Try as they might to dress his lordship up as a meanie, Andrew Lloyd Webber is no Simon Cowell.
In the British composer's appearances as a judge on the recent CBC Television contest Over the Rainbow, producers would play thunderous music and flash the lights before revealing him sitting atop an imposing throne with armrests shaped like growling lions' jaws.
But the 64-year-old composer of The Phantom of the Opera never came across as anywhere near as frightening or intimidating as his most famous dramatic character.
Indeed, observing a taping at the CBC, you might have seen Lloyd Webber in an off-camera moment hugging runners-up and whispering encouragement in their ear, cracking awkward uncle jokes with the studio audience, or sheepishly admitting that he was only going to be pretending to play the piano on the air.
Danielle Wade, the 20-year-old from LaSalle, Ont., who won the competition to be Dorothy in Lloyd Webber and David Mirvish's new production of The Wizard of Oz that opens in previews this week in Toronto, says the composer would even sometimes sing along with contestants when they were performing one of his compositions.
"Whenever you think of Andrew Lloyd Webber, he's this huge phantom of a person, because his name's so big in musical theatre," says Wade. "In real life he's one of the nicest men in the world."
One of the nicest? Really? Tending to see reality-television contests as entirely cynical enterprises – CBC's Over the Rainbow, in particular, as a semi-subsidized advertisement for a commercial revival of a well-worn show – I was unconvinced.
And yet, meeting Lloyd Webber for tea on the 20th floor at the Ritz-Carlton on the day Danielle was revealed to be, in the parlance of the show, "Canada's Dorothy," you can see why he once wrote an entire musical about cats – he's a real pussycat, standing up to greet you and walking you to the elevator at the end.
Indeed, on the verge of 65, Lloyd Webber seems less like one of the entertainment world's most rich and powerful, with an estimated worth that surpasses Paul McCartney, than a budding senior citizen watching the world spin on and perhaps away with a watery eye.
"There must be a point where it's saturated," Lloyd Webber says, shaking his head and pointing out the picture window at the chaos and cranes of Toronto condo construction, and remarking how the city has changed since he first brought a tour of Jesus Christ Superstar here in 1971.
Don't count on Lloyd Webber signing up to buy a unit in his co-producer Mirvish's planned complex of three Frank Gehry towers, then.
The British composer knows a little something about booms going bust. As the composer of scores that ranged from rock to Romanticism, he was the man behind a string of megamusicals in the 1970s and 1980s – Superstar, Evita, Cats – and the ongoing neo-Gothic phenomenon that is Phantom, which will become the first show to celebrate a 25th birthday on Broadway in January.
But since 1993's Sunset Boulevard, Lloyd Webber's achievements on the musical-theatre front have been less towering. His latest disappointment, Love Never Dies, a sequel to Phantom, angered many of the original musical's "Phans," was assailed by critics, and never caught on with a general audience in London. (It was better received in a reworked version in Australia.)
Where Lloyd Webber has had success in recent years has been in mounting musicals – in Toronto, but mainly on London's West End – that are cast (and marketed) through television talent competitions.
In a previous partnership with CBC, he found a Maria for The Sound of Music, while in Britain he has also lined up a Nancy for Oliver!, a Joseph for Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat and, most recently, a Jesus for a Jesus Christ Superstar arena tour.
Not everyone thinks this is the ideal way to audition, however. His Superstar and Evita lyricist Tim Rice, for instance, was quoted as saying he found plans to find a Jesus through television both "tacky" and "tasteless."
"Well, he's wrong – and he's been proved very wrong," says Lloyd Webber confidently, and quite jovially. He says Rice admitted as much after he saw the winning Jesus in the arena show, which the composer hopes to bring to North America – with a stop in Toronto – in the next year.
While a character like Cowell got his fame and influence through TV, Lloyd Webber only sees it as a sideline to what he calls his "day job" – composing. As such, he is convinced that his reality shows have been as beneficial to participants and the art form as they have been to the bottom line, helping train a whole whack of talents who aren't as cookie-cutter as those that come out of stage schools.
Lloyd Webber rattles off the list of winners and runners-up that have gone on to solid careers. Samantha Barks, who placed third in his Nancy competition, landed the coveted role of Éponine in the Les Misérables movie, while his British Maria, Connie Fisher, just had a "real triumph" in a tour of Wonderful Town. "There was one moment last year where six of our finalists were starring in West End musicals that I had nothing to do with at all – which was very pleasing," he says, seeming, indeed, pleased.
On the day before the Over the Rainbow finale, Lloyd Webber took the three finalists – Wade, as well as AJ Bridel and Stephanie La Rochelle – out for dinner with his associates. "Whatever happens, they need to know my phone number, because they're very good," he says. "I could think of roles for all three of those."
The Wizard of Oz has allowed Lloyd Webber to marry his day job to his television career more than previous series. He's teamed up with his old writing partner Rice to pen a number of new songs to add into this stage version of the 1939 movie, which he admires for having "arguably one of the best songs ever written" but he does not think works as well in the theatre: "It has nothing to set up Dorothy in Kansas; it has nothing for the Wizard; and there's nothing for either of the witches."
Now that Wizard is on its feet again on this side of the ocean and the Superstar tour is on its way, Lloyd Webber is anxious to leave TV celebrity behind for a while and get back behind the piano. Undaunted by recent stumbles, he's started work on a Cold War musical based on the Profumo Affair, which led to the collapse of Britain's Conservative Macmillan government in 1963. It will reunite him with Don Black and Dangerous Liaisons playwright Christopher Hampton, his collaborators on Sunset Boulevard.
What motivates him to keep putting work out there, I wonder, as my elevator descends. Maybe the answer lies in one of his observations about why he's not buying a condo in Toronto: "Another thing that would frighten me if I had an apartment here is that somebody might build something immediately in front of it." For Andrew Lloyd Webber, being obscured is the fear.
A LLOYD WEBBER MISCELLANY
On the Stratford Festival's failed New York transfer of Jesus Christ Superstar: "[Stratford has] a wonderful ensemble company, but to work on Broadway today, with a show like that, you probably need a couple of names in it. Even if it was just a Mary Magdalene who was known."
On casting via television: "There is no audition process that's perfect. I'm not going to sit here and say that reality TV is the only way to cast shows, because, of course, it isn't. The interesting thing is that in all seven [shows he's worked on], the public's got it right."
On Grease: You're the One That I Want!, U.S. television's attempt at the genre: "Disastrous … Grease is a bad idea for a TV casting show because there isn't a central role. It's very difficult for the public to get their head around casting a boy and a girl – and what is there to say about [Sandy and Danny] other than,'Can they sing? Can they dance?' I did one show – I rather wish I hadn't, actually."
On the failure of his Phantom sequel, Love Never Dies, in London: "With hindsight, I don't think it's a good idea to be the producer and the composer, because you're wearing two hats. I don't think it's healthy for oneself.… It was a production that didn't work."
On what's missing from Harold Arlen and E.Y. Harburg's original score for The Wizard of Oz: "There's nothing for Dorothy – she's supposed to be this feisty little girl who wants to get out of Kansas and we don't have anything that suggests [this]."
On Avril Lavigne as his ideal Dorothy: "She would be good. Very, very good."