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

Share

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.

Binding prenups are an admission of defeat

Perhaps it’s the hopeless romantic in me, but I find the promise of legally binding prenuptial agreements a depressing development. I do see that if you’re rich as Croesus, then there’s something to be said for making sure you still will be after a marriage and divorce. Since I’m neither rich nor married, it’s not a problem I’ve ever had to worry about. But isn’t there something to be said for going into a marriage with the expectation of success and happiness? I know the statistics tell you that you’re unlikely to achieve it: 13 couples get divorced every hour in England and Wales. But if your first thought is, “How can I make sure I still have all my stuff when this all goes horribly wrong?”, it’s possible that you’re marrying the wrong person.

www.nataliehaynes.com

React Now

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Graphic Web Designer

£23000 - £27000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Due to expansion, this leading ...

Recruitment Genius: Web Developer

£23000 - £27000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Due to expansion, this leading ...

Recruitment Genius: Retirement Coordinator - Financial Services

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: To provide a prompt, friendly and efficient se...

Recruitment Genius: Annuities / Pensions Administrator

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: You will be the first point of contact for all...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

Now’s the time to bring back Top Of The Pops

David Lister
Amanda Knox will learn today if her conviction for murdering British student Mereditch Kercher has been upheld  

Amanda Knox: A retrial, two films and endless speculation - will the fascination with Meredith Kercher's murder ever end?

Peter Popham
The saffron censorship that governs India: Why national pride and religious sentiment trump freedom of expression

The saffron censorship that governs India

Zareer Masani reveals why national pride and religious sentiment trump freedom of expression
Prince Charles' 'black spider' letters to be published 'within weeks'

Prince Charles' 'black spider' letters to be published 'within weeks'

Supreme Court rules Dominic Grieve's ministerial veto was invalid
Distressed Zayn Malik fans are cutting themselves - how did fandom get so dark?

How did fandom get so dark?

Grief over Zayn Malik's exit from One Direction seemed amusing until stories of mass 'cutting' emerged. Experts tell Gillian Orr the distress is real, and the girls need support
The galaxy collisions that shed light on unseen parallel Universe

The cosmic collisions that have shed light on unseen parallel Universe

Dark matter study gives scientists insight into mystery of space
The Swedes are adding a gender-neutral pronoun to their dictionary

Swedes introduce gender-neutral pronoun

Why, asks Simon Usborne, must English still struggle awkwardly with the likes of 's/he' and 'they'?
Disney's mega money-making formula: 'Human' remakes of cartoon classics are part of a lucrative, long-term creative plan

Disney's mega money-making formula

'Human' remakes of cartoon classics are part of a lucrative, long-term creative plan
Lobster has gone mainstream with supermarket bargains for £10 or less - but is it any good?

Lobster has gone mainstream

Anthea Gerrie, raised on meaty specimens from the waters around Maine, reveals how to cook up an affordable feast
Easter 2015: 14 best decorations

14 best Easter decorations

Get into the Easter spirit with our pick of accessories, ornaments and tableware
Paul Scholes column: Gareth Bale would be a perfect fit at Manchester United and could turn them into serious title contenders next season

Paul Scholes column

Gareth Bale would be a perfect fit at Manchester United and could turn them into serious title contenders next season
Inside the Kansas greenhouses where Monsanto is 'playing God' with the future of the planet

The future of GM

The greenhouses where Monsanto 'plays God' with the future of the planet
Britain's mild winters could be numbered: why global warming is leaving UK chillier

Britain's mild winters could be numbered

Gulf Stream is slowing down faster than ever, scientists say
Government gives £250,000 to Independent appeal

Government gives £250,000 to Independent appeal

Donation brings total raised by Homeless Veterans campaign to at least £1.25m
Oh dear, the most borrowed book at Bank of England library doesn't inspire confidence

The most borrowed book at Bank of England library? Oh dear

The book's fifth edition is used for Edexcel exams
Cowslips vs honeysuckle: The hunt for the UK’s favourite wildflower

Cowslips vs honeysuckle

It's the hunt for UK’s favourite wildflower
Child abuse scandal: Did a botched blackmail attempt by South African intelligence help Cyril Smith escape justice?

Did a botched blackmail attempt help Cyril Smith escape justice?

A fresh twist reveals the Liberal MP was targeted by the notorious South African intelligence agency Boss