After reading about my night with Michael Jackson, a number of people asked if I had enjoyed similar experiences. Well, in fact I have. One of my favorites was with Andrew Lloyd Webber. Below is a sketch of my time with the famous composer.
Cats, The Phantom of the Opera, Evita, Jesus Christ Superstar, Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat – all ground breaking theater hits, all created by Andrew Lloyd Webber. By 1985, Webber was the theater world’s undisputed master of the universe. But his musical sights were sat on a grander plan.
The rights to Webber’s many musical creations had been transferred to a company with a tongue-in-cheek name: “The Really Useful Company” and a clever logo — a Swiss Army knife. Webber’s business partner in Really Useful was a dapper Brit named Brian Brolly. Brolly, a music entrepreneur, had most recently been Paul McCartney’s manager. He was never without his Seville Street suits accessorized with bold stripped Jermyn Street shirts, ties and cufflinks. Together, Webber and Brolly were the left brain-right brain of a global music theater empire.
Webber’s newest creation was a revolutionary theater product that had awed London, a show called Starlight Express. (The story is loosely about trains coming to life in a child’s mind and their contest to be the world’s fastest train.) The show was entirely on roller skates. The set of intertwining, overlapping, criss-crossing roller runways was the performance’s true star. The show’s popularity was attested by its record-breaking run at London’s Apollo Victoria Theatre. Although the performance had been a smash success in London, Webber and Brolly had plans for a United States spectacular. Knowing that Pepsi-Cola was interested in musical tie-ins, Brolly called Pepsi-Cola’s Brenda Barnes.
Barnes was the 31-year-old head of marketing for Pepsi-Cola North America. A decade later, Barnes would make headlines by retiring at age 43 from her lucrative and high profile job as Chief Operating Officer of Pepsi-Cola to spend more time with her three children. The international press loved the story and ran headlines like “Business Exec Retires to be Soccer Mom” and “Tug of Home is Stronger than Pull of the Office”. Overnight, Brenda became the unwitting center of the debate over the balance between home and office for working moms.
Late in the afternoon, Barnes called with an invitation that seemed too good to be true – let’s fly to London, attend The Starlight Express, and discuss with Webber and Brolly sponsorship rights to the show in the United States. In typical Pepsi fashion, we left the next day.
Brolly graciously invited us to dinner at his slightly musty London club. Over dinner, Brolly laid out Really Useful’s plan for two production companies of Starlight Express to simultaneously criss-cross America for months’ long stays at stadium venues. The initial launch would go on for two years with the premiere performance in Madison Square Garden. The plans were exciting, expansive, and very expensive.
After dinner, we left for the Apollo Victoria Theater in London’s West End to see what all the excitement was about. In the intimacy of a theater setting, Starlight Express was stunning. The set of roller coaster like lanes and the acrobatic roller skating enthralled the audience. The music pounded to the accelerating roller skates and throbbing lights. Leading the orchestra was Rod Argent, founder of “British Invasion Band”, The Zombies. Starlight Express was a rock show thinly disguised as music theater. Rock ‘n roll music, strobe lights, dazzling costumes, acrobatics — we were smitten.
For any sponsorship deal, the enthusiasm for the product must be tethered to potential financial returns. Did it make sense to pay the aggressive sponsorship fee? The next day we met with Webber and Brolly in the Really Useful offices to better understand the financials. Webber looked like a British character actor with unkept hair, hooded eyes, and perpetually wet lower lip. With irrepressible enthusiasm about his creations, Webber was immediately likeable. His soft voice and soothing British accent made everything he said sound like gospel.
As they laid out their bold plan of attack for the United States, an idiosyncratic habit of Webber’s surfaced repeatedly. In the middle of a conversation, Webber would blankly gaze off into space for minutes at a time in a 1,000-yard stare. During these lapses, Brolly shouldered the conversation and ignored Webber. Barnes and I had the same discomforting thoughts: Was it something I said? Good grief, am I that boring? Should I apologize? Is he not feeling well?
When we confided in Brolly about our apprehension concerning Webber’s vacant stares, Brolly assured us that the stares meant Webber was composing music in his head. Apparently this was part of being a musical genius. The group agreed to meet in two weeks in New York where Webber was scheduled to be at the Broadway opening of his new show, Song and Dance, starring Bernadette Peters. He graciously asked us to join him.
On the flight home combing over the details, Brenda and I returned to earth. The proposed deal called for Pepsi-Cola to put up the initial production cost for the two elaborate touring companies, receive the usual sponsorship rights (advertising, promotions, ticket, etc.) and eventually participate in the tour proceeds. To make any sort of financial sense, the show would have to be a runaway hit.
Back in New York, I called my friend Bill Zysblatt who ran Sound Advice, an accounting firm that worked on tour promotions for the likes of David Bowie and the Rolling Stones. I gave Zysblatt the proposed Starlight Express financials and asked him to calculate how many shows would have to sell out at Madison Square Garden for the project to cash flow and for Pepsi-Cola to recoup its investment. He came back with sheets of numbers and projections, but the answer was simple: the biggest grossing show at Madison Square Garden is the Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey Circus. To be successful, Starlight Express would have to do three times the annual ticket sales of the circus. There would be no Starlight Express in Pepsi’s future.
I called Brolly and explained in detail why the Starlight Express promotion as proposed was unfeasible. I also reluctantly declined the invitation to attend the Broadway opening of Song and Dance the next week. But, in his wonderfully polite British fashion, Brolly said he appreciated the way we handled the matter and insisted that Webber was expecting me and my wife Ellen to not only attend the opening night with him, but to attend the cast party as well. I felt guilty.
I remember little of the short-lived Song and Dance. We proudly sat next to Webber and his wife, the elegant Sarah Brightman, for whom it is rumored he wrote the female lead role in Phantom. What I do recall about the evening is this: at the cast party in an enormous apartment on the Upper West Side was a ferociously large fish tank with a beautiful, half-naked, blue- sequined mermaid languidly swimming from side to side. She swam all night.