The Woman in White Opens in London Sept. 15

News   The Woman in White Opens in London Sept. 15 The first of this season’s big London musicals, Andrew Lloyd Webber’s The Woman in White, opens at the Palace Theatre Sept. 15.
Michael Crawford in The Woman in White
Michael Crawford in The Woman in White Photo by Manuel Harlan

First out of the gates, its producer, Sonia Friedman, hopes to snap up a commercial lead over later starters Mary Poppins, The Producers and — to come next year — Billy Elliot—The Musical.

Speaking to Playbill On-Line, composer Andrew Lloyd Webber and lyricist David Zippel talked about aspects of the show’s writing. "It wasn’t so hard finding individual voices for the characters," said Zippel, "because the Wilkie Collins novel is written through the commentaries of the various characters. With [book writer] Charlotte Jones we tightened up the story, but the voices were already there."

"Many years ago I’d been asked to write an opera for English National Opera," recalled Lloyd Webber, "and I’d chosen a short story by Charles Dickens called 'The Signalman.' However, because it didn’t have anything for the chorus to do, the idea fell through. When I admitted on the Frank Skinner [TV talk] show that I didn’t have any ideas for a new musical and someone suggested The Woman in White, it reminded me of that story. And, in fact, we’ve extended the book’s opening — Walter, the male hero, comes across the woman in white very quickly, and there isn’t enough time to build the atmosphere on stage — with a scene from the Hardy. So it opens with a station, and the eerie hum of the electric telegraph system."

Responding to rumors that this would be a Phantom of the Opera retread — given the gothic setting, the Victorian-era source material, a dastardly seducer and the presence of original Phantom Michael Crawford in the cast — the composer was adamant. "It’s really not," he insisted. "It inhabits its own very different sound world. That’s immediately clear when you see it." As for Crawford, such are his prosthetic preparations (his character Count Fosco is described in the novel as being old and extremely corpulent) that Lloyd Webber declares him to be unrecognizable, adding, "We’ve had people at the end of preview performances complaining to the box office that Michael hadn’t been in it at all!"

Trevor Nunn, architect of such Lloyd Webber shows as Sunset Boulevard and Cats, directs. Maria Friedman, alongside Crawford 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 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 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 may be no crashing chandeliers, but Dudley has reportedly used the idea of the Victorian lantern to great effect, setting new standards — so the press have been told — in the use of projections on stage.

Michael Crawford, Oliver Darley, and Jill Paice in <i>The Woman in White</i>
Michael Crawford, Oliver Darley, and Jill Paice in The Woman in White Manuel Harlan