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Andrew Lloyd Webber: Michael Jackson wanted to play Phantom

By Katie McLaughlin, CNN
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Andrew Lloyd Webber on the Phantom
  • Andrew Lloyd Webber is working on a stage revival of "The Wizard of Oz"

  • Webber's musical "The Phantom of the Opera" turns 25 this year

  • His song "I Don't Know How to Love Him," was first named "I Long for Kansas Morning"

"Piers Morgan Tonight" airs weeknights on CNN/US at 9 p.m. ET and on CNN International at 0200 GMT (live simulcast), 1200 GMT, and 2000 GMT and HKT.

CNN -- Andrew Lloyd Webber told CNN's Piers Morgan that Michael Jackson wanted to play the title role in the film version of "The Phantom of the Opera." According to Webber, the King of Pop came to see the Broadway show multiple times -- years before the film came out -- and he and Jackson had spoken about a potential "Phantom" movie role.

However, Webber said, "People in those days were very worried that a film, if it was made, would destroy the Broadway or the West End show, and everybody would just go and see the movie. In fact, it's been proven to be completely the other way around. If you make a movie, it's just a great help for the theater. But goodness knows what it would've been like."

The seven-time Tony-winning, four-time Grammy-winning composer of musicals including "Phantom," "Cats," "Evita" and "Jesus Christ Superstar," among others, is a guest on Friday's "Piers Morgan Tonight."

Webber also recalled another legend who had an interest in portraying the Phantom -- Sammy Davis Jr. Webber recalled being introduced to Davis by Liza Minnelli while in the south of France.

"I have never felt so ashamed in my life," said Webber, who said he was skeptical about Davis' ability to fill the role at first. "For 2½ hours I heard one of the most consummate performances I've ever heard, and he ended up doing 'The Music of the Night.'"

Webber told Morgan he had hoped to get Davis to open the production on the Toronto stage but it did not work out.

Webber also told Morgan the story of how "Phantom," which is billed as the most successful musical of all time, came to be. Webber's fiancee at the time, performer Sarah Brightman, had been offered a role in a theatrical farce based on the "Phantom" novel by Gaston Leroux. Several months later, Webber bought a used copy of the novel at a book fair in New York.

Today, Webber's musical version of "The Phantom of the Opera" is coming up on its 25th anniversary. A celebration concert in London is planned.

The musical that catapulted Webber and lyricist Tim Rice to fame, "Jesus Christ Superstar," was called "blasphemous" when it hit the stage in the 1970s.

"We never wrote 'Superstar' to be in any way shocking," said Webber. "We wrote it because we wanted to write the story of the man. And in fact, we really wanted to write a love triangle, because the whole thing was -- did Judas Iscariot have God on his side?"

Morgan pointed out the irony of "Jesus Christ Superstar" causing a controversy when "The Book of Mormon" -- a musical that takes a cynical look at faith -- has just won multiple Tonys.

Webber also told Morgan that "Superstar's" breakout song, "I Don't Know How to Love Him," was originally entitled "I Long for Kansas Morning."

When Morgan suggested that narrative was the key to the longevity of his productions, Webber agreed, and pointed out that "Cats" was a "collection of poems by T.S. Eliot about cats that he wrote for his godchildren. Well, that was quite different, and we stitched them together with a vague story that we discovered that his widow had that he wrote, which was a sort of, forgive the pun, cat's cradle."

Webber told Morgan that the moment in his career that remains in his mind the most and that he would re-live if possible is actress Betty Buckley's performance of the song "Memory" on opening night of "Cats" on Broadway.

Webber's current project is a stage revival of "The Wizard of Oz." He and lyricist Tim Rice have written several new songs for the production, which will also include the songs from the film. The musical will star Michael Crawford in the title role. A longtime colleague of Webber's, Crawford originated the Phantom role on stage.

When Morgan asked Webber why he selected "Oz," and how he knew it would fare well with a modern audience, the composer said, "The trick with those is you've got to find a character to cast that the public knows.

"And of course, the role of Dorothy is something that everybody knows. And that's why we started with that. But interestingly with 'Oz,' it's never really worked in the theater before. And we looked at it very carefully, and came to the conclusion that what people had been trying to do was to stage the film, whereas what you really had to do is to go back and rethink it."

Webber said if he were casting his all-time "dream" musical, it would star Elvis Presley, but of all the people he's worked with in real life, Glenn Close as Norma Desmond in his production of "Sunset Boulevard" would be the hardest act to follow.

Watch Piers Morgan Live weeknights 9 p.m. ET. For the latest from Piers Morgan click here.