Speculation about how the Olympics will affect West End theatre has been going on for some time, although an article in ‘This is Money’ quoted by Mark Shenton in his Stage blog in November brought matters to a head by suggesting the extent to which advance bookings are suffering due to the Olympics. At the forefront of the scare-mongering, however, was the Really Useful Group, with a spokesperson commenting in early November that they were considering closing some of their shows during the Olympic period.
Meanwhile, the Society of London Theatre have been doing their best to promote a good-news message about the Olympics, with a press release over the Summer talking of extended booking periods for shows expecting to be running next Summer, and a joint announcement with Transport for London making a brave attempt to convince locals and tourists alike that it will be possible to get around the city while the Olympics are on.
Now Andrew Lloyd Webber has broken ranks altogether by speaking to Radio 4 Arts Correspondent Rebecca Jones and declaring that the Olympics will cause ‘a bloodbath of a Summer’ for London theatre and that ‘Nobody’s going to go to the theatre at all’. Moreover he ‘will have to’ close shows at some of his theatres during the Olympics, with ‘Sweeney Todd’ already announced as taking a break and others due to be announced. How strange that Lloyd Webber feels that a show which has already won plaudits from its run in Chichester, a work by one of the masters of musical theatre, with a highly talented cast, will not be able to get an audience. And how ironic that the ‘Love Never Dies’, which closed at the same theatre in the Summer, was revealed to have been running at a loss for some time before closure was announced. So, it’s one rule for shows which are only there to make money, and another for shows in which the Lord’s ego is at stake. Surely the Lord can’t be suffering from Sondheim envy?
We are not exactly looking forward to the Olympics ourselves, but there is something rather distasteful in witnessing a figure such as Lloyd Webber, someone who has enjoyed so much good fortune over the years, artistically and commercially, whining about a couple of weeks in the Summer. Not to mention publicity which he has had this year from the theatrical establishment, for example the Phantom of the Opera ‘celebration’ at the Royal Variety Show this year, and plugs for both ‘Love Never Dies’ and ‘Phantom of the Opera’ at last year’s Olivier Awards, hosted by SOLT.
Could it be that Lloyd Webber is looking for a good excuse to close one or two of his less well-performing shows early? We know from previous experience that he does love having someone or something to blame. If this is the case, we wonder which of the other shows will get the chop. So far all of them are still taking bookings except for Sweeney Todd. That leaves Matilda, War Horse, Singing in the Rain, The Wizard of Oz and Shrek. We can’t imagine Matilda and War Horse, both successful transfers nurtured in the subsidised sector, would be touched. But could this be the ideal opportunity for Lloyd Webber to signal the end of the ‘The Wizard of Oz’, if it has not quite lived up to the expectations of previous casting show vehicles?
Not that it forms part of his job description, but wouldn’t it be refreshing if for once Andrew Lloyd Webber acted as though he were an ambassador for the theatre? Couldn’t he show just a little bit of the Olympic spirit and fight for those ticket sales instead of rolling over in defeat? Not everyone thinks that the Olympic weeks this Summer are a lost cause for the West End – some would like to think that even if the worst predictions come true, British theatre could at least pretend to the rest of the world that it is about more than just profit.
Update 8.7.12: Well, we suspected all was not well in the world of Oz, and now the show’s closure has been officially announced. Although, ironically, it will be running over the Summer in an attempt to pick up extra business from Olympic tourists. And the gold medal for back-tracking goes to……