Eugenius!, composed by Ben Adams and Chris Wilkins, was supposed to open at the Ambassadors Theatre in the West End two weeks ago. Its journey from page to stage is worth hailing as much as these other two musicals.
The show had first been presented in 2016 as a concert performance at the London Palladium. After further development, it opened in January this year as a full-scale production at Off-West End theatre the Other Palace and returned for a second season in autumn.
The Ambassadors Theatre had suddenly become available following the early closure of the play Foxfinder and so Eugenius! had the opportunity of a direct transfer. This can be challenging for any show – especially a new musical – as more often the build-up to a West End opening is marketed over many months.
Nonetheless, its transfer was announced with everything looking good to go, until a week later, when it was suddenly all off. According to reports, an investor had pulled out at the last minute making a West End transfer impossible.
It was a disappointment for everyone involved, including the theatre who lost out on a ready-made replacement for the show that finished early. However, the producers of Eugenius! behaved responsibly by not pushing forward without the necessary funds secured.
Recently, there have been several news stories about producers who have ended up with shows folding and their casts, creatives, crews, venues and suppliers all left out-of-pocket because they neither secured necessary investment nor sold enough tickets to fund their running costs.
Eugenius! is certainly not the first – nor will it be the last – show to reflect how terrifyingly quickly something can unravel in the theatre. Its producers were fortunate that although the transfer was announced, they were still able to get out before things had gone too far. Any longer and the show could have become a runaway train. Scenarios like these often prompt producers to start praying for miracles.
One of the things I often ask young producers who come to talk to me about their shows is what happens if it does not go according to plan? Understandably, you produce with the belief that a show will be successful, but it’s important to think carefully about the downside and be prepared for a worst-case scenario.
Producers are optimists. That’s the nature of the business. The vitality of theatre producing must therefore encourage practical dreamers, but this must be backed up with realism. There are no certainties in theatre except that, as a producer, at some point you will inevitably fall off the horse. Optimism gives you the courage to get back in the saddle, and experience should bring with it an understanding of how to approach such challenging situations in the future.
How to close a show is also as important as how to open one, and this may determine a producer’s reputation, which, if handled correctly, will earn them the nerve to try again.
The unpredictability of theatre remains the biggest risk, and for a producer, challenges can arise at any stage. The West End impresario Harold Fielding’s illustrious 50-year career hit the wall in 1988 when he produced the musical Ziegfeld at the London Palladium. It was a disastrous and misguided journey to the stage. Ultimately, a producer is only as good as their last show and the failure and losses Fielding sustained saw a tragic finale to his otherwise glorious career.
This is not to diminish the producer’s responsibility towards those they engage, those who invest or fund and the theatres who host them.
You can learn as much from a flop as a hit. But one of the industry’s faults is that producers can find themselves in financial trouble and in a bid not to lose face may not want to tell anyone else about it. Invariably, this sees the situation escalate to crisis point, and by that time with the problems apparent, they’re often irrevocable.
In a small industry with no shortage of gossips, a failure can feel a humiliating career-killer. It is also in these highly stressful moments that producers make particularly bad decisions in chasing that elusive hit, sometimes even as extreme and alarming as remortgaging their homes.
Commercial theatre can sometimes present a dangerously cavalier attitude towards money, often with subsequent bragging about how much things have cost. This can then also result in a lot of bravado if a show fails at the box office, but much weeping behind closed doors.
So, does theatre need to better address how to support those who hit producing challenges? I’d like to think if a producer hits financial straits it is due to naivety and blind love, rather than malice. But that still does not excuse individuals being left owed money.
If a producer can talk to someone confidentially about trying to find solutions early on if a production crisis occurs, this can only be advantageous for everyone. But it also requires the producer themselves to take a responsible and pragmatic approach to their work, learning from past experiences.
It’s why Eugenius! producers deserve praise. The difficult decision they took came from responsibly drawing on their past knowledge and experience, while their swift actions have also retained respect from the company and a continued trust in their future endeavours with this charming new musical.
Richard Jordan is a producer and regular columnist for The Stage. Read his latest column every Thursday at thestage.co.uk/author/richard-jordan