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

Charlotte Spencer and Charlotte Blackledge in Stephen Ward. Photo: Nobby Clark.
Richard Jordan
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.