Stephen Ward – the end of the affair for Andrew Lloyd Webber?

Charlotte Spencer and Charlotte Blackledge in Stephen Ward. Photo: Nobby Clark.
Charlotte Spencer and Charlotte Blackledge in Stephen Ward. Photo: Nobby Clark.
Richard Jordan is an award-winning UK and international theatre producer. He has been a regular contributor to The Stage since 2005.
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Goodbye Stephen Ward, Andrew Lloyd Webber’s latest musical which played its final performance at the Aldwych Theatre on Saturday just over three months after its world premiere, making it his biggest West End flop since Jeeves at Her Majesty’s Theatre in 1975.

But unlike Jeeves, which saw Lloyd Webber’s come back with Cats in 1981 that subsequently led on to a global domination of his new musicals throughout the eighties and early nineties, Stephen Ward's closure may be significant in finally marking the end of Lloyd Webber as the most bankable composer of new musicals in the West End.

Stephen Ward follows a series of disappointing musicals for Lloyd Webber which have failed to fulfil their full production or box office potential. What saddens me is that, in my opinion, Stephen Ward is the best musical he has written in years and was one of the best new musicals of 2013. I think it has been unfairly overlooked in this year’s Olivier award nominations.

Because of his success, Lloyd Webber is someone who is always going to have more eyes judging him than others, and sometimes even unfairly.

Stephen Ward was a return to form for Lloyd Webber, largely due to him reuniting with Christopher Hampton as his book writer. I am shocked by its rapid demise, when one considers that his previous musicals (even the more recent ones), have been guaranteed strong sales and healthy advances for many months and a core loyal fan base and with much poorer notices than those which greeted Stephen Ward.

One reason given for its early closure is whether anyone really still cares about the Profumo affair. In fairness, one might equally respond to this question by asking if anyone ever cared before about an Argentinian dictator and his wife. However, in both these cases, the point is missed which is that these are good stories in their own right.

If Evita were to premiere today would it have suffered a similar fate? Audiences' interest in this form of musical have shifted. The arrival of shows such as The Book of Mormon and Avenue Q reflect that, and have a different sound to the rock scores of Evita or Jesus Christ Superstar. Modern audiences may feel Lloyd Webber sounds old-fashioned however much he electrifies his score, or maybe even because of it.

Still, there is still an enduring popularity and need for the classic book musical which should not be overlooked, and a work like Stephen Ward is important in reflecting this. It is not a screen-to-stage adaptation, but an original book musical. This is something so many of today's composers are no longer being afforded the opportunity to write for either the West End or Broadway. The survival of the original book musical is of crucial importance if the musical is to exist long after Disney and other film conglomerates have lost interest.

Unlike every other Lloyd Webber musical, Stephen Ward almost crept into the West End. It lacked the pre-production buzz of his other shows and then had the misfortune of opening on the same night that the Apollo Theatre’s ceiling collapsed, stealing away valuable headlines for the musical. The marketing campaign was lacklustre, although I cannot decide if this was due to misplaced overconfidence or even complacency. No one was able to figure who the target audience was. For example, its poster left it very unclear if it was a play or musical; nor did it have a star name in the lead. As Love Never Dies had previously proved, Lloyd Webber’s name alone on the poster is no longer enough to sell tickets.

But, in the same week Stephen Ward announced its closure, London fringe theatre the Union announced it would be presenting in April the first London revival of The Beautiful Game reconceived for a small-scale production. Lloyd Webber himself has not been averse to revisiting his musicals; the ill-fated Jeeves got a makeover to return in 1996 as By Jeeves, while in Canada in 2009 The Beautiful Game was revised and retitled as The Boys in the Photograph.

Whether this will be the path for Stephen Ward only time will tell, but I hope it is not the last we have seen of this musical. In the meantime, the industry will now be questioning if it was simply the subject matter that did not engage with audiences, or if the affair between Lloyd Webber and his audiences is finally over.

4 Comments

  1. I’m a writer (see Amazon) based in Ireland who is trying very hard to get a serious producer to consider his minimalist stage adaptation of THE LEGEND OF SLEEPY HOLLOW. It is not Disney-esque, kitsch, camp,a revival, a juke-box musical or a film adaptation. It is a dark, emotional piece of drama, time updated to post WW1. Should any producer who is SERIOUSLY interested (don’t request it just to stick it in a slush pile for 3 months. Been there, wasted that time,) please get in touch via my writer’s blog. Thank you.
    http://andrewhawcroft.blogspot.ie/

  2. The main difference between Evita and Stephen Ward is the quality of the music. Evita: stunning music. Stephen Ward: boring music. This is the main reason, in my opinion, why the former was a success and the latter a failure.

  3. My love affair with Theatre started over 40 years ago, and long may it continue! My preference has always been for the Play. Be it a well acted comedy, thriller or melodrama. All praise for a Producer brave enough to bring a Play into ‘Town’! The balance has tipped way too far in the number of musicals, some of which. To me, are well past their artistic value. Only kept running to fill the tills of the Box Office. More Plays and fewer Musicals!
    Jonathan

  4. Thanks for all these comments. In relation to PG Tips remark I am not sure if it’s fair to contrast the scores of EVITA and STEPHEN WARD as they are radically different and I think they therefore cannot simply be generalised. In both these works the score and orchestration of each suits the context of; the subject matter, the storytelling, and crucially the characters involved. EVITA needs to be a sweeping score and songs for example such as; “Don’t Cry for Me Argentina” “She’s a Diamond”, or “Rainbow Tour” sung by those characters also define and represent each characters own journey arcs through telling the musicals story. By nature STEPHEN WARD is much more subtle and intricate in its own story telling and almost a modern chamber musical. But its movement of narrative is also clever and can be strongly reflected in songs again for example such as; “1963”, When you get to know me” or “You’ve Never Had It So Good”. Looking at them side by side both are true stories however EVITA is a series of cleverly woven set numbers linked with the character Che providing narration and observations in a ficticious relationship with the leading lady, therefore, in some respects STEPHEN WARD is more complex in structure with a virtually through sung score and its characters providing a driving narrative with each other in real time without using an outside observer or commentator (except on occasion Ward himself) as the principal scene setter. This I think is skilful musical writing and why STEPHEN WARD is one of the best musicals Andrew Lloyd Webber has written in years, and one of the best original book musicals of 2013. It is for these achievements by Lloyd Webber, Lyricist Don Black and Book Writer Christopher Hampton, alongside the fact that this musical is also the first Lloyd Webber has orchestrated himself, why I believe it deserved to have been recognised in the recent Olivier award nominations.

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