Previews for the new Lloyd Webber musical begin at the Palace Theatre Aug. 28.
Hopes are high for the show’s commercial fate, since the Wilkie Collins novel brings Lloyd Webber back to somewhat familiar territory. A gothic setting, a Victorian novel, mystery, romance, a dastardly arch-seducer played by Michael Crawford. Ring any bells? And with Phantom of the Opera about to begin its 18th year in Her Majesty’s Theatre, producer Sonia Friedman candidly told the Evening Standard newspaper that the production team are hoping to emulate that success.
The musical with the mask, of course, saw the composer collaborate with young lyricist Charles Hart. Woman In White brings him together with another young talent, playwright Charlotte Jones (who scored a West End hit with her play Humble Boy), to write the book. American writer David Zippel (whose credits include the much-admired but, in London, only briefly seen City of Angels) supplies the lyrics and Trevor Nunn directs.
The Collins novel tells its story from the varying and sometimes contradictory points of view of its various characters. According to an interview with the London Times, Jones has made it more linear. “It’s a great book to adapt, because it’s quite flawed,” said Jones. “So you can be quite free.” She has even changed the crucial secret that lies at the heart of the original, though she won’t yet say how.
Lloyd Webber got the idea for the show when he admitted on a BBC chat show that he had no ideas for a new musical. A viewer wrote in, suggesting The Woman in White, and soon the project was announced. However, it was the casting of Crawford as the oily villain Count Fosco — despite his recent fangy flop in New York’s Dance of the Vampires — which really grabbed public attention, with all its Phantom associations. Crawford, though, will display new talents in this one; since Fosco is an animal lover, the actor will be working closely with a whole assortment of live animals, including a party of mice. Maria Friedman, the other big name in the cast, co-stars as the sleuthing heroine Marian Halcombe. Angela Christian plays the title role, with Martin Crewes as the dashing Walter Hartright and Jill Paice as his adored Laura Fairlie. Oliver Darley is Fosco’s comrade-in-curmudgeon, Sir Percival Glyde. Also in the cast are Edward Petherbridge, Nicky Adams, Eoin Cannon, Greg Clarke, Elinor Collett, Christopher Connah, Adrian Der Gregorian, Susie Fenwick, Helen George, Mark Goldthorp, John Griffiths, Andrew Keelan, Paul Kemble, Joanna Kirkland, Jo Napthine, Vince Pirillo, Yvette Robinson, James Spilling, Steve Varnom, Sophie Catherside, Leah Verity White and Sydney White.
Nunn, a veteran of Lloyd Webber shows including Starlight Express, Aspects of Love and Sunset Boulevard, leads a creative team that includes designs by William Dudley, lighting by Paul Pyant, movement direction by Wayne McGregor and sound by Mick Potter. Simon Lee is musical supervisor, with orchestrations by Lloyd Webber and David Cullen and musical direction by Stephen Brooker.
Although its £4 million price tag is lower than the cost of rivals like Mary Poppins, let alone 2005’s projected Lord of the Rings (currently touting the figure of £10 million), Lloyd Webber has promised plenty of spectacle. There are no crashing chandeliers in the book, but the composer told the Times that Dudley has used the idea of the Victorian lantern to great effect — “We are going a lot further than anybody has done so far in using projected images.” With an intimate chamber-like orchestra of fourteen though, he warns audiences not to expect Phantom 2.