Andrew Lloyd Webber, the theatre impresario risking prison

“Come hell or high water . . . ” he has said. Andrew Lloyd Webber, the British composer and theatre impresario who made his name and fortune with musicals such as Cats, Evita and Starlight Express, this week expressed his determination to open his West End theatres at capacity this month — whatever the current government guidance on Covid-19.

Previews for his latest creation, Cinderella, are due to start on June 25, just days after the planned easing of coronavirus restrictions on June 21. That date now seems to be in question because of rising infection rates, but Lloyd Webber has said he would be prepared to face a jail sentence in defiance of any further delay.

Although he was made a Conservative peer, he says he will not hesitate to launch a legal battle against the government if there are more delays, telling one interviewer he has “the mother of all legal cases”.

At 73, Lloyd Webber is possibly the most garlanded composer alive. The New York Times described him in 2001 as “the most commercially successful composer in history”, with multiple awards for his musicals and worldwide success. He is one of only 16 people ever to have scooped an Oscar, an Emmy, a Tony and a Grammy. His productions — all handled by the Really Useful Group, which he founded in 1977 — boast a string of records: Starlight Express (1984) ran in London for more than 17 years; The Phantom of the Opera (1986) was the longest-running Broadway show ever.

Lloyd Webber had planned to open Cinderella at the Gillian Lynne Theatre (formerly the New London Theatre, which was renamed in memory of the late choreographer of Cats) in August 2020. As the owner of seven venues, throughout the pandemic he has been a vociferous opponent of the regulations that have forced theatres to close for long stretches. They are currently allowed to operate with reduced numbers, but Lloyd Webber argues that large-scale productions like his musicals are not sustainable without full capacity houses. 

Campaigners for reopening point to the economic clout of the UK theatre sector, which brought in nearly £1.28bn in ticket sales from more than 34m people in 2018. They also highlight the plight of the sector’s extensive workforce, which is for the most part self-employed and therefore particularly vulnerable to the closure of theatres. Insiders fear a skills drain, as well as individual hardship. Lloyd Webber, who has called for additional subsidies, has pointed to inconsistencies in policies that allow people to sit on an aircraft for many hours but not sit in a theatre for two hours.

He also highlights the safety measures in theatres. In September 2020 he told a government hearing he was “absolutely confident that the air in the London Palladium and in all my theatres is purer than the air outside”.

About £6m has been invested in Cinderella, and its ensemble of 34 actors, dancers, musicians and others entails huge costs. The losses incurred by keeping his theatres dark during their extended closure run to approximately £1m a month, and he has suggested that further delays will force him to sell or close them permanently. According to The Sunday Times Rich List, Lloyd Webber’s personal wealth has fallen £275m in a year and now stands at £525m, although other sources put his net worth substantially higher.

Throughout his career, Lloyd Webber has faced controversies, including claims of plagiarism from sources as disparate as the Puccini estate and Pink Floyd. But his overall originality is rarely in doubt. Don Black, co-lyricist for 1989’s Aspects of Love, claimed that “Andrew more or less single-handedly reinvented the musical”. 

Born in 1948 to a musical family — his mother was a violinist and pianist, his father a composer, his brother is the celebrated cellist Julian Lloyd Webber — his talent showed early. Professional success began with Joseph and the Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat in 1968, when he was not yet 21; Cinderella will be his 17th fully-produced musical.

Many of his early hits were in partnership with lyricist Tim Rice but he has worked with various writers. For Cinderella he has chosen multitalented Emerald Fennell, scriptwriter on BBC’s Killing Eve who won a Best Original Screenplay Oscar this year for her comedy Promising Young Woman, which she also directed.

Lloyd Webber is an enthusiastic art collector, with a taste for Pre-Raphaelite and Victorian painters including Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Edward Burne-Jones and others. His collection — substantial enough to fill all the main rooms of the Royal Academy in London when it was shown there in 2003 — helped to restore the reputation (and raise the prices) of the previously out-of-fashion genre. One expert, Christopher Wood, wrote of Lloyd Webber’s passion for art: “It is often said of Andrew that he writes musicals to collect more paintings . . . Collecting is his real obsession.”

Other interests include substantial charity work for his own Andrew Lloyd Webber Foundation, as well as other educational and cultural organisations. He was knighted in 1992 and in 1997 he was created a life peer as Baron Lloyd Webber of Sydmonton, although he retired from the House of Lords in 2017. 

The next week or so could determine whether or not Cinderella goes to the ball — and whether its distinguished creator finds himself on the wrong side of the law.

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