Martin Guerre comes back fighting

The ill-fated musical Martin Guerre is to close. But four days later it is to reopen with a radically altered first act.

Sir Cameron Mackintosh has taken the unusual step of relaunching a musical within months of its opening in an effort to boost box-office takings.

Martin Guerre Mark Two will kick off with a new opening number on 1 November.

Despite six years of preparation and an expenditure of pounds 3.5m, Sir Cameron's latest musical has failed to elicit anything like the response of its world-famous predecessors, Les Miserables and Miss Saigon, also written by the French duo, Alain Boublil and Claude Michel Schonberg.

"You can't just turn on the tap and put a show on," said Sir Cameron yesterday. "Most shows evolve and in the old days they used to go out of town on the road for anything up to six months before opening on Broadway or in London. The kinks were knocked out of them then. Unfortunately because of economics we don't have the ability to do that.

"One forgets that the norm is that shows often have to find their own way. Even Les Miserables took 12 to 16 weeks to really sell out and find its audience."

Martin Guerre failed to impress the critics when it opened at the Prince Edward Theatre in Soho last June. Some complained that there were too few hit songs; others felt the show had abandoned any pretence at suspense.

The story is already familiar to many people through two film versions, The Return of Martin Guerre starring Gerard Depardieu, in 1982, and Somersby, with Richard Gere and Jodie Foster in 1993.

But Sir Cameron rejected any comparison. The musical was never an attempt to put the film on stage, he said, and the new version will not try to insert any of the film's ambiguity about whether the man who returns to his 16th-century French village claiming to be Martin Guerre is in fact an imposter.

"We're doing our own version of this true story," he insisted. "There have been several different versions of it. We are not trying to get closer to the film. All we're trying to do is do what we've done and see if we can make it even clearer.

"What we have works, but we feel we can make it work better," said Sir Cameron.

He refused to divulge exactly how much money he was ploughing into the new version, but said it was "not nearly as much" as the pounds 500,000 Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber successfully spent on restructuring the ailing Sunset Boulevard in 1994.

He admitted that it was rare to make changes to a show so soon after its opening. "We have taken the unusual step of making changes before the end of the first year," he said.

"We all decided about two or three weeks after the show opened, once we'd got it on and had a look at it. Obviously, all decisions like this come from the actual authors. They decided they wanted to get to work straight away instead of waiting until the cast change at the end of the year."