The closing when the customers won’t come

Don Black, Andrew Lloyd Webber and Richard Eyre at the launch of new musical Stephen Ward.
Mark Shenton
Mark is associate editor of The Stage, as well as joint lead critic. He has written regularly for The Stage since 2005, including 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.