Andrew Lloyd Webber gave a present to the nation's schools this week. Schools will now be able to perform two of his musicals, Cats and Phantom of the Opera for the first time.
The composer has licensed both shows for school and college performances in the UK and Ireland to mark the 25th anniversary of Phantom of the Opera. On one level it is an excellent gesture. These are great musicals with large casts that will give teenage performers a real thrill, and make a refreshing change for parents from the perennial Guys and Dolls or Grease. But why has it taken so long?
As schools know, and as many disgruntled teachers have emailed me to complain, schools are sometimes not allowed to perform shows that are on the professional stage at the same time. This has prevented many schools from performing a host of Lloyd Webber musicals.
I have never understood this. What exactly are the billionaire West End impresarios afraid of? Clearly they fear that those seeing the school productions won't then stir themselves to make the trip to the West End to see the real thing. But do people really say to themselves: "I won't go and see an all-star cast perform Phantom in a multimillion-pound production in the West End, because I saw Year 9 at the local comp do it last term. There's no way the West End version will shape up."
I'd have thought it was actually more likely that young performers and their parents, and the rest of the school audience, would want to see the professional production after having their appetites whetted by the school effort. And I will wager that the box office at Her Majesty's Theatre in London for Phantom of the Opera will not suffer a fatal blow now that hundreds of schoolchildren will be putting on the mask.
Lord Lloyd Webber's press release says that this week's initiative "marks the beginning of a roll-out of Lloyd Webber's major musicals to the education and amateur markets worldwide, and the company is looking at shows including Whistle Down the Wind and Starlight Express."
Here's a suggestion. Why not roll them out now? All of them. And his fellow-impresarios should follow suit. In taking the lead in allowing schools to put on whatever shows they wish, Andrew Lloyd Webber would make one of his greatest contributions to fostering a love of the musical in this country.
Schools do not pose a threat, either artistic or financial, to the big beasts of the West End. Preventing schools from performing the most popular shows of the age betrays a curious paranoia, and takes away from young people and their parents the chance of innocent enjoyment. Andrew Lloyd Webber has done so much for musical theatre. There's a chance now for him to earn the thanks of tens of thousands of children, their teachers and parents.
Is Iago the role West was born to play?
I wish I could be in Sheffield next Tuesday. I have a feeling the production of Othello opening there could be first-rate. It stars the team from television's The Wire, Clarke Peters and Dominic West. The latter recently starred in BBC's The Hour as a charming, attractive but devious television programme host, and even more recently in ITV's Appropriate Adult as disturbingly charming, charismatic and evil as the mass murderer, Fred West.
Watching him in both parts, I thought that here was a man born to play Iago. A great Iago should be able to charm the birds out of the trees, be utterly credible, and yet seep evil from every pore of his body. Dominic West has shown he has it in him to be a really great Iago.
Monica Mason's amazing 54 years
Monica Mason, director of the Royal Ballet, announced her new season the other day. It will also be her last season, as she retires next year. Ms Mason mentioned that she had been with the company, first as dancer then in other roles culminating in overall director, for 54 years. It's not often you come across that length of service with one company.
Fifty-four years! She will have seen a sleek, young dancer called Rudolf Nureyev arrive, and a not-so-sleek, young opera singer called Luciano Pavarotti. She will have chatted in the canteen with Margot Fonteyn. Perhaps Maria Callas strode by as they were doing so. There has to be an awful lot of anecdotes in the Mason memory. Whatever else she does in her retirement, she should write a memoir.