Lloyd Webber's Sunset show reaches the end of its boulevard

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The Independent Online
Sunset Boulevard, the Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber musical, is to close in both London and New York, it was announced yesterday.

The surprise decision was made by his Really Useful Group over the weekend. It marks an ominous start to the year for musical theatres, with the West End musical of The Who's Tommy also closing because of a fall in audiences.

Already this year Sir Andrew has seen a postponement of the Broadway opening of his newest musical Whistle Down The Wind following a lukewarm reaction to its Washington opening. And he has reduced the 95-strong staff at the Really Useful Group by 18, including senior executives.

He was not commenting yesterday on the shock closure of Sunset Boulevard. But James Thane, head of the Really Useful Theatre Company, said it was because of the difficulties of casting the lead role, Norma Desmond, the fading and ageing silent screen star who falls in love with a younger man. The role is currently being played by Petula Clark in London and by Elaine Page in New York, making her Broadway debut.

However, while the London production has been seen by two million people over four years, it is noticeable that tickets have been easier to buy recently as the public's appetite for musicals has lessened. Sir Cameron Mackintosh's Martin Guerre had to be revamped last year after failing to attract audiences.

In New York the production of Sunset Boulevard has not attracted audiences in sufficient numbers, and it was reported to have lost pounds 200,000 in one month. It will close in March. The London production will close on 5 April.

The production of Sunset Boulevard, directed by Trevor Nunn, soon to be head of the National Theatre, contains one of Sir Andrew's best scores and has won critical plaudits. Yet it has a troubled history. The pounds 3.5m- plus show was closed after a few months for a further pounds 1m to be spent on it. The first Norma Desmond, the actress Patti LuPone, fell out with Sir Andrew after she was not given the New York transfer. For the Los Angeles opening there was an even more public falling-out between Sir Andrew and the proposed Norma, the film star Faye Dunaway, after Lloyd Webber failed to be satisfied with her singing ability.

While the history of the production could almost make a musical in itself, the official reason being given for closure yesterday seemed strange even by show business standards. The role of Norma Desmond is a demanding one, but there is no shortage of fine musical theatre actresses, and this was clearly a show intended to run for some years.

James Thane said: "We have decided to end the show on a high starring Petula Clark. In the character of Norma Desmond, Andrew Lloyd Webber has created one of the most demanding female roles ever in musical theatre. This makes casting incredibly difficult. The public expect a certain stature of the artist in the role and to continue beyond Petula's contract would risk compromising an extraordinary series of bravura performances."