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Mark Shenton: God, guano and ghosts – the odd, salutary tales of backing a theatre show

Despite producing the mega-hit musical Les Miserable, Cameron Mackintosh hasn't always got it right. The producer was nearly wiped out by a failed early production. Photo: Michael Le Poer Trench/Cameron Mackintosh
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Last year, the London production of Les Miserables distributed a further 280% return of profit, giving investors a total return of over 3,500% on their original investment. In the theatre, it may be difficult to make a living. But you can – sometimes – make a killing.

The corollary of that is another truism: the fastest way to become a millionaire producer is to start as a billionaire. Cameron Mackintosh may be behind the mega-smashes of Les Mis, The Phantom of the Opera, Miss Saigon and the London transfer of Hamilton, but one of his earliest calling cards was a short-lived revival of Cole Porter’s Anything Goes in 1969 that almost wiped him out before he’d even begun.

As he told the Guardian in 2014: “As a young producer, I learned the hard way. Anything Goes lost £40,000 in unsecured loans and another show, At Home With the Dales, lost another £10,000 because no one wanted to see it. And I’ve never forgotten the dagger in my heart of a show called After Shave, which I hoped would be a female Beyond the Fringe, and which turned out a complete disaster.”

If even Mackintosh can’t always get it right, who can? The honest answer is no one: theatre is a pot-shot, a gamble and a necessarily speculative enterprise. Yet to investors, somehow the smell of the greasepaint and the roar of the crowd remains an irresistibly romantic idea – if not an always realistic one.

There are sometimes other, more personal, reasons propelling the desire to invest. Last week, The Stage reported that the parishioners of a village hall in the East Midlands were persuaded to invest in a Christian musical called Heaven on Earth, which collapsed three weeks before it was due to open a five-month arena tour in 2017, leaving a trail of debts estimated to be £2.6 million. As one former parishioner told BBC Inside Out East Midlands: “People sold their cars, their houses and put their savings in. In their minds they were giving to God. It was large amounts of money from people who didn’t have much.”

Exclusive: Collapsed Heaven on Earth musical leaves £2.6m debts

Theatre history is littered with ill-advised investments. Back in 1990, schoolteacher Maureen Hughes and her piano tuner husband Gwyn wrote a musical called Bernadette, based on the true story of a young peasant who had visions of the Virgin Mary at Lourdes in 1858, but they couldn’t find a producer.

A man, whose daughter was taught by Mrs Hughes and who ran a film-equipment haulage firm, devised a plan to crowdfund the necessary finance. As he said in one interview at the time: “Everybody likes it but the West End producers. We’ll call it ‘The People’s Musical’. And we’ll ask the people to help back it. Not with their life savings but as though they were having a flutter on a horse. Small angels.”

The show opened at the Dominion to reviews that included Sheridan Morley dubbing it “like watching a plate of liver”; it was soon redubbed “Berna-don’t” and closed after less than a month.

On Broadway, producer Ken Davenport raised some $2.5 million via crowdfunding for a commercially unsuccessful revival of Godspell in 2011. He then attempted a similar approach for his even more short-lived 2018 musical Getting the Band Back Together, putting the entire town of Sayreville, New Jersey (where the show was set) on the producer billing. Their contribution was more by way of inspiration than hard cash. Kennedy O’Brien, the mayor of Sayreville, said at the time: “What better way to support the production than to become a producer. This new musical is delightful. I haven’t had that much fun in decades.”

And a few years before Betsy DeVos became Donald Trump’s secretary of education, she and her husband Dick backed another short-lived, religious themed-musical – Scandalous! – on Broadway in 2013.

An even odder investment by a tiny Pacific coral island 1,000 miles off the coast of Fiji was made in Leonardo: a West End musical about the life of Da Vinci that opened, and quickly closed, in 1993. The island had made some of its wealth via calcified seagull droppings that were rich in phosphates, which they were able to sell to make fertiliser. A musical that many critics thought was a pile of poo was therefore quite literally financed by an island that monetised the avian variety.

Theatre is used to attracting some odd investors, though the strangest may be one who didn’t even exist.

When a musical version of Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca was due to open on Broadway in 2012, it was fatally derailed when the show’s press agent revealed that a lead investor was a phantom, scaring off another investor in turn. The fraudster was arrested – and the PR was also sued by the producers. They were unsuccessful on the charge of defamation, but he paid damages of $90,000 for breach of contract and tortuous interference.

Mark Shenton is associate editor of The Stage. Read his latest column every Wednesday and Friday at thestage.co.uk/columns/shenton

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