LONDON — He's done the Bible, felines, operatic phantoms and Argentine politics. So what is Andrew Lloyd Webber's latest musical about?
Sex — as well as politics, spying, social revolution and the Cold War.
"Stephen Ward" centers on a sensational real-life scandal, the 1963 revelation that Britain's war secretary, John Profumo, was involved with model Christine Keeler, who was also sleeping with a Soviet naval attache. If, as poet Philip Larkin once said, sex began in 1963, the "Profumo affair" was the Big Bang.
With its collision of sex, wealth and national security, the Profumo affair rattled Britain's Establishment, came close to toppling the government, and fascinated the nation.
But Lloyd Webber says his musical, which opens in London in December, is about more than the scandal — it's a portrait of a "febrile time" of tumultuous social change.
"The Profumo affair takes up three minutes of stage time," the composer told The Associated Press on Monday at a preview of songs from the show. But the ripples are still being felt. "It's just extraordinary, really, the ramifications of what went on."
Lloyd Webber said he grew fascinated by Stephen Ward, a well-connected osteopath with a knack for bringing together the powerful, the beautiful and the sexually adventurous at the swingingest of Swinging London soirees.
It was Ward who introduced Keeler to Profumo, during a party at an aristocrat's country house. After the scandal erupted he was arrested, accused of pimping, tried and convicted of living off "immoral earnings." He died from an overdose of sleeping pills before he could be jailed.
Lloyd Webber — composer of "Jesus Christ Superstar," ''Cats," ''Phantom of the Opera" and "Evita" — said the more he found out, the more convinced he became that Ward had been made a scapegoat.
He said Ward's conviction could be seen as "one of the great perversions of justice," and is an episode still shrouded in secrecy.
"To this day you still cannot get a transcript of the trial, which is completely extraordinary," Lloyd Webber said. Some of the documents connected to the scandal have been ordered sealed to the public until 2046.
The musical, which opens at London's Aldwych theatre in December, is Lloyd Webber's first new show since the "Phantom" sequel "Love Never Dies," which opened in 2010 to mixed reviews. Book and lyrics are by Christopher Hampton and Don Black — the same team that wrote Lloyd Webber's "Sunset Boulevard."
Journalists and industry guests got a glimpse of the new show Monday at a preview inside a strip bar-turned-nightclub in London's once-sleazy, now slightly sanitized Soho district.
A cast that includes West End veteran Alexander Hanson as Ward and 21-year-old Charlotte Spencer as Keeler performed several songs, including an opener, "Human Sacrifice," that sees the vilified Ward relegated to a wax museum house of horrors, "stuck between Hitler and the Acid Bath Murderer," an English serial killer during the 1940s.
Another number was a jaunty ode to the new sexual freedoms, titled after a political slogan of the day: "You've never had it so good." The next line is: "You've never had it so often."
There are lyrics that saucily allude to spanking and "jolly threesomes in Belgravia" — rhymed with "misbehavior."
While Ward was doomed by the scandal, Profumo resigned, spent the rest of his life doing charity work, and died in 2006. The two central women involved, Keeler and her friend Mandy Rice-Davies, remain famous for their association with the events of 50 years ago.
Keeler is not involved with the production, but Rice-Davies — then a topless dancer, now an elegant woman approaching 70 — has helped with background and research.
She said she was wary of dredging up the past, but trusted Lloyd Webber "because I believed he'd make an honest witness."
"I wanted the story told of Stephen Ward that would fill the gap between the myth and the man," she said.
"Stephen was an odd bird," she added. "He was certainly part of the vanguard movement for free love and free sex — and like any vanguard he got shot down first."
And Rice-Davies said the 1960s' image as a sex-soaked decade is overstated. Things are much more permissive now.
"In those days there were good girls and there were bad girls," she said. "Good girls didn't have any sex at all, and bad girls had a bit."