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For Richard Curtis, Creating the New Andrew Lloyd Webber Revue Was Like Writing Love Actually

Curtis, the screenwriter behind some of the world's best-loved romantic comedies, turns his attention to Unmasked at Paper Mill Playhouse.

Richard Curtis has given the world some of its favorite rom-coms. Four Weddings and a Funeral is his; so are Notting Hill, Bridget Jones's Diary, and Love Actually. With Rowan Atkinson, Curtis co-created hit British sitcoms Mr. Bean and Blackadder; for actor Dawn French, Curtis wrote the hilarious Vicar of Dibley series.

With a résumé like that, you can basically do anything you want. So Curtis has briefly turned his attention to the theater, devising and co-creating the new revue Unmasked: The Music of Andrew Lloyd Webber at New Jersey's Paper Mill Playhouse. Curtis is a longtime friend of Lloyd Webber's and a natural fit for this project, which allowed Curtis to interview his old pal and discuss the creation of iconic shows like Cats and The Phantom of the Opera.

Unexpectedly for Curtis, building Unmasked was a little like putting together Love Actually. Weaving stories in and out of a whole arc, he says it's like working on "a fabulous jigsaw puzzle," one with some of the best musical-theater songs ever written.

Richard Curtis is the cocreator of Unmasked: The Music of Andrew Lloyd Webber.
(© Neil Grabowsky/Wikimedia Commons)

You're best known for your films, but tell me about your theater background.
Mainly, my theater background has been going to the openings of Andrew Lloyd Webber shows. This is a really lovely thing for me, because we all have alternative lives we could have led, and I often think that if Four Weddings and a Funeral hadn't been so successful, I would have stopped trying to make films and gone into theater. I've twice written half a play, but never finished them because I had to go write another Hugh Grant vehicle.

How, then, did you come to devise Unmasked?
I've known Andrew for many, many years, and when he started to think about doing a show that pulled together all of his stuff, he knew how much I love his work and we just got into a series of conversations about the best way to do it. We talked a lot about how to do something a bit new, and we came up with the idea of, instead of a guy standing at a podium reading out anecdotes, having Andrew himself telling all these stories. On four or five days over the last year, we met up with Andrew and talked through his observations about writing musicals, and the relationships between his life and songs, just with a handheld camera. There are 30 songs and 17 one-minute snippets of Andrew talking about them. I'm really in it for the joy of it. I love rehearsals because I don't have to do any work — I just listen to these marvelous songs being marvelously sung.

Mamie Parris in Unmasked: The Music of Andrew Lloyd Webber at Paper Mill Playhouse.
(© Jerry Dalia)

Did the process of creating this show in any way resemble the process of creating a film like Love Actually?
When I wrote Love Actually, I had the 10 stories and I wrote a bit of each one after another. When we screened that movie, it didn't work at all because there was no investment in any of the stories. One of the things we did in this was put the musicals into chunks. Let's not just have 30 songs, but mini versions of Jesus Christ Superstar, Joseph, Evita, Cats, Phantom, and Sunset Boulevard. We wanted to represent the most famous shows, and that's quite tough because you're only doing 12 minutes per show and have to make choices as to what would be the best character arcs to represent each one. So in that way, there were similarities: having an enormous amount of material and reshaping it. It's been a fabulous jigsaw puzzle.

What were some of the most fun anecdotes about Andrew that you learned in this process?
A late addition was Andrew remembering that he had written the tune for "With One Look" from Sunset Boulevard when Disney asked him to write The Little Mermaid. He plays the tune and explains how it would have fit perfectly with the image of a mermaid gliding through the water, but then he didn't get the job because his vision was too dark. In the book, he describes how he had written the tune of Jesus Christ Superstar and forgot it, and then one day, he remembered it and charged into a restaurant and wrote it on a paper napkin. It's things like that that I've picked up from the book and knowing him for ages. With any luck, it's like having Andrew Lloyd Webber sitting next to you in the theater, whispering in your ear a little treat before each song.

Has creating Unmasked whetted your theatrical appetite? Do you want to turn any of your films into musicals?
It's certainly being talked about, and I am sort of working on one. But I am meant to have retired. One of the things about something like this is that Andrew has done the bulk of the work. I'm about to do another stage show with Rowan Atkinson in February of next year, and we're going to take pieces from his whole career, from Mr. Bean and Blackadder, which I wrote with him, so I might be getting lazy. But I hope you wouldn't spot that if you watch Unmasked. I'm hoping it's not just one box of chocolates, but two: one that's Andrew's stories, and one that's all of his songs.