The West End was in a state of upheaval today as it was announced that Britain's biggest theatre operator, the Apollo Leisure Group, has been acquired by US giant SFX Entertainment for nearly £160 million. The announcement comes in the same week that the Stoll Moss Group, the largest theatre owner in the West End, was also put up for sale with an estimated price tag of £100 million. These moves, combined with the ongoing bidding for Crescent, another West End rival, means that more than half of London's theatreland will change ownership by the end of the year.
Although Apollo counts amongst its London interests the Apollo Victoria, Apollo Hammersmith and its flagship theatre, the Lyceum, where Disney's The Lion King is preparing to open next month, the majority of its venues are based outside the capital, taking in such prominent regional theatres as the Palace in Manchester and the Hippodrome in Bristol.
Stoll Moss, on the other hand, owns 10 of the West End's most famous theatres including the Palladium, the Garrick, the Theatre Royal Drury Lane and the New London, where Cats has been playing for over 18 years. And Crescent owns seven West End theatres including the Whitehall and the Comedy.
Prior to the Apollo announcement, SFX, which recently bought Broadway theatre owner Livent, had been rumored as a possible buyer of both Stoll Moss and Crescent, but this is now unfeasible as the Office of Fair Trading will not approve such a monopoly. SFX is already the largest operator of live entertainment venues in the world with 82 properties in the US. The company's presence here is sure to cause alarm amongst British producers, directors and playwrights who have already expressed concern over the quality of serious drama on offer in the face of an unprecedented number of musicals, many of them New York transfers, which are hitting the West End. Currently, there are 19 musicals playing with another dozen expected within the coming months.
They are unlikely to be reassured by comments made by SFX executive chairman Robert Sillerman who called the acquisition of Apollo "a great entry point for us in the European market" and went on to add that "this transaction develops our capability to offer international one-stop shopping for performers and events, leveraging off our relationships with touring international acts." Janet Holmes à Court, owner of Stoll Moss, has becoming a leading figure in London and Britain's theatre industry, consistently being named amongst the top five most important players by The Stage newspaper. She recently won an award for Businesswoman of the Year for turning Stoll Moss around after inheriting the company on the death of her husband, the Australian tycoon Robert Holmes à Court. It is rumored that Ms Holmes à Court wants to sell up in order to concentrate on her interests in Australia, possibly even to launch a political career there.