June 9: Is opening Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Cinderella really a priority?

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Isn’t the health of the nation more important?

In a front page scoop in today’s Daily Telegraph, the paper lines up three heavy-hitting bylines — chief reporter Robert Mendick, political editor Ben Riley-Smith and theatre critic Dominic Cavendish — to reveal an exclusive:

I don’t know for sure, but this could very well be the first time that Dom has made it into a front page lead news story (though there have been times when the opening of a big West End show has made it to a lead photograph, and even a trail of a review appearing in later pages).

But it seems that the news editors have seized on Dom’s interview with the Lord to turn it into the story that leads the paper today.

Lloyd Webber has never been exactly publicity shy, and is fond of the provocative headline-grabbing quote, like today’s “You’ll have to arrest us to stop us reopening.” Twitter, as ever, is full of great ripostes, with one reminding us:

Another offers:

While the front page lead story wraps in quotes from Dom’s interview, his own piece sets the context:

“Andrew Lloyd Webber, the world’s most successful composer of musicals, is putting the finishing touches to his first new West End show in five years. He should be preparing to celebrate — the first preview is just over two weeks away, with opening night set to follow on July 14 — instead, he’s spoiling for a fight.

The world premiere of his £6 million Cinderella depends on social distancing being lifted, in accordance with the Government’s ‘roadmap’, on June 21, a promised milestone that looks increasingly in doubt. Yet, Lloyd Webber tells me, his voice bristling with defiance, ‘We are going to open come hell or high water.’. What if the Government demands a postponement? ‘We will say: come to the theatre and arrest us’.”

So Lloyd Webber is drawing battle lines. But who exactly will be arrested? The front of house manager, the box office manager and perhaps the stage manager? This is starting to look a lot like Trump urging his supporters to storm the Capitol on January 6. They got arrested; he sat watching, silent, in the White House, refused to answer the phone from Senators fearing for their lives in the building, and didn’t call off his supporters till many hours later. Might Lloyd Webber do the same thing from Eaton Square, as the Gillian Lynne Theatre is being stormed by the police?

Meanwhile, Lloyd Webber cities ‘science’ — that he refuses to reveal the sources of:

“I’ve seen the science from the tests, don’t ask me how. They all prove that theatres are completely safe, the virus is not carried there. If the Government ignore their own science, we have the mother of all legal cases against them. If Cinderella couldn’t open, we’d go, ‘Look, either we go to the law about it or you’ll have to compensate us’.”

Well, if theatres are the one public space where he seems to know “the virus is not carried”, perhaps we should have all taken refuge inside the theatres that have been dark for most of the last 14 months. If they, uniquely, do not allow the virus to transmit between people gathered there, why didn’t Matt Hancock simply move the residents from care homes to the theatre when they were discharged from hospitals, instead of back to their homes where many of them died?

But Lloyd Webber seems to know best — and of course, it is motivated by his financial needs. (He’s been slipping a bit in the Sunday Times Rich list). Plus, of course, the urgency of getting his new show open. And a couple of his old shows re-opened.

As Cavendish writes,

“He has two other shows waiting in the wings: a new production of The Phantom of the Opera, the West End’s second longest-running show after Les Miserables, is et to take our the refurbished Her Majesty’s Theatre from July 27; while a revival of Joseph is is also due at the Palladium that month. Then, as owner of the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, London;’s oldest playhouse, he’s also poised to unveil a £60 million renovation in time for the UK stage premiere of Disney’s Frozen in August. All of which leaves Lloyd Webber in a position he describes as ‘acute financial stress. I don’t think [the Government] understands it. We’ve never taken any profit out of the theatres. I’ve always tired to put back in, which is why we’re in a muddle now because we’ve never had a big reserve.”

Hmmmm. Try telling ATG’s venture capital owners that there’s no profit to be made from owning theatres. Or Cameron Mackintosh, who has invested vast personal fortunes into restoring those in his charge to make them amongst London’s most prized and beautiful theatre buildings.

Owning theatre buildings is the equivalent of the cash cows of the West End: because of the limited stock — and the fact that, until the pandemic struck, there were always more shows wanting to appear in them than physical space available, theatre owners have long been able to pick and choose their tenants, and as well as the rental (which covers all running costs, billed as the ‘contra’ in theatrical parlance), means that the owners also collect lots of ancillary income, like all the revenue that theatres earn from bars, snacks and ice-cream sales that the productions bring in — with one of that income going to the producers of the shows themselves. Lloyd Webber also recently revealed his plans to open a restaurant at Drury Lane, so that will be another income stream.

But of course, reduce the flow of customers – as social distancing requires — and it not only hurts the revenues that the shows can make (and some need to make to cover their running costs), but also the spend from the customers who can make it through the door. As long as social distancing is in place — and the one-way systems we’ve seen in theatres – patrons can’t fill and jostle at the bars either.

So naturally Lloyd Webber wants business to be restored as normal, both as a producer of a new show like Cinderella but also as its landlord. He’s going to be hit hard twice if it doesn’t open, or can’t open at full capacity.

And yet, wasn’t he perhaps just a little premature to plan to open a brand-new musical in the midst of a pandemic (even if he’d laid the plans for it before it struck)? He admits to Cavendish,

“I jumped the gun and all the bigger shows have followed suit. I just hope I’m right. I took what I thought was an informed decision on what I knew the Government wanted.”

It could, ultimately, be down to a bad business call by him — albeit one made with the best intentions. After all, each stage of Johnson’s ‘irreversible’ roadmap out of lockdown was always predicated on a review of the evidence at the time — and there was never any assurance that the dates would be met. In fact, it was always the case that they would only be confirmed a week before they were due to take effect.

Now a week may be a long time in politics, but with most businesses — and the theatre in particular — it takes a lot longer to get going again. So of course the theatres have had to make calculated decisions based on what they expect the government to do in sticking to their timetables, and many shows have duly announced their staggered returns (see my weekly feature that updates shows that are returning or newly announced).

But the responsibility for those dates and decisions is entirely down to the producers of the shows themselves. No one told them to go ahead. We are living in a pandemic; it is a fluid situation, and circumstances are forever changing. The variants were always a possibility. The roll-out of the vaccine – and its uptake, particularly in Britain — has been exemplary. So producers may have thought they were making an informed choice.

But sue the government now for a situation that is far beyond its control, as the virus spreads again? As the Telegraph reports in its front page story today,

“On Tuesday, there were 6,048 new Covid cases, with the number of cases in the past week rising by more than 60 percent to 38,679. Amid concern over the Indian, or delta, variant, guidance to minimise travel and only meet outdoors was extended to cover the whole of Greater Manchester and Lancashire — a total of 5.7 million people.”

Lloyd Webber may be good at creating front page headlines. And a compliant media are good at giving him house room for it. But the reality is a different matter. The government is right to be cautious. The Telegraph reports that health secretary Matt Hancock “indicated that the easing of lockdown could be delayed while officials work to produce ‘critical’ date on the impact of the Indian variants on hospitalisations.”

Are we really going to jeopardise the great advances we’ve made at containing this virus since the last deadly surge by releasing all restrictions just so Andrew Lloyd Webber can open his latest musical (and a return of Phantom of the Opera with a much-reduced orchestra)?