The closing when the customers won’t come

Don Black, Andrew Lloyd Webber and Richard Eyre at the launch of new musical Stephen Ward.
Don Black, Andrew Lloyd Webber and Richard Eyre at the launch of new musical Stephen Ward.
Mark writes regularly for The Stage, including reviews from London and the regions, features and, since 2005, a daily online column.
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Last year started with two Broadway imports – which won the Tony awards for best musical in 2011 and 2012 respectively – opening back to back in the West End, when The Book of Mormon and Once transferred here. Both are still running now, and are more than likely to be leading contenders when the nominations for this year's Olivier Awards are announced on March 11.

But the autumn and winter saw an even more interesting contest, when Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber – who had their earliest hits together, including three shows that have entered the canon as amongst the signature shows of their era – also went head to head against each other instead of with banging heads together, to respectively write From Here to Eternity and Stephen Ward.

From Here to Eternity opened first, last October – and despite wags quickly re-dubbing it 'from here to November', it has at least outlasted those dire predictions. But after previously announcing it would run till the end of April, it was subsequently revealed last month that it would close on March 29, instead: a face-saving (but loss-making) run of just six months.

Stephen Ward opened just before Christmas – but in a possibly bad omen for the show, its opening night on December 19 was eclipsed by a genuine theatre catastrophe happening not too far away. As the curtain came down at the Aldwych, news quickly spread through the departing first night audience that part of the ceiling had come down at the Apollo. As co-writer Don Black told the Daily Telegraph,

We had a lot of bad luck. On our opening night, the Apollo's roof fell down [it was in fact, part of the Apollo's ceiling]. And there hasn’t been much publicity about the show because of that.

It's certainly a novel excuse for the failure of a musical to catch on, but then theatre ceilings don't often come down. But was that really the reason for the show to fail to catch on? As the headline to a news story in The Stage in January put it, "Apollo incident ‘has had no impact on West End audiences’", with other producers around town quoting upbeat returns. Michael Harrison, producer of The Bodyguard, was quoted pointing out,

There was nothing I saw in the Bodyguard figures that suggested a negative impact. What we took at the box office on Friday, December 20, the day after the accident, was just under £100,000. So it was a terrific day. It didn’t put them off.

For whatever reason, though, Stephen Ward last night announced that it, too, will now be closing on March 29 – the same night as From Here to Eternity, but having run two months shorter than the latter, which must be a bittersweet kind of victory for Tim Rice, at least. When Tim Rice was interviewed by the Daily Express during previews of From Here to Eternity, he said, "Andrew came to an early preview and was very polite about it".

According to interviewer Simon Edge, "the pair of them had a discussion about the iconic sex-on-the-beach scene at the end of act one, which wasn't working at that stage, and on the day we speak he has just received a text from his lordship's personal assistant saying a couple of his team had been to see it and thought it was much better now." (The Express headline, not written by the journalist, duly stated: "Sir Tim Rice: Andrew Lloyd Webber helped me to make From Here to Eternity sexy.")

But, as Irving Berlin famously put it in his song 'There's No Business Like Show Business', there's a simple law of theatrical economics that defines a show's run: "The op'ning when your heart beats like a drum/ The closing when the customers won't come." Fixing the sex-on-the-beach scene clearly didn't save the show.

And the fact that both shows are closing on the self-same day could be said to mark the end of an era of British musical making by two men who, separately and together, have defined the genre for over 45 years. Of course, both still have a huge back catalogue that will long remain in circulation: Lloyd Webber's The Phantom of the Opera is the longest running show in Broadway history, and still going strong in the West End and the most successful entertainment property of all time, while his single most modest show – a 55 minute song cycle for a single woman – Tell Me on a Sunday is even now back in town, just around the corner from the Aldwych at the Duchess, with original star Marti Webb once again headlining. And Rice, too, still has The Lion King on marquees from the West End to Broadway and the UK regions (where it is now touring).

Perhaps it is time, at last, for a new guard of musical writers to establish a foothold. But musicals also shouldn't necessarily, as Cats used to famously advertise, run 'now and forever.' When they do, they create a stranglehold on West End theatres. Freeing up both the Shaftesbury and the Aldwych has provided opportunities for new shows to arrive. And that's no bad thing, either.

6 Comments

  1. An interesting editorial. I agree that the Apollo Theatre incident probably didn’t hurt “Stephen Ward” that much. Here in the U.S., there was a similar opening night marked by catastrophe last year — in Las Vegas, Cirque du Soleil’s sitdown production “Michael Jackson ONE” opened the same night that, just a few blocks up the street, an acrobat in Cirque’s sister production “KA” fell from her safety harness during a performance and died of her injuries soon afterward.

    “ONE” had a huge promotional buildup to the opening night and a big, star-studded afterparty, but the company chose to forgo post-premiere horn-tooting in the wake of the “KA” accident. Even mainstream media covered the disaster when, otherwise, the entertainment rags would have been chatting over the “ONE” premiere. And Cirque has had a bumpy road in the past few years; their last few Vegas productions had been critical disappointments and underachievers at the box office. But “ONE” has become a big hit for Cirque even with the unfortunate timing, because there was strong audience interest all along, and once critics got to the business of reviewing it the notices were positive. So it really is a matter of giving the people what they want.

  2. Having seen FROM HERE TO ETERNITY there’s no mystery as to its failure. Had the subject been treated differently it may have been successful as an intense music drama for a few performances at The Linbury, or even a musical of more serious demeanour in a small space, but the producers have tried to make a BIG SHOW that delivers a good time, and the source material is inappropriate for this approach. relentless power It seems to me to be a case that the premise dooms the undertaking; The source cannot be fun and vain attempts – a Maggio that tries to be the audience’s best mate and a Keystone antics performing squad of sailors – can’t help the inability to enjoy it. The rousing patriotic song following death & disillusion, in turn followed by an upbeat call & playout proves the point.

    I mean no disrespect to the performers and even liked two of the songs but it’s not working as a BIG send’em home happy evening. Maybe a furure very small revival with a chamber orchestra and no attempt at spectacle could find something viable in the book & score.

  3. Sorry about a few nonsense words left after hasty editing. Maybe they’re all nonsense words ….

  4. What a bore of an “article”, and sadly indicative of the state of theatre journalism these days.

    This could have been an article about the various reasons a show might not run and investigate some of the theatre’s most successful people’s biggest flops.

    Instead, we got the same old, bland, recycled musings that anyone with a passing interest in theatre could have cobbled together.

    Yes, so Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice both had shows running at the same time. So what? They did before these shows and they will do after. We all know their massive contribution to British musical theatre, or even global musical theatre.

    But the news two of their respective shows haven’t run for three decades is older than old hat. ALW having short-run flops is nothing new – his last show that made a profit in the West End was Aspects (but that bombed on Broadway), and his last decent show going on the general consensus of audience and critics was Sunset Blvd. He hasn’t had a hit anywhere since and has become a bit of an irrelevance, besides those ghastly TV shows. Tim Rice – who, being the more modest of the two, trades less on his ‘brand’ from his glory days in the 70s/80s – has had a couple of post-Lion King successes, but none in the West End. Is it really surprising that neither Stephen Ward nor From Here to Eternity took off? Both were plagued with obvious problems to anyone who saw them (not necessarily/entirely the faults of Lloyd Webber or Rice, either).

    OK, so they’ll close on the same day. Big deal. If anything signalled the end of the Lloyd Webber/Rice era, it was the worldwide simultaneous closures of Sunset Blvd in the late 1990s – a show that could have run longer, but thanks to the hubris of its creator and his production company didn’t.

    Did the article say anything interesting? We’ve all heard the arguments for and against theatres being “clogged up” by long-running musicals. Yes, so on the one hand if they don’t run as long, we have a new rosta of shows on a regular basis; on the other hand, recent writing suggests said rosta pales in comparison to the likes of Phantom and Les Mis.

    And we’ve been talking about the “new guard” of writers for yonks, now — Stiles and Drewe and Howard Goodall from this country, Adam Guettel and Jason Robert Brown etc from across the pond. None of them have achieved ALW/Rice’s success. But that might have been a cultural anomaly in the first place.

    What a tiresome and vacuous rehash this blog has become.

  5. Dear Lloyd Webber:
    Stop doing musicals. Forget beauty, composition, tenderness, drama, passion. It´s time to compose TOURIST ATTRACTIONS. Examples? Wicked, Mamma Mia, Cats, The Phantom of The Opera, The Lion King, Les Miserables. All of them, ARE NOT MUSICALS. They´re real attractions for tourist in search of real spectacles.

  6. What a mournful column! For a moment there I thought one of the two guys in question had died! I hate to break it to Mark but with both of them still with us it is not completely beyond the bounds of possibility that they could in fact work together again- if the right subject/project came along.And indeed I have often thought that if they had been together on “From Here To Eternity” this is exactly the sort of “known” story which – with a better director and some star names ( to help us forget those who appeared in the original film) might, just might have made it a success.
    Anyway I really do think that the Tim Rice/Andrew Lloyd Webber combination is past it’s sell buy date and has been for a long time.It was never a Gilbert and Sullivan/ Rodgers and Hammerstein thing with a whole string of hits to show ( pardon the pun) for it. I might be wrong here but I can count only three musicals that they wrote together ( if you discount “The a Likes of Us” and “Cricket” which you should for various reasons) which is hardly a solid body of work.In fact ALW has worked far more often with Don Black but curiously nobody ever refers to this partnership either breaking up or whatever.
    It remains a pity – an artistic tragedy really that His Lordship has never managed to forge a bond with anyone collaborator because the man’s great weaknesses are his Kern like inability to write lyrics and – worse- his choice of subjects for his sporadic productions.
    Coming after the complete debacle of “Love Never Dies ” itself a truly silly idea, this lack of someone to stimulate him- someone close whom he could trust, it was never so clear how isolated he is. With all his power and prestige as a theatrical composer ( which is what he always claims to be) when all his other projects and plans are sorted I get the sense of a rather lonely, sick man frustrated by the fact that although he can still compose better melodies than anyone else around at this time ( and yes I have heard them all Mark and they are all mediocre at best) he is frustrated as hell at being unable to come up with material that the public wants to see.
    Personally,I enjoyed “Stephen Ward” at least it was a sensible musical play based upon a true story.It was – is- probably his best work since “The Beautiful Game” ( I refuse to use this show’s new title which sounds like an Alan Bennett play) and that was a horrible flop too.
    But it was never going to be a hit; it was too limited in it’s audience a greying crowd who themselves could only barely remember what seems to be a very quaint scandal from long ago. What stimulated His Lordship to write a whole musical about forgotten people is a puzzle.Despite his public utterances it is becoming harder and harder to fathom how his mind works when it comes to settling on a subject for a new show.I could not help feeling for example that if he was really concerned about people who suffered from the kind of rough justice meted out in the 50’s and 60 ‘s surely the names of Timothy Evans, Derek Bentley or Ruth Ellis would have made more suitable “victims” ; after all they did not die by their own hands and there would seem to be more potential drama in a death cell than in a sleazy night club or palace.
    The question now is where does the great man go from here? Despite recent illnesses he is still apparently fit enough to sit down behind a piano (or even in a taxi; see under “A Perfect Song”) and remains the last man standing in musicals who can compose melodies even if they are not as strong as they once were ) For some time I have been advising him in these comments ( which alas he is too cocooned to read) to follow the example of Irving Berlin, who famously hated “book musicals” ) and simply put his songs out there.We need these songs Andrew!
    In the meantime he really does need to take stock.Like all of us he is not getting any younger and for all his other very worthy ideas and endless revivals of old shows ( does anyone really want to see a cartoon version of “Joseph” when there is a perfectly good video of it available? ) he is still supposed to be a musical maker and as such he really needs to make up his mind whether continuing to put on productions that come off within months is worth the candle.He has in fact already admitted that even with his capital the expense is no longer something he can sustain. An announcement that he is retiring from musical composing would be sad but at least would free him from the ridiculous barracking he receives every time a new show flops. (Why he should be given this treatment when the hugely overrated Sondheim gets away with the same thing remains a mystery to me )
    But does he want his career to be written as one who began with a string of huge successes and ended with as many failures.It is well to remember the history of Rodgers and Hammerstein in this regard perhaps; after a decade of flops they suddenly came up with “The Sound of Music ” -which despite being suspiciously reminisced of “The King And I” in plot and content- sent them out on a blaze of glory.There is still hope then.But this course means being very, very careful in his future choice of musical material.He cannot keep on dismissing his failures lightly. Perhaps it is still not too late for him to find a new collaborator who will provide him with a last(?) chance to come up with another “Phantom” (and I don’t mean a sequel to a sequel)

    R

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