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Mark Shenton: Stephen Ward returns to the London stage, albeit briefly

The private reading of Stephen Ward at the St James Theatre. Photo: Mark Shenton
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We’re used to seeing revivals of successful musicals, as producers try to get a second (or even third) slice of a previously lucrative pie. But invariably the second time round never matches the success of the first – Miss Saigon, for all the trumpeting of its record at the box office on the first day tickets went on sale, ran for less than two years when it was revived at the Prince Edward in 2014. The original Drury Lane production set the record for the longest-running show ever there, with a decade-long run. The exception that proves this rule is Chicago, of which the original Broadway production in 1975 ran for just over two years, whereas its 1996 revival is still running now, the longest running American musical in Broadway history.

But what of less immediately successful titles? Jeeves, originally premiered in 1975, was one of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s most notorious flops, closing after little over a month in its original run and chalking up just 38 performances at Her Majesty’s Theatre. In 1996, he returned to it, with Alan Ayckbourn – who wrote its book – staging a completely overhauled version retitled By Jeeves at his home Stephen Joseph Theatre in Scarborough, before transferring to the Duke of York’s and then the Lyric on Shaftesbury Avenue. So, a flop show can be turned around.

Last week, Andrew Lloyd Webber and his collaborators Don Black and Christopher Hampton revisited another flop, Stephen Ward, that ran at the Aldwych from December 2013 to March 2014. It was staged in a private, invitation-only reading at the St James Theatre in Victoria – a theatre Lloyd Webber now owns and intends to rename the Other Palace next February, a reference to both the nearby Buckingham Palace and the West End home of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, which was the first theatre that Lloyd Webber owned (but has since disposed of his interests in).

I attended the bare-bones reading, and as ever, it was a pleasure to hear (and see) an unadorned show, unencumbered by the ugly designs of its original production, and concentrate just on the music and storytelling, beautifully played by a cast that included Michael Xavier in the title role and Charlotte Spencer and Charlotte Blackledge reprising their original West End roles as Christine Keeler and Mandy Rice Davies respectively.

Meanwhile, Cameron Mackintosh – Lloyd Webber’s producer partner on Cats, Phantom of the Opera and Song and Dance – is coincidentally returning to the scene of a former flop, when Moby Dick, which played for just four months at the Piccadilly in 1992, is revived at the Union this month (previewing from October 12, prior to an official opening on October 18).

It will be interesting to see the future lives of both of the shows.

More comings (and goings) for musicals on both sides of the Atlantic

Hot on the heels of the recent announcement that Jersey Boys is to close on Broadway on January 15 (after an 11-year run there, and since earning over $2 billion in worldwide revenues) has come the news that it will also close at the West End’s Piccadilly Theatre on March 26, after a nine-year run here that originally began at the Prince Edward.

The good news is that this frees up a major central London musical house; it was the sixth longest running musical on the boards, and with little movement expected on the other five above it (Les Mis, Phantom, The Lion King, Mamma Mia! and Wicked), the supply of real estate suitable for musicals is always in chronically short supply.

Broadway has already lined up a tenant to replace Jersey Boys at the August Wilson Theatre on West 52nd Street (the transfer of Groundhog Day from the Old Vic). Meanwhile, in other news from Broadway, Michael Grandage and Christopher Oram have been announced as signed up to lead the creative team as director and designer respectively of the film-to-stage version of Disney’s Frozen, after the withdrawal of the originally announced Alex Timbers and Bob Crowley. It will do an out-of-town try-out in Denver next summer, then head to Broadway’s St James Theatre in spring 2018.

When I interviewed Broadway composer Stephen Schwartz last week, he told me of his disappointment about the failure of a stage version of The Hunchback of Notre Dame to make it to Broadway after its try-out at Paper Mill Playhouse in March 2015, but said that Disney doesn’t like to have more than two of its titles in the theatrical marketplace at any one time, as they don’t want to compete against themselves.

The biggest bombshell from Broadway of the week has to be the imminent theatrical resurrection of convicted fraudster Garth Drabinsky, who went to jail after being convicted of fraud and forgery in Canada in 2009, and is currently unable to travel to the US because he is considered a fugitive there after the collapse of his Livent producing company that had produced shows such as the original Ragtime and Kiss of the Spider Woman as well as a Tony-winning revival of Show Boat.

At the time of his conviction, the New York Times reported: “It became apparent the company’s financial structure could have been inspired by the fictional producer Max Bialystock and his accountant Leo Bloom. The company, the judge found, kept two sets of books: one loss-plagued but with accurate accounting, the other a fiction to impress investors and bankers and boost its stock price. In one case a loss of 41 million Canadian dollars was transformed into a profit of 14 million dollars.” It reported that the Justice Mary Lou Benotto of the Ontario Superior Court commented in her judgement: “The exponential growth of the company was analogous to an athlete taking a performance-enhancing drug. The result may be spectacular, but the means involve cheating.”

In a public talk in 2013 after his release from prison, he told the audience that he now recognises “my flawed ambition of believing I could succeed even to the point of pushing the envelope too far” and that he now knows, “I no longer need to build empires”. He said: “I will never do anything to put myself or my family or my friends or my business colleagues through this agonising experience again.”

Be that as it may, he’s intent on a different kind of rehabilitation now – of his producing career. He is presenting a new musical Sousatzka, scored by Maltby and Shire and to be directed by former RSC artistic director Adrian Noble, that will be premiered in Toronto next February, ahead of a planned transfer to Broadway in October 2017, which he will presumably be unable to attend himself.

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