'I'm the most boring person I've meet': Lloyd Webber
He is a man with the Midas touch, but as Andrew Lloyd Webber tells Charlotte Edwardes, he missed out on the chance to sign up Rihanna before she got famous
Andrew Lloyd Webber was so taken with the voice of a girl in the bar of the Sandy Lane hotel in Barbados he turned to his companion and said: "This girl, she's rather good…" His companion - also in the music business - agreed. "Maybe we should do something about it?"
They listened harder. It was "a karaoke situation with one of those awful drum machines", remembers Lloyd Webber. "The trouble is, it's a bit like buying a picture on holiday. You get it home and you think, 'Why did I do that?' So we decided not to make a move."
The "girl" turned out to be Rihanna. "And therefore I can say that I did not sign Rihanna," he says, "and that my ability to spot artists is not 100%." With a laugh, he adds: "She was very good."
It's a rare example of Lloyd Webber missing out. To recap, he's written 13 musicals (including Evita, and Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat), as well as film scores and a Requiem Mass, building a £715 million fortune in the process.
In 1986 he released The Phantom of the Opera which became the highest grossing entertainment event of all time, the longest running Broadway musical and also its most financially successful. An estimated 80 million people have seen its various productions in 20 countries. He has also won an Oscar (for Evita), seven Tonys and three Grammys.
He owns seven theatres, including his latest acquisition, the St James in Victoria (renamed The Other Palace), as well as "an unparalleled" collection of Pre-Raphaelite art.
In general he has the Midas touch. Most recently he secured the rights to School of Rock - originally a film starring Jack Black - which has just transferred from Broadway and will open at the Palladium on Monday.
"Actually," he corrects me, "I'm not sure I did decide to buy the rights. My wife Madeleine saw it with the children 10 years ago and thought, 'This would make a great musical, why don't we get the rights to produce it?'"
She went after it like a hound after a hare, he says. The people at Paramount "gave in because she was so persistent. I think they thought she'd produced Les Misérables because they congratulated her for it."
He signed Laurence Connor (Les Mis, Miss Saigon, Jesus Christ Superstar) to direct. He saw his chum Julian Fellowes in the House of Lords and enlisted him to write it. He dismisses the idea that it's "strange that the author of Downton Abbey has written the script", arguing: "Julian is unique in that he's worked in theatre, television and film. And, House of Lords over tea or not, he's very good at plot lines."
That his children loved School of Rock is important: the proceeds of the preview show are going to the Miles Frost Fund, a charity linked to the British Heart Foundation, in memory of the son of Sir David Frost, who died of hypertrophic cardiomyopathy last year, aged 31.
The younger Lloyd Webber children (Alastair, 24, William, 23, and Isabella, 20) were "very close" to Frost's sons and the families often holidayed together. "It's the least we could've done," says Lloyd Webber who has been married three times and has five children.
We're in his chintzy office at the Really Useful Group in Covent Garden. At 68, Lloyd Webber couldn't look fitter - tanned, in a pair of gym shoes, wearing a shirt bursting with print (he wishes he'd kept his flower-power shirts from the Sixties, today's are "tame"). He offers coffee ("Certain? Final answer?") and tells me to "scream" if I want water.
In his precise way of speaking, old fashioned and self-effacing, he tells me he's working on his autobiography and finds himself "the most boring person I've ever thought about". Asked when it'll be published, he replies: "I think 2040."
He's writing it himself, saying that years doing Telegraph food reviews have prepared him. "I just want it to be funny. I don't want some boring, turgid thing." He broods over detail. "Is the layman interested in how shows are actually constructed?"
The autobiography is one aspect of Lloyd Webber's general taking of stock. He's also examining his political role. Although a Tory peer - he was made Baron Lloyd-Webber of Sydmonton (the name of his Hampshire estate) in 1997 - he seems bruised by the party. While John Major was a friend, "one of the most underestimated PMs we've had", David Cameron never "embraced me or talked to me" and "made so many errors of judgment it worried me". Theresa May he doesn't know "at all".
He's anti-Heathrow ("a moribund airport, in the wrong place in the first place, they should make it into a garden city") and anti-Brexit.
His fear is that May will cut arts funding further too, the first port of call, he says, for any cash-strapped government.
"But the arts have never been more vital in schools. The arts are the one thing that appeal right across all forms of politics, race, creed - everything."
I ask about his voting record (only 30 times despite thousands of opportunities), and the fact that he was savaged for voting - as a near-billionaire - for George Osborne's cut in tax credits for the working poor last year.
He places his hands on the arms of his chair. "I thought [Osborne's policy] was wrong," he says firmly. "I have an email in which I said, 'I'm deeply worried if I come in' but we were asked to vote and were given off-the-record assurances that the Chancellor was going to rescind this [policy]."
So he voted as whipped but was so unsettled by the experience that he talked to friends about whether to retire from the Lords.
"I was put in as an honour, not as a working peer. Not as lobby fodder. I'm fed-up with the fact that I keep being asked now to go in and vote for things about which I don't have knowledge."
Twenty years ago, he says, "the Lords was apolitical in the main. Peers tended to vote with their conscience. I remember saying when I was offered it that, although deeply honoured, I have an active career and couldn't be a part of a House that is about legislation.
"I would only take the title on the understanding that I would come in on issues to which I could contribute. And they said, 'We haven't enough voices with practical experience of theatre, the arts or music, and we would like you to be there'. Since that time it's become full of people who are superannuated politicians, frankly."
Never again will he take instruction from the Tories to vote.
"Quite honestly, if I resign from the Conservative Party it would make people start…"
He changes tack. "It's a slightly damned if you do, damned if you don't situation. I would like to be an independent. I would like to be a cross-bencher if I could, but doing that is quite a rigmarole and there are more important things in my life."
Certainly it's been a challenging few years. He underwent surgery for the most virulent form of prostate cancer in 2009, which left him impotent. Shortly afterwards he developed leg pain, and then had a total of 14 procedures under general anaesthetic for back problems, which led to depression.
When he felt better, he made a life-changing decision. "I gave up wine," he says. "Completely. I thought, I'm right back to health, I've got to make up for four missing years." He hasn't had a drink for more than two years.
Of course, Lloyd Webber was a connoisseur of the grape, with the most valuable single-owner collection in the UK. In 2011 he auctioned £3.5 million- worth. Now the rest has gone. "Just before Brexit, I sold the whole lot in one go. I did it privately. It's all gone."
"I did drink every day because I loved my wine. Loved it. And then one day I thought 'No, I can't do it any more'. I have a very strong will. I thought 'I'm just going to stop'."
After three months he couldn't even taste good wine. "I can't believe it but once I even served corked wine without being able to tell. Now if I'm serving wine I have to ask people who are going to drink it to taste it."
He "can't remember" how much the collection fetched. "I sold it and thought 'Well that's that. Nice little nest-egg I have here.' It lasted three weeks and then a Victorian painting came up." He laughs. It was a [John Everett] Millais portrait of a girl holding violets. "I bought one or two other bits and pieces as well."
Does he feel better? "I don't want to be evangelical," he says. "The worst and most boring thing is somebody who gives up drink talking about it. But let's put it this way: I have a phone call to make to LA at 11 o'clock tonight. I don't have to worry about that call."
Now he's thinking of selling his house and "chattel cottages" in Barbados too - he has places there and in Majorca which he uses when he is composing music. His three children by Madeleine have left home. "Alastair works at Island Records, Billy at Warner Records, so you can imagine family lunches. Neither can mention what they are doing because they're all trying to sign the same acts. It's quite funny."
Isabella - Bella - is at Bath University, "supposedly doing politics but seems to me to be doing hockey and riding. I don't hear an awful lot of politics, I must say." He has a "feeling" she's not telling him about boyfriends, either. "I don't know if it's deliberate."
They keep in touch by landline as he avoids all social media and even email because "about 15 years ago Stephen Fry said sending an email is sending an open postcard". Mobiles "mean people know where you are. I'm wondering whether to have someone go around with my mobile to completely throw everybody off the scent. I could appear in weird places."
Meanwhile, he'll concentrate on "the cause célèbre of mine: music in schools".
He gives a revolutionary little air-punch. "Fight the cuts! - as it were."
SchoolOfRockTheMusical.co.uk is booking to February 12, 2017