The show can't go on. Though the sequel to the record-breaking Phantom of the Opera, the £10m production of Love Never Dies, is possibly the most anticipated musical of all time, planned previews suffered a last-minute postponement.
Producers admitted last night that if the lavish Andrew Lloyd Webber production was to go ahead it would be with "an exhausted company" and perhaps "a show still not in a technically safe and secure state".
The cast has already recorded an album, and a clutch of celebrities have been treated to a taster, but after 18 months of rehearsals a letter sent out to ticket holders admits that the show has been "knocked off course by technical demands".
The delay adds to increasing discontent with the number of big shows – past offenders include Cabaret and Billy Elliot – postponing previews due, in what Mark Shenton, a critic for The Stage magazine, describes as a "cavalier disregard for the paying customer... selling tickets to performances they are not ready to deliver".
The setback came as Lloyd Webber, 61, spoke of his relief at his all-clear following surgery for prostate cancer.
Hollywood-style special effects – such as a huge falling chandelier whizzing over the heads of the audience – helped to make Phantom so popular, but it is thought that the new show may be stumbling over similarly ambitious plans, including the creation of a life-sized automaton of the heroine, Christine Daaé.
Backstage at the Adelphi theatre last Wednesday, the narrow corridors were bustling as all the crew strove to pull the show together in time.
"We are in technical rehearsals now, so we're working from two until 10, which can get a bit tedious," said Ramin Karimloo, 31, who plays the Phantom in Love Never Dies. Iranian-born Karimloo insists that special effects will not play a big part in the sequel. "The story is the star of the show, not the [effects]," he said.
West End musicals don't have much of a tradition of sequels, and their film counterparts are often criticised as pale imitations. Nevertheless fans have spent more than £8m on advance tickets for the new show.
"I'd compare it to Godfather II; I'm very optimistic. Of course there is pressure, but with all that scepticism, the tickets are still selling out," Karimloo said.
The production, which premieres on 9 March, picks up 10 years after Phantom left off. The scene has shifted from the Paris opera house to New York's Coney Island – home to circuses and freak shows – and the once-shunned musician is celebrated for his success.
The original Phantom, which has been running since 1986, is thought to be the highest-grossing production of all time, making £3.7bn worldwide. Love Never Dies could prove a similar money-spinner for Lloyd Webber.
But the postponed preview is not the only problem dogging the show. Katherine Jenkins is to release her version of the song "Love Never Dies" a week before the show's star Sierra Boggess's single. Despite this, and the technical difficulties, Boggess, 27, insists she is unperturbed: "I'm not reading anything about it. That's helping my anxiety level."