THEATRE / Time to face the music: What makes a musical a hit or a flop? As three new shows open in London, Sabine Durrant talks to producers and directors who have experienced both to see if they are any the wiser

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The Independent Culture
Flop today, bounce back tomorrow. Take the producer of Bernadette, the 'people's' musical that no one went to see. William Z Fonfe, or Willie as he's known to the woman on reception, is working over at Pinewood these days. He lost his house and a lot of his own money ( pounds 100,000-plus), but Prince of Thieves came along at just the right time and he's doing pretty nicely now. He has a car phone in his classy BMW, an office on the ground floor and a busy schedule that includes on-going projects with 'Tony' Hopkins in the West Country and a co-production in Germany. Not that things are quite as they were. He's involved with the less creative side of things these days. More practical. He's in business supplying transport for location film-work. He calls the business 'Willies Wheels'.

Fonfe has had enough of the West End ('What I did was very dangerous. It was all or nothing. It was suicidal'). He says he would have walked out six months before Bernadette opened, but felt he should stay and face the music. There was an argument on opening night and he communicates with the writers, the husband and wife schoolteaching team of Gwyn and Maureen Hughes, only through solicitors, but he gathers they're still convinced that, with the right director, another producer, a different theatre, less venomous critics . . . the show could still succeed. He himself knows better. 'It just wasn't good enough,' he says shrugging a shoulder, 'it's as simple as that.'

But that is where he's wrong. Simple it's not. Tread the musical boards in the West End and you're crossing a minefield - 'They're like mini-wars,' says one producer. There are no patterns in this world of hits and flops (financial exigencies generally dictate one or the other) - even the critics are somehow out of synch. Experienced impresarios who have crashed against expectation are still holding their librettos up to the light trying to work out why. Despite the clamour surrounding Cats, Phantom of the Opera, Ms Saigon, Cameron Mackintosh was forced to put the lid on Moby Dick; John Caird, who directed Les Miserables, failed with Children of Eden; Clarke Peters' success with Five Guys Named Moe came swiftly after his involvement with the usurped King. 'There is,' says the producer Michael White, whose trail of hits (Oh Calcutta], On Your Toes) didn't prevent the collapse of Metropolis, 'absolutely no way of telling when something will be a hit or a flop. It can be on any subject. It can be despite the critics. It's a matter of having something that appeals to the public, in the right space with the right performers at the right time.'

These times, you would think, couldn't be worse. (Nick Allert, executive producer at Cameron Mackintosh, describing this summer in the West End as a 'blood bath', is noticeably concerned that advance bookings for Les Mis have dropped from nine to six months.) But three big new musicals are still opening in the next fortnight. How dare they? Foreign money, arrogant producers, or a glorious faith in chance, a wonderfully foolhardy desire to gamble with outrageous odds? To be realistic, it's unlikely that all three will last the next six months. Vast amounts of money may be about to be lost. But one of them might just hit the jackpot. And which would it be? The Kander and Ebb extravaganza about a homosexual and a Marxist behind bars (Kiss of the Spiderwoman)? The old-fashioned Noel Gay song-and-dance vehicle for Tony Slattery (Radio Times)? Or the Norwegian pop-opera with the saucy sorcery theme (Which Witch)? The last has the worst title, but its director has the most invigorating attitude: 'It's an outsider,' says Piers Haggard. 'In the London showbiz scene, this is 100 to one. But that makes it much more interesting for everyone. And we're all high on it.' 'The thing about showbiz,' says Michael White, 'is everybody dreams.'

But while success may be in the seats of the gods, there are some practical considerations for producers of potential hits to watch out for. Litigation can blight proceedings (the ill-starred King is still up to its neck in law suits). And timing is vital. Fonfe regrets opening Bernadette in June - the show closed before the first summer tourists had even landed at Heathrow. And John Caird attributes the failure of Children of Eden to bad luck: 'The night of the Royal Gala, with the Princess of Wales present, was the same night as the UN deadline for Iraq. It was also the coldest January for years. People just stopped going out out of depression.'

It's no coincidence that all three of the new musicals are opening in October. 'Over the last year, various times have been discussed,' says David Gilmore, director of Radio Times, 'and autumn was decided to be the best - people are back from their hols, in from the garden, the weather has changed.'

The choice of theatre, in retrospect at least, can also assume an air of importance. Caird thinks now that the Prince Edward was all wrong for Children of Eden: 'too large a theatre, too hubristic of us, we should have gone for a smaller theatre, we rushed in rather rashly'. The Dominion ('a huge barn of a building') has spelt disaster for both Bernadette and Grand Hotel, which is to close at the end of this month. And the Piccadilly, former home of King and Metropolis, is believed by some to carry a curse. 'But then people used to say the same about the New London,' says Gilmore, 'until Cats went into it.' 'If people want to see a show,' agrees Caird, 'they'll seek it out.'

They may also disregard the critics (see panel, right). Musical audiences, in this country at least, react unpredictably to notices. Grand Hotel has been half empty, despite favourable reviews; Moby Dick was panned, but for a while maintained a dogged public support; and so slated was Les Miserables when it first opened that Cameron Mackintosh had almost decided not to transfer it from the Barbican where it first opened - only a rave from Sheridan Morley made him think again. John Caird, who's obviously very pleased that he did, thinks the critics dislike musicals for the same reasons that the public likes them. 'Musicals tend to be theatrically very, very ambitious,' he declares. 'One of the problems in England is, if you are very ambitious, the critics want to hurt you for it. They curl up their toes and find it pretentious. The public don't; they're thrilled you've gone to all that trouble to entertain them.'

And that, after all, is what it all comes down to. So, what does the British musical-going public find entertaining? 'You have to have a song,' concludes Michael White. 'A good story,' says John Caird. 'A structure that works,' says David Gilmore. 'It all hangs on the music,' decides Piers Haggard, 'and the spectacular moments.' 'What people want is lightheartedness,' moots Clarke Peters, 'They don't want to be worried about where the next bomb is going off. They don't want issues; they want frivolity.' 'The time for pretty, nice escapism,' declares William Z Fonfe, 'has gone.' Whatever the secret is, the new arrivals are about to find out.