Sir Tim Rice and Lord Andrew Lloyd Webber's latest shows flop in West End

After decades of breaking box-office records with the likes of 'Evita' and 'The Phantom of the Opera', audiences shun musical maestros' latest offerings

For 45 years, the musicals of Andrew Lloyd Webber and Sir Tim Rice have defined the genre and broken box-office records. But now, the theatre pioneers are united in failure, after the ambitious shows  they launched apart have both been forced to close, mere months after opening, due to audience indifference.

Lord Lloyd Webber’s much-hyped musical about the Profumo affair, Stephen Ward, is to close at the Aldwych Theatre after a run of four months. Producers have scrapped plans for a modest extension to the West End run and it will now end on 29 March. Fittingly, it is the same day that From Here to Eternity, Sir Tim’s latest production, comes to a premature close.

The lyricist’s Shaftesbury Theatre adaptation of James Jones’s wartime novel was due to run until the end of April but the house will go dark a month earlier, bringing the musical to a close after six months. Half-full houses did for the shows, which in Lord Lloyd Webber’s case is likely to mean a loss on the £2.5m required to stage Stephen Ward.

The flops will not join Evita, Cats, The Phantom of the Opera and The Lion King among the pantheon of hits which Lord Lloyd Webber and Sir Tim either created together or separately, following the dissolution of their writing partnership 30 years ago.

 

Their failure may indicate that the musical-theatre baton has now passed from Lord Lloyd Webber, 65, and Sir Tim, 69, although Lord Lloyd Webber has announced he had begun work on new songs for his next theatre project, an adaptation of the hit film School of Rock. Tim Minchin, the composer of Matilda, which continues to play to packed houses on the West End and Broadway, has become the theatre world’s most sought-after songsmith. Where once Lord Lloyd Webber and Sir Tim broke boundaries with Jesus Christ Superstar, the Tony-winning The Book of Mormon has added a contemporary, acerbic, satirical edge to the religious musical.

The most successful music and lyric-writing partnership in musical theatre, Lord Lloyd Webber and Sir Tim first joined forces in 1965 and revitalised the form with the rock opera Jesus Christ Superstar. Parting ways after the huge success of Evita, which ran for four years on Broadway, their relationship has been strained during the intervening years.

When Stephen Ward and Eternity opened within weeks of each other, it was perceived as a private box-office battle between the two ex-colleagues. Yet the challenge of launching two new, historically themed shows into a West End dominated by jukebox musicals and well-trodden revivals actually brought the duo together.

Andrew Lloyd Webber’s ‘Stephen Ward’ is to close after four months Andrew Lloyd Webber’s ‘Stephen Ward’ is to close after four months
Lord Lloyd Webber attended a preview of Eternity and gave Sir Tim some tips on improving the “sex on the beach” scene, made famous by the novel’s film adaptation. But his advice could not prevent the musical, starring Darius Campbell and Rebecca Thornhill, opening to poor reviews. Bemoaning its “thin” story and lack of star-power, Variety asked: “When was the last time anyone booked a ticket on the basis of a lyricist?”

The failure of Stephen Ward will be a particular blow to Lord Lloyd Webber, who believed it was his best work in years. “I haven’t had a hit in 20 years,” he admitted. “I’ve written six musicals in that time.” The composer insisted that the story of the Establishment’s destruction of the society osteopath at the heart of the Profumo affair would resonate with audiences 50 years on, a faith that may have been misplaced. While reviews were generally positive, Variety said the “flaccid” production was guilty of “slack storytelling”.

It will be a source of embarrassment to both men that their shows failed to match even the longevity of Viva Forever!, the Spice Girls musical, which limped on for seven months. Lord Lloyd Webber’s previous “flops” boasted more staying power – Love Never Dies ran for 18 months at the Adelphi and his collaboration with Ben Elton, The Beautiful Game, completed 11 months.

The two imminent closures, which explored themes of establishment hypocrisy and repressed sexuality, will give way to a brash, topical West End offering, with more obvious commercial potential. I Can’t Sing! The X Factor Musical, written by Harry Hill and fully endorsed by Simon Cowell, begins previews on Saturday, following the postponement of the opening two nights to resolve “technical issues”.

Lord Lloyd Webber’s back catalogue remains hugely popular and a revival of his 1980 song cycle Tell Me on a Sunday has just returned to the West End. But he admits that he may never again attempt to mount a major new project. “The costs of doing musicals have risen absolutely hugely,” he said before the Stephen Ward launch. “I don’t think I’ve got enough money to do very many more.”

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