The New York media are smelling blood around Andrew Lloyd Webber, with both the Daily News and New York Post leading their March 12 entertainment sections with stories on Lord Lloyd-Webber's apparent retrenchment from the theatre world.
The Post speculates that the 48-year-old composer is contemplating "semi-retirement" and will cut his Really Useful Group (RUG) New York production office from 24 staffers down to two. The Daily News goes even further, saying the entire office will be shut down as of July 1, with the ax hovering over offices in Australia and Europe as well.
Reached March 12, Webber spokesperson Peter Brown denied these rumors, just as he had Feb. 20 when Playbill On-Line initially contacted him about events in the wake of Sunset Boulevard's imminent closing, March 22. "Nothing has changed since we spoke last," said Brown. "No decision has been made on any of these things." In denying the Daily News' report that Webber has sold 30 percent of Really Useful Group to Polygram to pay off a $100,000 million bank loan (giving Polygram an option to acquire a majority share of the company in six years), Brown said, "Webber owns the copyright to all his material."
Sunset Boulevard, which was the hottest ticket in town when Glenn Close opened it at Broadway's Minskoff Theatre Nov. 17, 1994, has not fared as well at the box office during Elaine Paige's tenure. A major star in London, Paige is significantly less well-known in the U.S. Brown confirmed a published report in the Post that the 85 percent recoupment figure for Sunset was accurate. "Eventually we almost certainly expect to recoup fully," Brown said, "within the show's lifetime. Once we get through merchandising, recording revenues, revivals, stock and amateur rights... A show that runs as long as Sunset doesn't die."
Asked in February about the rumors circling around Webber, Brown confirmed that 16 people were fired from the London Really Useful office, "but those were normal for the industry. There were no new productions this year, and those people were specifically involved in new productions. We've been unusual in that every year for several years we've had a new show." The New York office has had no lay-offs and none are planned. As for Webber's personal circumstances, Brown dismissed rumors of financial trouble and said, "He's selling one house and buying another." The Goodspeed Opera House production of Webber's musical By Jeeves, which opened March 4 at the Geffen Playhouse in Los Angeles, has added two weeks to its L.A. run, and has announced that it will open at the Washington DC Kennedy Center's 489-seat Terrace Theatre, in the first week of June for a 13-week run.
Originally titled Jeeves, the show opened in London in 1975 with music by Webber and book and lyrics by Alan Ayckbourn. Webber and Ayckbourn opened a revised version of the musical in the West End in summer 1996. The American premiere opened in November 1996 for an extended run at the Goodspeed Opera House in East Haddam, CT.
A December column in Variety by Michael Flemming attributed the Los Angeles premiere to a concern about opening the show on Broadway in the same season as Webber's Hal Prince-directed Whistle Down the Wind. However, that show has since postponed its Broadway opening indefinitely (the Daily News estimates cancellation would cost RUG $7 million). Whistle did, however, break box office records at the National Theatre in Washington DC, not far from where By Jeeves will play.
Fleming also reported that after L.A. And DC, By Jeeves would open on Broadway, potentially at Circle in the Square, though a spokesperson for that theatre said March 3, "there is nothing happening with it."
The L.A. production retains most of the original Goodspeed cast, although Richard Kline, the original Jeeves, left the Goodspeed production and now appears in the off Broadway production of Boychik. Productions of By Jeeves will be licensed by each venue from Webber's production company The Really Useful Group (RUG), and are overseen, though not produced, by RUG.
In February, Brown reaffirmed that plans are underway to bring Evita back to the stage in the distant future, and that the Warner Brothers film of Phantom of the Opera is currently looking for a director (the casting will be under Webber's control). Also, the Universal animated film of Cats is currently in pre-production, with no voices yet cast.
For tickets and information on Sunset Boulevard at the Minskoff call (212) 307-4007. For tickets to Cats at the Winter Garden call (212) 239-6200. For tickets to Phantom Of The Opera at the Majestic call (212) 239-6200. You can also order tickets on Playbill On-Line.
--By David Lefkowitz