December 27, 1982 12:00 PM

One blustery winter day a decade ago a long-haired, 24-year-old Englishman was walking down Broadway when he noticed an alley cat trailing his footsteps. “I had never seen a cat on Broadway before,” remembers Andrew Lloyd Webber. “I decided it was an omen. The theater was in a slump and I figured we were in for a revival.”

Lloyd Webber was right—and he can take some measure of credit for Broadway’s resuscitation. This year, not one but three of his musicals, including, aptly, Cats, are blazing brightly on Broadway and bestowing theatrical immortality on this decade’s most versatile young composer. Of Lloyd Webber’s current hat trick, Evita and Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat were written with his longtime collaborator, lyricist Tim Rice. Cats, the latest and biggest, is Lloyd Webber’s solo triumph, a feline fantasia based on T.S. Eliot’s Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats. With a record-breaking advance of $6.2 million, the show is largely sold out through early spring, and savvy scalpers are getting $100 and up per ticket. “People are looking for escapism that’s intelligent,” says Lloyd Webber. “They want shows with a strong quality of warmth and goodness.” Besides, he believes, there are some great truths loitering in Cats’ back alley. “People say it’s off-duty Eliot, but it’s not. All Eliot’s central themes are there, like mortality and the importance of memory and experience.” At the same time, adds Lloyd Webber, Cats is a different breed from Garfield, 1982’s other celebrated feline. “The word ‘pet’ would have driven Eliot up the wall. His poems weren’t about pampered apartment cats, but about independent animals who live in rubbish dumps or in the country.”

In setting their stalkings and shenanigans to music, the composer was at the mercy of the poet. “There is a great discipline in having verse you can’t alter,” he explains. “There was no one saying: ‘Can you change this a bit?’ or ‘That doesn’t fit the lyrics.’ It was liberating in a way to work alone.” He insists, however, that he looks forward to collaborating again with pal Rice (their first Broadway hit was Jesus Christ Superstar in 1971). “What we are not,” says Lloyd Webber, “is irrevocably linked. That would be unhealthy.”

From his earliest years, the intense, rather shy Englishman has lived for music. His late father, William South-gate Lloyd Webber, was a professor and composer at the Royal College of Music and later director of the London College of Music. Andrew’s mother taught piano. “I was brought up on the Duke Ellington theory of music,” he recalls. “There are two kinds: good and bad.” He studied the former at the Royal College of Music and still bristles at the latter, especially Muzak. “It’s difficult for me to go to a restaurant where it’s playing,” he says. “Besides, music shouldn’t be taken as a background.”

Thus it is perennially in the foreground at his country house near Sydmonton, west of London, which he shares with his wife, Sarah, 29, and children Imogen, 5, and Nicholas, 3. “Music and the theater override everything. I think about music all the time. It consumes me,” says Andrew, who also admits to having a dark streak in his artistic psyche. “There’s a touch of melancholia in me.”

Strains of melancholia waft through the score of Cats, along with the melodic smorgasbord of rock, jazz, disco, classical and reggae that has become a Lloyd Webber trademark. “I’m not frightened of dissonance,” he says. “One of my favorite writers is Prokofiev.” Careful listeners should not be surprised to hear echoes of that composer in Lloyd Webber’s work-in-progress, a musical about American railroads called Starlight Express. “American trains can almost be characters,” says Lloyd Webber cheerfully. “They make such nice noises.”

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