The German public, which once appeared so obsessed with Andrew Lloyd Webber musicals that purpose-built theatres sprang up around the country to house them, now seems sated with the genre. The company that brought in Lloyd Webber productions has gone bust, and many theatres in derelict steel towns are likely to stand empty.
As bonanzas go, Germany's craze for musicals has lasted longer than most. It began in 1986, when the producer Fritz Kurz brought Cats to Hamburg to great acclaim and the even greater joy of his bank manager. There was something sweet and light in Lloyd Webber musicals that appealed to German tastes. Performances were sold out, at ludicrous prices, several months ahead.
Starlight Express arrived two years later, at a brand new theatre in the Ruhr city of Bochum built by the local authorities. Two years after that came The Phantom of the Opera, at another new theatre, this time in Hamburg. That was a great success, too, and suddenly every town with a multistorey car park wanted to erect a theatre for musicals on the adjacent plot. It was a classic German arrangement between private enterprise and the public purse. The towns offered to put up money for the hardware, in the hope of sharing the proceeds of what seemed an inexhaustible gold mine. Everyone was building musical theatres in Germany, even Lloyd Webber himself, envious perhaps of his German partners' profits.
The first sign that the German appetite for Lloyd Webber was not limitless was the closure last year of Sunset Boulevard, which ran for only two years near Wiesbaden. Mr Kurz had by that time departed from the stage, leaving his company, Stella, in the hands of property developers. His successors just kept building, despite mounting evidence that the number of people eager to be coached across Germany for the latest musical (not all, of course, by Lloyd Webber) was declining.
The combination of more and more theatres and fewer and fewer patrons has now brought about Stella's insolvency. Three theatres are closing immediately, leaving the local authorities fuming over their investment.
Five productions will still run but for how long no one can say. "We had some musicals whose lifespan has expired," Hans Peter Sommer, Stella's spokesman, said. He maintains that the genre remains in rude health and blames the company's problems on a series of bad financial decisions.
"We have had too-high costs for many years," Mr Sommer explained. "Stella signed contracts and leases that were too ambitious. We needed to sell 90 per cent of tickets, and that was unrealistic."
It is all very ominous for the cast of The Hunchback of Notre Dame, a Disney production on which Stella has staked its future. Hunchback had its world premiere in June in the heart of Berlin, in a purpose-built theatre on the new Potsdamer Platz. The critics hated it from the outset (admittedly Berlin critics hate all musicals). They had specific complaints about the appallingly up-beat rendition of what started life as a Victor Hugo tragedy. And almost universally, the leading lady was declared not sexy enough to play Esmerelda.
Despite the critics' carping, the show has been a box-office success, with 85 per cent of tickets sold. Whether that will save the cast now depends on Stella's ability to renegotiate the rent. The performers' wages have been guaranteed till March, but uncertainty has caused travel agencies to cancel bookings.
As imported musicals fade out, producers are looking for other forms of light entertainment. Even in Berlin, where the expensive Potsdamer Platz development is in danger of falling silent, there is talk of building a new theatre dedicated to British imports. It would be a replica of the Globe, filled with wall-to-wall Shakespeare. The project is fronted by a well-known German actor; all it needs now is an investor.
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