Andrew Lloyd Webber's ‘Stephen Ward’ flops: Why can’t the West End do musicals any more?

When he brought out The Phantom of the Opera, there was a huge audience for a big-budget spectacle. Things have changed over the years


It can come as little surprise to anyone that Stephen Ward, Andrew Lloyd Webber’s most recent musical, is closing early. Theatre-ticket websites have been sending out increasingly desperate mailshots as the weeks have gone by: cheap tickets, cheaper tickets, free kitten with every ticket. But if I were a betting woman, I would have been over the road predicting a rapid demise before it even opened.

Andrew Lloyd Webber used to be the Midas of musicals. With a few exceptions, he produced hit after hit. In 1991, he had six productions in the West End at the same time. But now, the composer himself has said: “I’m resigned to the fact that anything I do probably nobody is going to like.”

If he keeps making musicals about obscure figures from political scandals that happened before most of his audience was born, that may well be true. Especially if they also have utterly forgettable names: “The Profumo Affair” sounds like a musical. Stephen Ward sounds like a plumber.

But I don’t think the problem lies with Andrew Lloyd Webber (well, no more than I usually do). It’s the West End which has changed. When he brought out The Phantom of the Opera, there was a huge audience for a big-budget spectacle. People went because they liked his songs (which were released as singles), because they’d heard about the huge collapsing chandelier, and because they wanted to see Michael Crawford wearing a mask instead of a beret.

By the time he brought out the sequel, Love Never Dies, in 2010, the West End was awash with musicals. Not only that, but the mood had changed: no one was bothered about gothic tragedy (except the people going to see the original Phantom, which still packs them in). People were flocking to jukebox musicals – a story written around the hits of a popular band – and adaptations of hit films, such as Dirty Dancing and The Bodyguard. But even those have sometimes struggled. The Spice Girls musical was a flop, in spite of a script by Jennifer Saunders. I find myself ungenerously hoping that the X Factor musical will go the same way: I think I would rather a theatre stood empty than celebrated the contribution of Simon Cowell to pop culture, however ironically.

Original musicals which have succeeded over the past few years haven’t usually started on the West End. The Book of Mormon had already crushed all before it on Broadway, and the excellent Matilda started out with a three-month run at Stratford-upon-Avon. They had time to develop into hits before they got anywhere near London. And both shows had incredible pedigrees: the creative presence of Trey Parker and Matt Stone ensured that The Book of Mormon would have a devoted following, and that was before they spent seven years developing the show. Tim Minchin, similarly, had a huge fanbase who would decide to take their kids to see his show.

Word of mouth is crucial to musicals, and the earlier the word gets out, the more absolute audience reaction tends to be. Even the slightest hint of a flop at the first performances can act as a drop of blood in shark-infested water. I reviewed the short-lived musical version of Gone with the Wind a few years ago, and the press night was rammed with critics and journalists, few of whom were reviewing the show. Rather, the word was out that it would fold in a matter of weeks (and rightly – it was a shocker). No one wanted to miss the chance to see something which would enter the Hall of Fame of West End disasters.

Personally, I always wish that my reviewing career had begun early enough to include the legendary Fields of Ambrosia, which ran for barely three weeks in 1996. Famously, the show contained a scene of gang rape in a prison, followed by a song whose opening line was, “If it ain’t one thing, it’s another”. And you thought Stephen Ward was a scandal.

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