Ballet School or ArtsEd, all of which meant that I would have to leave home. We then found this little school in Brighton and decided to give it a go.  Stonelands School Of Ballet And Theatre Arts was such a quirky individual school and I think my focus, ambition and characteristics were developed there; probably not something that would have been nurtured in one of the larger environments. I was able to study and practice every aspect of performance being encouraged to stretch myself to become a complete performer. I had two important tutors in school, Kay Shepherd, who taught jazz and tap and was a choreographer and so was very encouraging about musical theatre and I consider an important mentor. The other was Fleur Jones, who was my ballet instructor and for the first time I began to enjoy ballet – it’s a very black and white discipline, it’s either right or wrong and I think for the first time I got to understand that.”

“Later on, in the last year of school, when I was supposed to be preparing for GCSEs, I couldn’t wait for Thursday’s edition of The Stage to see if there were any open auditions. I just wanted out of school and get on with the real business of performing in musical theatre. Finishing school at 16 meant that decisions had to be made on next steps, everyone in my class were going onto to traditional colleges and I did know that was not what I wanted. I ended up going to Birds in Sidcup where I told them I didn’t want to do three years, so they let me join their second year programme. It was whilst there I wrote to Matthew Bourne and he accepted me into his company and I performed in The Nutcracker both in London and Tokyo. It is the only time I have been in a dance company and for me it was great, as it was still very much like being in a school environment with classes every day and being focused and then my eyes were opened suddenly to the world. When I found out that Matthew Bourne was going to do ‘Mary Poppins’ I asked him for an audition and got a part, opening in a brand new stage musical in the West End.”

“Of all the shows I’ve been in I guess ‘Book Of Mormon’ did most for me. It followed a period of disappointment and growing personal disbelief, so this opportunity came at exactly the right time. There was such a huge buzz around the opening and within a week I was there playing the lead character Elder Price, a role I played more than 250 times. I loved that show and it was good for my confidence, it was a big singing role, something I hadn’t really done before and proved that I can do this.”

“’Mormon’ led to the lead in the very successful 2015 tour of ‘Oklahoma!’ where I was able to act, sing and perform the Agnes De Mille ballet scene and now it’s ‘An American In Paris’, all very different types of roles and shows. And that’s what I want more of, it’s tough in the theatre but unlike tv you get the challenges of playing to a live audience, you get the opportunities of playing diverse roles in very different productions and you continue to learn from everyone around you. I love theatre and whilst I can continue performing, I will. Next, I would like to step into something that is being written, a new show, a new role and something that I can mold. So, keeping my eyes and ears open for that opportunity; But now it’s back to the business in hand, entertaining 2,000 people in what critics have labelled the most exciting, exhilarating show London has ever seen.”

Patrick Hayward talked with Ashley Day – June 2017  – on behalf of Overtures

 

Mayflower Theatre announces the availability of its newly digitised archives

Mayflower Theatre have lauched a new digital archive as the culmination of its “My Story” Archive Project. The project has been running since June 2016 and now members of the public and theatregoers will be able to access the new archive through digital interactive access points in the theatre initially and then on the theatre’s website.

The project which was generously funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund involved the theatre reaching out to customers to share their experiences, putting together a team of young people to capture these memories and creating a film.

Sara Scott, Head of Creative Learning said “We have been working with a team of young people since September to film and interview members of the public who shared their stories about their memories and experiences at the theatre. We have also had 14 volunteers working each week on a sample of materials from our archive, sorting and creating a digital record of programmes, leaflets and memories. I am delighted to celebrate and share this work in our new digital archive and look forward to adding to and developing the archive of our theatre’s heritage over the coming years.“

In addition to our archive and film work, we have also been able to visit local community groups and projects, such as Southampton Dementia Café’s and Southampton Pride of Place project, to share our history, and encourage the local community to share their stories.

Michael Ockwell, Mayflower Theatre Chief Executive added, “I am thrilled that we have created a living history of our wonderful theatre which is accessible to all through the website and at the theatre. Mayflower Theatre is at the heart of our community and this project has enabled us to record and celebrate its rich history – very timely with our upcoming celebration of our 90th birthday in 2018”.

Overtures would like to add it’s own congratulations to Mayflower Theatre and welcome them to the national community of performing arts archives .

Tony Nominations – The Biggest Snubs and Surprises

With a crowded field of contenders and no clear front runner, Broadway’s busy 2016-17 season was packed with potential for the Tony nominations. But with so much competition for so few slots, there were bound to be disappointments — not to mention a few impromptu celebrations.

war paint

Who surprised? Who got snubbed? Here are the big ones:
SURPRISE: “Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812”.

Dave Malloy’s quirky electropop opera had long been expected to do well with the nominations — just not so well that it would rack up a dozen noms, outpacing obvious favorites “Hello, Dolly!” and “Dear Evan Hansen.” The show’s nominations for new musical and score seemed assured, as did directing and design nods, but a nom for book wasn’t a shoo-in, and it wasn’t clear how many of the cast members would make the cut in acting categories. Even topliner Josh Groban wasn’t a sure thing, since his title role of Pierre is an odd, retiring one, playing a major part in the proceedings (and singing a couple of big, notable songs) but lurking in the background for a lot of the show. Despite all that, the idiosyncratic show took the lead — thereby lending the musical a promotional boost that could help at the box office once its big-draw star, Groban, finishes off his stint in the show in July.

SNUB: “War Paint”
The compelling real-life story of dueling cosmetics titans, “War Paint” comes from a formidable team: songwriters Scott Frankel and Michael Korie, whose “Grey Gardens” was a Tony contender in 2007; Pulitzer and Tony-winning playwright Doug Wright (“I Am My Own Wife,” “Grey Gardens”) and “Dear Evan Hansen” director Michael Greif (“Rent,” “Next to Normal”). In another, less crowded season, the show would have vied for a lot more awards. But this year, with the best musical category sticking at four (rather than a possible five), “War Paint” was left out of the big race, as well as competitions for score and book (which went to the new musical nominees). “War Paint” claimed the two noms of which it was assured — acting nods for Patti LuPone and Christine Ebersole — plus design slots for set (David Korins) and costumes (Catherine Zuber).
SURPRISE: Denée Benton and Eva Noblezada
Both Benton (“Great Comet”) and Noblezada (“Miss Saigon”) had been tipped as possibilities for the lead actress race alongside sure-things LuPone, Ebersole,and Bette Midler (“Hello, Dolly!”). But the thinking in the industry was that at least one of the two open slots, if not both, would go to faves from previous seasons, Laura Osnes (“Bandstand”) and Phillipa Soo (“Amelie”). Instead, nominators chose two newcomers, making headturning Broadway debuts, to round out the race.
SNUB: “Sunset Boulevard”
The biggest award contender for the current revival of “Sunset Boulevard,” Glenn Close, wasn’t even eligible, since she’s reprising a role for which she’s already won a Tony. But the strong-selling staging was also left out of the mix for musical revival when nominators opted to reduce the category from four to three titles. The production was shut out of the nominations entirely.

SURPRISE: Cast sweeps
It’s no secret that the four-actor ensemble of “A Doll’s House, Part 2” is uniformly strong, with Laurie Metcalf, Chris Cooper, Jayne Houdyshell, and Condola Rashad each giving distinct, memorable performances in Lucas Hnath’s best play nominee. Still, it’s a pleasant surprise to see all four of them snag nominations. Ditto the most prominent players in the now-closed “Falsettos” revival, with Christian Borle up for lead actor and Andrew Rannells, Stephanie J. Block, and Brandon Uranowitz in the mix in feature races.
SNUB: Allison Janney, Mark Ruffalo, and Gideon Glick
Janney, who was a well-liked stage actor before she was an Emmy winner, is a favorite in the theater community, and she’s perfectly cast in “Six Degrees of Separation,” playing the role originated by Stockard Channing. She seemed a shoo-in for an acting nod. Among lead actors, Ruffalo, as the central character in “The Price,” and Glick, playing the charming wallflower who is the protagonist of play “Significant Other,” seemed likely to be celebrating this morning, too. But neither they nor Janney made the cut in formidable fields. The slots for lead actress in a play, for instance, went to five other notable names: Cate Blanchett, Sally Field, Jennifer Ehle, Laura Linney, and Metcalf.
SURPRISE: Dennis Arndt for “Heisenberg”
Simon Stephens’ quirky play “Heisenberg” was almost a stealth candidate this season: The Broadway production opened way back in the fall, and it was transfer of a show that many in the industry had seen back when it played Off Broadway. Still, both its actors, Tony winner Mary-Louise Parker and Arndt, earned raves in the tale of an unlikely May-December sorta-romance. Nominators made a point of remembering Arndt, the veteran actor who made his Broadway debut in the Manhattan Theater Club production.
SNUB: “Anastasia”
When a five-nominee race for best musical seemed a possibility, “Anastasia” looked like a real contender for that fifth slot. It’s shaped up into a strong earner at the box office, drawing on an unexpectedly broad fanbase, and it comes from a team of Broadway veterans including songwriters Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty (“Ragtime”), playwright Terrence McNally (“Love! Valour! Compassion!”), and director Darko Tresnjak (“A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder”). Lead actress Christy Altomare also seemed to have a shot at lead actress. But nominators made other picks, and the show emerged with two noms, one for featured actress Mary Beth Peil and the other for costume designer Linda Cho.

SNUB: “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory”
It’s not that “Charlie” had been expected to do well with the nominators in a season jam-packed with new musicals. But it nonetheless seems significant that the high-profile and large-scale musical, a big bet by Warner Bros. Theater Ventures, was shut out completely. (Its lead actor, Borle, did get a nomination — but did it for his performance in another show, “Falsettos.”) On the other hand, “Charlie” probably doesn’t need the awards season love. The title alone is one of the strongest around, and the musical’s box office has only grown in the weeks since it’s started performances.

Lord Andrew Lloyd Webber reflects on the state of British musicals

This week the Sunday Times Magazine ran a feature by Josh Glancy which we reproduce here:

Here’s a good piece of trivia: what film or play has the highest box-office takings in history? It’s not Titanic, or The Lord of the Rings, ET or Avatar. It’s not even Star Wars. The answer, by a quite astonishing distance, is Andrew Lloyd Webber’s The Phantom of the Opera, coming in at $6bn, or roughly the same as the first six Star Wars films put together. It’s been running on Broadway for 29 years and in London for 31. Nothing else comes close.

Lloyd Webber’s musicals are relentlessly, impossibly popular. As of February he has four of them showing simultaneously on Broadway: Cats, The Phantom of the Opera, School of Rock and a reboot of Sunset Boulevard, with Glenn Close reprising her famous role as the faded Hollywood diva Norma Desmond. He shares this record only with the great Rodgers and Hammerstein, and it hasn’t been done for 60 years.

We live in an age of Snapchat memes and 15-second videos of people with superimposed rabbit ears eating carrots. Yet, every evening, thousands in both London and New York still pay exorbitant prices (up to $300 for a premium ticket on Broadway) to cram into giant, faded music palaces and be regaled by Christine Daaé and Macavity the Mystery Cat.

alw

PHOTOGRAPH BY GREG FUNNELL

Lloyd Webber, then, is in many ways one of the great pop-culture figures of the modern age. Generations of children have grown up listening to his music, often set to lyrics by Tim Rice. He has written and produced, but his essence is a composer with a unique ability to intertwine meaningful stories with memorable showbiz tunes. Yet somehow, he never quite seems to have attained national treasure status.

I meet him for the first time in the Winter Garden Theatre on Broadway, where he cuts a diminutive figure, sitting alone in the stalls wrapped up in a giant furry black parka, to protect him from the biting New York cold.

What, I wonder, is the secret of his work’s extraordinary durability? Why do successive generations continue to fall in love with his musicals?

“There’s no one answer, of course,” he says after a long pause. “But I think the story’s probably the most important thing. I think School of Rock or Sunset Boulevard work because they are simple, primal tales, very good stories. Joseph [and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat] works because it’s a very simple story. A great story can carry a musical. But a great score without a great story can struggle — apart from Cats, of course.”

Once you get past the initial hint of reserve and pomposity, it’s hard not to like Lloyd Webber. I can honestly say I have never met anyone as culturally prominent who is so resolutely uncool. He’s a music geek with a taste for high camp. He dresses a little oddly, he sounds frightfully, anachronistically posh, and he’s a dyed-in-the-wool Tory. It’s not exactly rock’n’roll, but there’s also refreshingly little artifice. No aspirations of hipness or prefab luvvie politics. He’s successful not because he’s created a cool brand, but because he has that rare combination of deep talent and an obsessive work ethic.

school of rock

Music lesson: Alex Brightman in School of Rock

Lloyd Webber’s deepest passions are musical theatre and historical buildings — his childhood dream was to become England’s chief inspector of ancient monuments. On the rare occasions he takes a day off, his idea of a good time is nerding out over architecture. “My real relaxation is looking at buildings, that’s what I love,” he says. “A lovely day in Margate and Canterbury and I’m away.” His other passion is also “deeply unfashionable”: Victorian and pre-Raphaelite art, of which he has an extraordinary collection that went on show at the Royal Academy in 2003. There are bright and colourful works by Holman Hunt, Dante Gabriel Rossetti and Edward Burne-Jones, all of which reflect Lloyd Webber’s own love of history and beauty. The art critic Jonathan Jones described seeing the collection as “like waking up in the grandest, most pointless BBC costume drama of all time”.

Despite his prodigious success, there seems to be a vulnerability to Lloyd Webber that you don’t often find among those who have dominated their field. The people close to him are unusually protective, which I discover in the evening after our interview when he invites me to a party being held in his honour by the American Theatre Wing, to mark his remarkable quadruple-header of Broadway productions before the premiere of Sunset Boulevard.

It’s a typically camp Broadway affair: velvet tuxedos and champagne and lots of small old men squiring very tall and beautiful young women. Famous producers and art directors abound; there are actors you recognise from Mad Men. But I also meet his racehorse manager, Simon Marsh, who has flown over from Berkshire especially. Wilfred Frost, son of David, is there: Lloyd Webber has kept in touch with the television impresario’s children since the death of his old friend Frost in 2013. I have a chat with Jan, Lloyd Webber’s longtime personal assistant, and his wife, Madeleine. All of them speak fondly and loyally of Lloyd Webber as a friend, employee and partner. But there’s a distinct note of defensiveness too. They’re tired of bitchy profiles in British newspapers that call him ugly, tacky or weird.

I think they’re right to be. It’s easy to take the mickey out of Lloyd Webber, but that’s a playground instinct. If his naffness has prevented him from becoming a national treasure, well, that’s our oversight. He provided the soundtrack to most of our childhoods. He’s the creative force behind a million road-trip singalongs and birthday trips to theatreland. Aided by the marketing genius of his friend Cameron Mackintosh, he pretty much invented the modern British musical. Mackintosh, he says, is the only Brit he’s ever met who shares his “passion” and “single-mindedness” about musical theatre.

On Broadway they either revere Lloyd Webber’s work or they despise it, depending on who you ask. But no one ignores it. On the billboards outside the Winter Garden, his name is projected in bright lights, making it very clear: this is a Lloyd Webber show.

In Britain, though, we’re still a bit snooty about the whole thing. I wonder how frustrating this is. “I still think that somewhere engrained in Britain is the thought that ‘we don’t do musicals’,” he says. “It’s very much considered to be the American form. Whereas here in New York, you know, everybody lives, breathes and talks them.”

As for Lloyd Webber, he has been living and breathing musicals since he was a child. Born into a musical, middle-class family, he was composing his own pieces before he was 10 and putting on “productions” in the living room with his brother, Julian, a cellist. He studied at Westminster and won a place at Oxford to read history. But, with the rare freedom granted to someone who knows exactly what they should be doing in life, he quickly abandoned Oxford and moved to London to study music.

cats

Play possum: even though it’s not ‘a great story’, Cats is a hit again in New York

What came next is the stuff of showbiz legend. Still a teenager, Lloyd Webber received a letter from a 21-year-old law student called Tim Rice, expressing admiration for his work and suggesting the two meet up. A couple of years later the pair were commissioned to write a musical for Colet Court prep school in London. The result was Joseph and the Technicolor Dreamcoat, which will turn 50 next year.

His father taught at the Royal College of Music, but the young Lloyd Webber’s populist tendencies took him away from his family’s high musical tone and from the fashions of the time.

He ploughed on regardless, though, and his father supported him, seeing his son pursue his fondest ambition in a way that he’d been unable to. “Dad loved musicals, and he was overjoyed that I did,” he says. “He was from a very working-class background and got scholarships everywhere. So to not pursue a serious music career would have been like letting the side down. But I think he really, really could have had a major career as a film score composer.”

Lloyd Webber’s main home has always been England, where he splits his time between a grand Hampshire estate, Sydmonton Court, and a flat in west London. He says he doesn’t have much money in the bank, mostly because he spends it all on beautiful things: theatres in the West End, a renowned wine cellar, his art collection and his other passion, racehorses. In 2012 his filly The Fugue won the Nassau Stakes at Goodwood. He cashed in after by reportedly selling its mother to the Qatari royal family for £1.7m.

His professional home is still the West End, where he owns a number of venues and first made his name as the 22-year-old prodigy who composed Jesus Christ Superstar. But it is New York where he has really been given his due. “They seem to feel that I’m part of the community here, you know …” he says.

He recalls coming to New York a couple of years ago after a horrifying period. He had survived a virulent form of prostate cancer, which was followed by a routine back operation that went wrong and led to 14 procedures under general anaesthetic. The struggle to survive drew him into a deep depression and helped convince him of the wisdom of assisted dying.

But the first thing he did once he recovered, was, inevitably, another musical. “As soon as I was well again, I thought, ‘Right, back to business,’ ” he says.

It’s hard not to like Lloyd Webber, but I can honestly say I have never met anyone as culturally prominent who is so resolutely uncool

He’d been without a truly successful musical in more than a decade, so it was far from a sure thing when he announced that he would debut a musical, School of Rock, on Broadway. “There was an extraordinary feeling here that they actually wanted to embrace it,” he smiles. It was a hit.

Lloyd Webber’s always done his best to change Britain’s mind about musicals. His latest gambit is turning the St James Theatre in the West End into a “breeding ground” for new musicals, somewhere young writers can go to try out material and find collaborators.

“We’ve got to get young writers in Britain interested in the musical again,” he says, pointing out that in the past year only two new productions have opened in the West End, which has fallen far behind Broadway. One of them, Groundhog Day, was a try-out for Broadway. The other was by Gary Barlow. “There are 13 new musicals opening on Broadway this season,” he adds. “And the reason is that there are so many places in America where you get an opportunity to work and develop material.”

The obvious, monumental example is the success of Hamilton, the hip-hop interpretation of the life of the American statesman and founding father Alexander Hamilton, which has been perhaps the biggest musical phenomenon ever on Broadway. Lloyd Webber liked it so much that he befriended its creator, Lin-Manuel Miranda. But Hamilton, he points out, was six years in development. “Lin wanted to start it as a concept album like Jesus Christ Superstar, and nobody was interested. These things need time.” He hopes its success, along with that of the musical film La La Land, will be a springboard to get people in Britain “back into thinking about musicals again”.

Hamilton, he says, reminds him of The Phantom of the Opera. They are entirely different in style, but both are rare examples of musicals where every single element has come together perfectly. “The set, the design, the choreography, it all coalesces and the whole thing is 100% right,” he says. “It’s very unusual. For a musical to really, really happen, a tremendous amount of stars have to collide.”

I think to myself, what would have happened if I’d met Mandy Rice-Davies when I was 24 … Maybe that’s a line of inquiry we won’t go down

He knows this all too well, having had plenty of flops amid the hits. There was The Woman in White (2004), Love Never Dies (2010) and Stephen Ward (2013), a quixotic attempt to put the Profumo affair to music that was panned by critics and audiences alike; it barely ran for four months in the West End. He doesn’t regret it, though, primarily because he got to know Mandy Rice-Davies, the good-time girl at the heart of the Profumo scandal, who was “the most life-enhancing woman” he’d ever met. “The musical should have been about her, really,” he says, reflecting on her death in 2014. “I keep thinking to myself, what would have happened if I’d met Mandy when I was 24 years old?” he says. I laugh nervously. What would have happened? “Maybe that’s a line of inquiry we won’t go down. But I would have loved to have met her, let me tell you that …”

Of course he’s no longer a priapic 24-year-old. Instead he turns 70 next year and is now a grandfather. With £715m of assets, according to the last Sunday Times Rich List. He has been married three times and has five children. Two from his first marriage to Sarah Hugill — Nicholas, 37, and Imogen, 40, who is a political commentator and author based in New York. And three, Alastair, 24, William, 23, and Isabella, 20, from his most recent marriage to Madeleine Gurdon, a retired three-day eventer who used to ride with Princess Anne. The couple met through equestrian pals in Hampshire.

He is “not a great believer in inherited wealth” and doesn’t intend to pass on much of his fortune. His art collection, he believes, should go “somewhere it can be seen”. As for the rest, he thinks inherited money can be a “very, very great damage to a child, to spoon-feed them”. Having to make your own money means there’s “something incredibly wonderful” about your first paycheck. “You know … I’m jolly glad I didn’t have any inherited money.”

That’s about as left-wing as his politics get, though. He sits as a Tory peer in the House of Lords. He was ambivalent about Brexit, but came down narrowly against. Trump, on the other hand, baffles him, for he knows the president from his time in Trump Tower (he bought an apartment there in 1985 for his second wife, the singer Sarah Brightman, who was starring in The Phantom of the Opera on Broadway).

In fact, Trump invited him round for coffee during the primary campaign. The pair discussed Brightman and her voice, which the president is a huge fan of. And of Trump’s unlikely march on the White House, “I got the impression that he was incredibly surprised about it all … He didn’t look like a man who was passionate to become president. He looked like somebody who was going along with it.”

You only need a few minutes with Lloyd Webber to realise that he isn’t likely to slow down as he approaches 70. He recalls walking past the old Clapham Grand Theatre recently, which long ago transitioned from being a playhouse to a nightclub for paralytic Aussie expats. “I go in there and — oh my God, you know, I think let’s write something for this … I just, I’m afraid I just love musicals. I can’t imagine a life without them. So of course I’m going to go on. I love them and that’s what I do.”

The last time I speak to him is on the phone from Barbados, where he has a holiday home. He is recuperating after having Jeremy Clarkson to stay, which he says he’s “getting too old for”. He’s stayed on for a few days to write in peace, but is taking his time over his next project, acknowledging that perhaps his biggest flaw over the years has been to “plough into subjects that weren’t actually right”. The next one he wants to be immaculate.

I suspect he’s got at least one more hit in him, and can’t help but wonder again if he’s been a little shortchanged by the British public. He demurs. “I always feel if in life you’re lucky enough to know what you want to do and make a living out of it, and then if you’re as lucky as I’ve been … well then, you don’t complain.”

Still, surely more people should know that Phantom is bigger than Star Wars? “Yes, maybe,” he says. “But you wouldn’t expect anybody to know that. I mean, why would you? You don’t sort of say ‘bigger than Star Wars’ outside the theatre.” Actually, I’m starting to think that’s exactly what he should do.