The director's cut: backstage drama threatens the opening of £2m musical

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The Independent Culture

It is a drama full of passion, tears and bitter rows, with colourful and outspoken characters. In fact, it could make a great musical.

There's only one problem - the action has been taking place behind the scenes of a £2m production, dubbed a "salsa comedy murder mystery", which had been due to open next month in the West End.

Instead, this week's previews of Murderous Instinctshave been cancelled after the acrimony spilled out on to the stage. The director, Bob Carlton, has left the production after he was criticised in front of the audience by the show's cigar-chomping producer, Manny Fox, a man for whom the cliché "larger than life" for once appears to be actually true.

Mr Carlton's departure - and his replacement by Michael Rooney, son of the legendary child actor Mickey - was followed by the departure of two other leading members of the production staff. On top of that, Mr Fox's marriage - to the musical's writer - appears to be under strain as a result of his actions, while the show's leading lady, Nichola McAuliffe, most recently on stage in the West End version of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, has incurred the wrath of her colleagues by disclosing some of the backstage traumas and warning that the show may close before Christmas.

Last Friday, at their first technical rehearsal at the Savoy Theatre in the West End, where the show is due to open on 7 October, the cast were forced to make do without the producer and new director - mysteriously away in Paris.

Simon Tait, the co-editor of the arts magazine ArtIndustry, said: "There is a question-mark over whether it will actually open. It is an extraordinarily troubled production."

Murderous Instincts is written by Cinda Fox, wife of Manny Fox, and stems from the couple's love of Puerto Rico, where they have a home.

Mrs Fox is a heir of the Firestone Tyre fortune and the musical is loosely based on her own background, telling the story of the recently widowed wife of a rum tycoon and her adult children fighting over their inherited fortunes. The choreography is by the world salsa champion, Jhesus Aponte, and the show was a hit in Puerto Rico two years ago.

A Broadway veteran, Manny Fox's biggest success was a version of Duke Ellington's Sophisticated Ladies, which made a star of Gregory Hines.

According to Ms McAuliffe, Bronx-born Mr Fox, 70, fits the stereotype of the interventionist producer: "[He] has a heart of gold, chews large cigars, wears a baseball cap and is, as he proudly proclaims, 'mad as a box of frogs'." He was, she said, also renowned for regularly sacking people. Mr Carlton, director of the hit musical Return to the Forbidden Planet, had already replaced Gregory Thompson, the original director.

Nevertheless, Mr Fox, although banned from rehearsals by Mr Carlton, kept bursting in with the cry: "Bob, Bob, can I just have some input here?"

Matters came to a head on 4 September, the last night of a pre-West End trial run at the Theatre Royal, Norwich. Although the show went down well - two of its seven performances were sold out - a lukewarm review appeared in the local morning newspaper.

As the audience were leaving their seats during the interval, Mr Fox accosted Mr Carlton in the stalls and, in front of a startled crowd, a row ensued over the review, during which the director was twice sacked and then, apparently, twice rehired by Mr Fox. At one point, the producer's wife told her husband that, if Mr Carlton went, it was the end of their marriage.

The truce only lasted until last Monday, when Mr Carlton and Mr Fox finally parted company. One supporter of Mr Fox said this was just his style: "He just changes and reworks things until he gets it right and if people have to go, that's just unfortunate."

Mr Carlton was replaced by Mr Rooney, an award-winning video and commercial choreographer, but whose knowledge of the West End is limited. He is best known in this country for choreographing the video for Kylie Minogue's worldwide hit "Can't Get You Out of My Head". He has also worked with Bjork, Fatboy Slim and Usher.

Meanwhile, across two pages in the Daily Mail, Ms McAuliffe described the troubled production, which also included Mr Carlton's alleged drooling over the female dancers, endless changes and rewrites, actors unable to dance salsa, characters that didn't seem to fit the plot and a promotion poster that looked as if it had been done by a sixth form. It was she said, a "motorway pile-up" in waiting.

Her opinions have caused dissent among her profession. One contributor to the actors' website called her actions "shameful", while a "show insider" said she was being "totally unprofessional" and should be sacked.

Kevin Wilson, spokesman for the production, said neither Mr Fox or Mr Rooney were prepared to comment beyond confirming that Mr Carlton was "no longer attached" to the show. Neither Mr Carlton or Ms McAuliffe could be contacted.

Meanwhile, the show's previews are set to start on 20 September.

And in its publicity material, Murderous Instincts has been relabelled from "the salsa musical" to "the musical to die for". Given its history, that could be tempting fate...