Monday, January 19, 2009

Boom Bang a Bang

Poor Diane Warren must be wondering what she’s let herself in for. One of the world’s most successful songwriters (she wrote Cher’s If I Could Turn Back Time, and Toni Braxton’s Unbreak My Heart), she now has the tough task of lowering her game to pen the lyrics for Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Eurovision song. Ms Warren is an odd choice: apart from being American (couldn’t they find a British songwriter good enough for a show called Your Country Needs You?) she’s been dubbed Queen of the Ballad. Although she claims never to have been in love she has prompted more lovers to weep into their cappuccinos than any other songwriter. I doubt a ballad will set the right tone in Moscow; most successful Eurovision entries tend to be bland, poppy numbers that get the Balkans swaying over their slivovitz. The day after our disastrous Eurofiasco last year, when Britain came last, I wrote that even if the great Lloyd Webber were persuaded to donate a song, we still wouldn’t triumph. In a few months we’ll find out if I was right.

I’m intrigued to know if Andrew had a song in reserve when he agreed to do this, rather than, as the television programme is suggesting, genuinely composing the thing during the series. I suspect the former, as Andrew has sporadic moments of sheer genius and never throws away a good tune. I do hope this is the case, for I doubt he’ll be able to draw much inspiration from the unexciting group of wannabes who are still left in the BBC contest. He even said of the sub-cruise-ship act he “saved” this week, Emperors of Soul, that “they would absolutely entertain us in any cabaret club”, a plaudit more damning than anything Simon Cowell could dream up.

I’m privileged to have watched the master at work at his creative best. Having been asked to direct a television version of his musical Song and Dance I fully expected to be working with the original star Marti Webb. Instead, Andrew’s manager took me aside and said “Andrew wants you to audition another girl: it’s entirely up to you, but…”. That girl was Sarah Brightman, with whom Andrew had just fallen passionately in love.

I remember sitting in Andrew’s office with the choreographer Anthony van Laast and Don Black, the show’s lyricist, having to decide whether to cast Marti or the composer’s lover in a project that Andrew was personally funding. Tough call. Actually, for Don it really was a difficult moment, as he was Marti Webb’s manager, but at the end of the day, Lloyd Webber was the one paying the piper – and it was his tune we were already playing. Besides, Sarah was rather good.

It was almost an honour to spend some very enlightening months with the loved-up Lloyd Webbers making our film. It was during Andrew’s most creative period: Cats was wowing the world, Starlight Express was in rehearsals, and gestation was already well under way for Phantom of the Opera, written for his new love’s incredible vocal range. British musical theatre had never been so rich, and neither had Andrew Lloyd Webber. Occasionally I would be invited to stay over at Sydmonton, his Victorian pile overlooking Watership Down. I remember sitting in the kitchen having breakfast, when Andrew came down in his manorial dressing gown, beaming. “Come quickly”, he said, calling me into the music room, and tried out a new tune over the cornflakes. One morning he produced “Unexpected Song” which he’d dug out of the bottom drawer and re-worked as a vehicle for Sarah’s high notes. We stuck it in Song and Dance and it brought the house down.

On a good day Andrew’s catchy melodies play the emotions like no other. I just hope those Eurovoters appreciate all the efforts he’s putting in for them.

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