Months of speculation ended yesterday when composer Lord Andrew Lloyd Webber announced that he had completed negotiations to buy the ten theatres in the Stoll Moss Theatre Group for £87.5 million ($145 million U.S.), bringing to a close the biggest shake-up in theatreland in 80 years. The deal -- which includes such reputed West End houses as the Palladium, the Garrick, the Drury Lane and most of Shaftesbury Avenue -- makes Lloyd Webber the biggest London theatre owner by far, with control of nearly a third of the West End.
Janet Holmes a Court, widow of Australian tycoon Robert Holmes a Court and owner of Stoll Moss, put the company up for sale in August, for a reported price tag of £100m, prompting a flurry of international bidding. Bidders included US conglomerate SFX Entertainment, which snapped up the UK's Apollo Leisure Group of mainly regional theatres last summer, Sir Cameron Mackintosh, American oil magnate Max Wiezenhofer, and Holmes a Court's own son, Peter, a New York theatre producer.
Announcing the news, Lloyd Webber said he had acted in order to keep West End theatre "in the hands that it should be kept in, and not in the hands of pen-pushers and number-crunchers." He had been worried, he said, that the businessmen interested in the group "wouldn't necessarily understand the thing about the theatre is you have got to take risks." He denied that he would use the venues as a proprietary vehicle for his own shows and said he would continue Stoll Moss's policy of staging a diverse range of musicals, drama and new work.
Lloyd Webber raised the money for the deal by teaming up with venture capitalists NatWest Equity Partners who will take a 50 percent stake in the newly formed company, Really Useful Theatres. The composer will cede ownership of his three existing theatres -- the New London, the Palace and a half-share in the Adelphi -- to the new company, bringing the total number of venues held to 13, though two, the Queen's and the Gielgud, will pass to impresario Cameron Mackintosh in 2004 as part of an earlier purchase.
Stoll Moss's chief executive, Richard Johnson, will stay on with the rest of the company's management. No major changes or mass redundancies are planned. As part of its expansion, however, Really Useful Theatres will actively look to buy theatres elsewhere, including on Broadway. Lloyd Webber has been one of the most powerful creative influences on British theatre over the past few decades with his international hit musicals including Cats, Phantom of the Opera, Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, Sunset Boulevard, Aspects of Love, Starlight Express and Whistle Down the Wind. In recent years, he has also proved to be a formidable business force in the theatre world. He brought his producing company, the Really Useful Group, back from the brink and last year purchased full control of the company, including 100 percent copyright of all his musicals, from Polygram.