Things we learnt from Andrew Lloyd Webber's new memoir

Andrew Lloyd Webber at the Winter Garden Theater in New York on Nov 3, 2016.
Andrew Lloyd Webber at the Winter Garden Theater in New York on Nov 3, 2016. PHOTO: NYTIMES

NEW YORK (NYTimes) - Andrew Lloyd Webber knows exactly what you think about him.

In his memoir Unmasked, out this week from Harper Books, the composer behind The Phantom Of The Opera and other earworm-rich Broadway musicals extensively quotes negative reviews of his shows.

He even tells the story of how his mother's monkey threw a tantrum when she was pregnant and became "the first person to take a dislike to Andrew Lloyd Webber".

Love him or hate him, you likely will hear Lloyd Webber's name a lot this month: The book's release coincides with his 70th birthday and a four-disc compilation album. NBC plans to air the documentary Andrew Lloyd Webber: Tribute To A Superstar on March 28, before its live TV performance of Jesus Christ Superstar on Easter weekend.

The book may be a 500-page doorstop, but it only covers his career up to 1988. Missing are his (recently ended) feud with Patti LuPone, his illness and the ill-fated sequel to Phantom. Lloyd Webber hasn't committed to a second volume just yet, but for now there are plenty of stories to explore in Unmasked. Here are five of them.

1. He used to walk his cat in London

Lloyd Webber grew up in a cramped, bohemian apartment, where frequent visitors included his Aunt Vi, who claimed to have written the first gay cookbook. His family had a cat: Perseus, "a wonderful square-faced, seal-pointed Siamese Boy."

When he was about 7, Lloyd Webber began to walk Perseus around London on a leash. They went to the same patch of grass - a routine so ingrained that, when Perseus escaped one day, he was found crossing a busy street with the rest of the pedestrians.

Years later, as Perseus was dying, Lloyd Webber took the cat for a walk. But by then the traffic system in South Kensington had become dangerously complicated. Perseus hissed at the new traffic lights and turned around back home. The next day he died.

Lloyd Webber wrote that he owes "Cats" to two things: his mother's bedtime reading of T.S. Eliot's "Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats," and Perseus.

2. He owns part of a Mountain

As Lloyd Webber's career took off, he met an imaginative accountant who persuaded him to buy a mountainside in Wales as part of a "supposedly unbeatable tax efficient forestry scheme." Can a tunesmith run a forest? Well, he insisted on planting hardwood rather than baby fir trees, which disrupted the ecosystem and created a sinkhole "of such national importance a large chunk of it had to be roped off." Then it all burned down.

Lloyd Webber's tax advice now: "Don't get into forestry."

3. He almost wrote a Thomas The Tank Engine

One of Lloyd Webber's favorite books as a child was Thomas The Tank Engine, which he described as a British Little Engine That Could with the moral that "a properly brung up engine must be Really Useful all the time."

Around the time he was working on Evita, Lloyd Webber decided to make an animated musical TV series of it.

Ultimately, though, producers thought Thomas was too British for an international audience. So nothing happened. Lloyd Webber relinquished his rights to the show, which then became a worldwide hit narrated by Ringo Starr. But he eventually got his train musical: Starlight Express. And the Really Useful Group is now the corporate force behind the Andrew Lloyd Webber empire.

4. He nearly starred in Amadeus

While Cats was in development, filmmaker Milos Forman asked Lloyd Webber to star as Mozart in his movie Amadeus. Lloyd Webber was so shocked, he replied with a burp.

When he learned the offer wasn't just a passing fancy, a panicked Lloyd Webber asked Trevor Nunn, director of Cats, for an escape plan.

Nunn told him to say he would be honored to accept the role, but then add that he wouldn't do the movie unless all of Mozart's music was replaced with his own. (Take a minute to imagine that.) At the meeting, Lloyd Webber played the part of a demanding diva, to which one of the producers replied, "I think we have a deal!"

Then Forman came to the rescue by saying, "I think Andrew is saying he doesn't want to play the role."

5. In another universe, Liza Minnelli was Evita

The movie adaptation of Evita was in the works years before Madonna sang Don't Cry For Me Argentina in Alan Parker's lavish 1996 version. In its earliest days, the film might have starred Liza Minnelli, whose audition was "remarkable," Lloyd Webber wrote.

Unmasked is full of what-ifs like this that offer a glimpse into a parallel universe of Lloyd Webber's musicals. Bette Midler nearly got her start in "Jesus Christ Superstar." Twyla Tharp could have choreographed Cats, but she hated the music. Judi Dench was the original Grizabella, before Memory was even completed, but she snapped her Achilles tendon shortly before previews began.

And Broadway legend Alan Jay Lerner was meant to write lyrics for The Phantom Of The Opera, but in 1986, a few days after making plans for work, he was diagnosed with lung cancer.

"I will be in touch with you over the summer," he wrote to Lloyd Webber, "and I hope with all my heart that one day we will have a chance to work together." He died that June.