The feast of Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber Success: The superstar composer is fine-tuning his new musical and savoring his other passions.


WASHINGTON -- The food critic of the London Daily Telegraph is in town, where he noted the desolation of a city that clears out over the Thanksgiving holiday and ate perhaps the best restaurant meal of his life at the famed Inn at Little Washington in Virginia. Oh, and he also put the final touches on a new Broadway-bound musical.

It's not your imagination -- Andrew Lloyd Webber truly is everywhere. If not Broadway -- where his seemingly indefatigable musicals "Cats," "Phantom of the Opera" and "Sunset Boulevard" are still playing, then his native London, where a new version of "Jesus Christ Superstar" has opened. Or Washington, where the National Theatre opens his latest musical, "Whistle Down the Wind," on Friday.

And, of course, by New Year's Day, the movie version of Lloyd Webber's "Evita" will have opened across the country. With Madonna in the title role -- and department stores ready to capitalize on movie-inspired fashions -- soon there will be no Lloyd Webber-free zone.

"I have the lowest attention span of any composer in the world," says the man with his hand in seemingly every theater.

Which leaves him time for his other passions -- art collecting, for one, and eating.

"I'm the luckiest guy around, and now I have a food column too and I'm paid to eat out. I wonder what else can happen to me?" Lloyd Webber (Sir Andrew to His Majesty's subjects) said yesterday at a luncheon at the National Press Club.

Lloyd Webber, who with his broad, pale face and dark, receding hair resembles a puffin, has pretty much defined musical theater for the past couple of decades. His shows continue to play on Broadway and tour the world in a sort of endless loop. The screen version of "Evita" is expected to broaden his fame even further.

Lloyd Webber, no shrinking violet when it comes to dealing with divas, initially had reservations about the controversial Madonna taking on the title role.

"Perhaps 10 years ago, when she was younger, but I think she's a bit too old for it now," Lloyd Webber said in 1993 of the then 34-year-old Madonna. "Evita died when she was 33."

Now with the movie about to open, though, Lloyd Webber is singing a different tune. You don't, after all, become the 14th richest entertainer in the world, by Forbes magazine's calculations, by giving your own products bad press. Lloyd Webber, who said he saw the movie four weeks ago, has been won over by Madonna's performance.

"I was concerned. She is supposed to start as a 15-year-old," Lloyd Webber said yesterday. "But I've been utterly convinced the other way. That's how I imaged Eva Peron."

The film, directed by Alan Parker, is "extraordinarily courageous," Lloyd Webber said. "It's massive."

Lloyd Webber knows from massive. His mega-musicals, as widely popular with audiences as they are often snootily dismissed by critics, are big, lavish affairs. Sets, costumes, songs, emotions -- they're all big in Andrew Lloyd Webber's hands. Overblown, some say.

"Not everybody's going to like it. I like big melodies," he says. "If you don't like that, you're not going to like my stuff."

"Whistle Down the Wind" is a retrenchment of sorts, no big names, no huge production qualities. The play is based on a 1960s-era novel and movie about three children who happen onto a stranger in a barn whom they believe is Jesus Christ. Unlike the novel and movie, though, the setting has been switched from the English countryside to Louisiana. Lloyd Webber feared that keeping the original setting would result in an "all very twee" production, and, after initially considering rural Ireland, hit upon small-town Louisiana as a locale.

"We spent 10 days in Louisiana. The place is so rich with local things and ideas. Everything is about the relevance of faith," he ,, said. "We looked into snake handling, that's very strange." (No real snakes, though, are used in the play.)

For all his successes, though, Lloyd Webber seems to be drawn back to his failures, or less-than-successes.

He admits his 1975 flop, "Jeeves," never worked. "We got it pretty badly wrong the first time," he says. With revisions, and tossing out all but four songs, the renamed "By Jeeves" currently is playing in Connecticut. He thinks "Aspects of Love," which he concedes "will never ever be one of the more commercial ones," also can be revised and revived.

"The production wasn't quite right on Broadway," he mused. "It has to have a little more edge. It toured England, though, and it got ecstatic reviews. It very nearly worked."

"I'd like to think the body of work will be left in the best possible condition," he says of his constant repairs of old shows.

Lloyd Webber finds himself at a curious place these days. He'll continue working on "Whistle Down the Wind" before taking it to Broadway, but he's not quite sure what he'll do next.

"I haven't got a new idea for a show at all," he said, in a tone indicating that's a rather unusual occurrence.

Maybe he'll write an art book -- he is one of the top 10 art collectors in the world -- perhaps based on his personal collection, which will be exhibited in the U.S. in the year 2000. There's "Aspects of Love" to fiddle with. And maybe a general taking-stock-of-things.

Meanwhile, there's always another meal to look forward to, on the town for the Telegraph, or in one of his several homes, where his cooking gets rave reviews from his wife and children.

"They love omelettes, actually," Lloyd Webber said of his kids. "They actually collect herbs from the garden. Tarragon salmon omelettes are the great rage right now."

Pub Date: 12/03/96

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