Taking time out from his astonishingly busy schedule to talk about his neww BBC talent search ‘Over The Rainbow’, in the interview below Andrew Lloyd Webber begins by outlining what he is looking for in Dorothy, a role first made famous by Judy Garland in the much-loved 1939 movie of The Wizard Of Oz.
“I think this is our toughest challenge yet,” reveals Andrew, who is seated in his office at a large table next to one of his beloved pianos. “Our Dorothy has to be young and rebellious and funny.”
The 61-year-old composer, responsible for such classic musicals as The Phantom Of The Opera, Cats, Evita, Joseph And The Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat, Jesus Christ Superstar, Starlight Express, Sunset Boulevard, The Woman In White and Aspects Of Love, adds that “she has to be a great actress with a great sense of humour and be able to sing brilliantly. She also has to be capable of holding centre-stage – she’s virtually never off-stage during the whole show. And that’s before I even get to the real list of qualities I’m looking for!
“She doesn’t have to be conventionally beautiful. The main thing she has to do is break your heart. The show is about a bored teenager from Kansas who wants to get away from home, but ends up discovering that home is where the heart is. Our Dorothy has to take us on that journey. It would be fabulous if we found a modern version of Judy Garland.”
Andrew, who was made a life peer in 1997, has already been conducting extensive auditions up and down the country. He is really excited about the depth of talent he has unearthed.
“We’ve made a very encouraging start,” enthuses the impresario. “I’ve already been to Manchester and Glasgow and seen half a dozen girls who I would be happy to include in the top 10.”
The shows which search for musical theatre stars have really chimed with TV audiences. Andrew, whose eagerly awaited sequel to The Phantom Of The Opera, Love Never Dies, has just opened in the West End, explains why these programmes resonate with viewers.
“These shows have genuinely struck a chord with people. It really works when TV audiences can identify with the role you’re casting.
“People also love the fact that they feel part of the process of choosing a performer for something they can actually go and see. People know that the girl who wins Over The Rainbow will be on stage and they’ll be able to see her for the next 18 months, or whatever. Because of that, people invest more and take the voting far more seriously.”
These programmes have also helped to discover no end of new talent for the West End.
“There was one moment last year when all five finalists from I’d Do Anything had lead roles in West End musicals,” beams Andrew. “They were in five different shows that I had nothing to do with! That was an extraordinary moment.
“There has been a complete sea change over the past four years. That struck me with a vengeance when I was at the auditions for Over The Rainbow. When we did How Do You Solve A Problem Like Maria? four years ago, very few young people aspired to do musical theatre, but now 16-year-old kids are desperate to be in these shows. There are now at least 10,000 kids who aspire to be on the musical theatre stage.
“They’ve also acquired a lot of great skills. Watching them audition now, that immediately hits one in the gut. The fact is, these programmes have turned a whole generation on to musical theatre.
“And it’s not just musical theatre that has benefited. The West End overall has had its best ever season three years in a row since we started doing these programmes. I’m on the ground floor, and I’ve seen it happen. It’s a whole new ball game now – and I couldn’t be happier about it!”
Another reason these TV talent hunts have been so popular is that Andrew and his panel of judges are always very fair and constructive in their criticism of the competitors. They always accentuate the positive.
“That’s why it works,” Andrew reckons. “We try to get the best performance out of the artists. There is no point in saying to them, ‘you’re useless’.”
Viewers also lap up the terrific on-screen relationship between Andrew and Graham. The composer is a huge fan of the presenter.
“Graham and I both want the same thing – which is the best for the artists,” Andrew observes. “He gets even more upset than I do when one has to leave the show.
“Graham is one of the wittiest people I know, but he’s also prepared to play a lead in a West End show, La Cage Aux Folles. Certain presenters are unlikely to be cast as West End leads. But it shows Graham’s love of performing. He understands things from the performers’ point of view.”
The only part of making Over The Rainbow that Andrew, an avowed cat lover, has not enjoyed has been the search for a dog to play Toto.
He jokes that “all these Totos have been thrust in my direction. As a cat man, it’s been one of the most difficult things I’ve ever had to do!”
It may be the fourth time he has worked on such a show, but Andrew’s passion for them shows no sign of waning.
“I don’t sit there in the TV studio with some grand strategy,” avers the composer. “I’m there because I love it. I’m delighted to be there because I think we’ve helped make musical theatre cool again.”