And all the while, he is politely holding forth about his detractors, about their pretense and their pack mentality. He seems to take pride in always having run against the elitist grain. Even when he was a dweeby teen, he'd boldly defend Victorian paintings and Rodgers and Hammerstein musicals to his stuffy headmasters. "They were always considered sentimental rubbish," says Lloyd Webber, who happens to own one of the world's most valuable Pre-Raphaelite art collections. It's in this spirit that Lloyd Webber hears his work dismissed as hopeless schlock and reconfigures the assaults into a badge of honor: "I'm the least politically correct composer in the world," he declares. "I am ."
The bad rap he gets, he theorizes, comes from the spontaneity of his creative process. So much of his work "has been done in public," he says, that people think it just materializes "without, um, the pain of creation that really, um, has to go on." (His no-sweat reputation might also come from his own past admissions that "Evita" was re-orchestrated during previews and that he dashed off a 35-minute musical called "Cricket" in three days.) "It's been very easy to have a go at my music," he admits weakly. "I've been, uh, very lucky and very popular. And I think people don't always realize just how much you try and put into everything. I mean, to the best of your ability."
Glancing at his watch, Lloyd Webber regretfully excuses himself. It's several weeks before "Sunset Boulevard" will open in Los Angeles and he must dash off, with his driver, on one of his myriad rounds. Just as he readies himself to leave, he furtively moistens a forefinger. And for some reason, one half expects Lloyd Webber to hoist his glistening digit into the warm California air to see in which direction the wind is blowing.
VARIOUS MEMBERS OF THE NEWS MEDIA ARE SQUISHED THREE DEEP against a dingy wall in a Hollywood rehearsal hall. Four feet away, and too close for comfort, what looks like the entire "Sunset" chorus line is vocalizing and briskly hitting its marks. The numbers are adroitly executed but one can't help noting that some of the ensemble members are tossing panicky smiles over their shoulders. Who wouldn't get the jitters, performing without the security of a proscenium, just blasting away like a giant singing telegram, in the faces of the gawking press? And where are the big stars in this musicalized remake of the Billy Wilder film classic? Where is Glenn Close, who will play Norma Desmond? Or George Hearn, who plays Desmond's gloss-topped driver Max? It is later explained that Close wasn't "ready" for this mini-preview; nobody ever mentioned where Hearn was hiding out.
The event bumps along awkwardly, perhaps because of its quaking but determined host. Lloyd Webber's quick brown eyes never really meet anyone's gaze. The best he can do is stand alongside a baby grand piano, rocking back and forth, his hands twitching nervously at his hips, while silently mouthing love ballad lyrics that two cast members are singing.
He is nothing if not 100% invested in his work. "I worry about the content of my shows," he confesses, "to the point that I think about them \o7 all the time\f7 ." He frets so much over his vast network of productions that it drives him to make spot-check visitations to any city on the map where a show of his is playing. Just to make sure everything is running in tip-top shape, he'll--\o7 surprise!\f7 --appear unexpectedly and frighten everyone right out of their Flexatards. As a case in point, he has visited the Las Vegas production of "Starlight Express" four times, even though, having licensed the rights away, he isn't even involved in it.
With "Sunset Boulevard," Lloyd Webber's perfectionist bent has been greatly tested. Every news clip on the making of the London production included documentation of all that went awry. First there was the malfunctioning main set, a high-tech 18-ton prop that would, without human provocation and rarely on cue, shift forward or rise toward the rafters like the Starship Enterprise, occasionally with startled stagehands on board. Then the reviews rolled in, and like Frank Rich, most of the critics gave with one hand and took with the other.
Almost immediately, Lloyd Webber began to institute endless alterations for the Los Angeles opening. He fiddled not just with the score (which he "very arrogantly" calls "my best"), but also with every detail imaginable.
The London reviews found the stage characters lacking all chemistry, when the film was all about the creepiness of a sordid love triangle formed by a fading film star, her paid honey-boy and his girlfriend. So Lloyd Webber, with Christopher Hampton and Don Black, who worked together on the book and lyrics, came up with hundreds of minute script adjustments.