Lloyd Webber seeks to buy back company

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ANDREW Lloyd Webber announced yesterday that he wanted to buy back full control of his theatrical company, The Really Useful Group (RUG), following reports that it was in financial difficulties.

The multi-millionaire composer, who was made Lord Lloyd-Webber last year, spoke out after reports emerged that Michael Ovitz, the former deputy chairman of Disney and one of the most powerful men in the entertainment world, was prepared to pay up to pounds 150m for a controlling stake in the company behind hits such as Phantom of the Opera and Cats.

But Lloyd Webber issued a statement yesterday saying he had been in formal negotiations with PolyGram to buy back its 30 per cent stake in his business.

PolyGram was taken over by the Canadian drinks and entertainment group Seagram for pounds 6bn last week which sparked rumours about the future of the Dutch company's holding in the theatrical group.

It was suggested that Mr Ovitz was keen to buy PolyGram's share and was likely to approach Lloyd Webber with a partnership proposition which would give Mr Ovitz 60 per cent of RUG and Lloyd Webber anything up to pounds 150m.

But Lloyd Webber yesterday denied the rumours: "Far from wanting to dilute my involvement, I am eager to acquire the PolyGram minority shareholding if that is available to me and indeed formally made such an offer to PolyGram before Seagram's involvement was announced," he said.

"I have never seen the Really Useful Group in such good shape. We have a new team of managers - young and enthusiastic - who are taking the group forward on all fronts. We have expanded the company considerably over the past years."

A spokesman for the RUG said that under the terms of a legal agreement, Lloyd Webber had the first option to buy the 30 per cent stake should it be offered for sale by the new owner of PolyGram.

Founded by the composer in 1977 and once regarded as among the world's most successful theatrical groups, RUG has admitted that it went deeply into the red last year after Sunset Boulevard ended its London and New York runs.

Lloyd Webber's most recent production, Whistle Down the Wind, was forced to undergo a rewrite after it bombed in Washington last year and failed to transfer to Broadway. The revised version is due to open in London next month.

Mr Ovitz's company Livent, is one of the most powerful in the business and has staged Ragtime and Showboat in New York as well as Lloyd Webber's Phantom of the Opera in Toronto.

Livent was also in finanicial difficulties when Mr Ovitz bought his way into the company using $20m (pounds 12m) of his $130 pay-off from Disney.

He left Disney after only 14 months with a $130m payoff and last month took control of Livent Inc, a theatre company directly across the street from Disney's New Amsterdam theatre.

Last year, Lloyd Webber revealed that he was unhappy about PolyGram's shareholding.

"They had an agreement where they effectively had control of the company," he said last summer. "They also have control of me as an artist - I have to record and publish everything through the Polydor company. With hindsight, letting them in was a shocking deal. I think I've been an idiot."