The world premiere of Andrew Lloyd Webber, the world’s most successful composer of musicals, £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 has issued a defiant announcement: “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.”
We shall see. Or shall we? What should be the happy conclusion to a creative journey that began in earnest in 2018, before being diverted by the pandemic (Cinderella was originally due to open last August) is once again in question. No show of this scale, with a bank-busting ensemble of 34, is commercially viable while attendances remain capped at 50 per cent of capacity.
Despite the success of the vaccine rollout, the mood music has suddenly changed, and official caution is once again in the ascendant. Lloyd Webber questions the justification for this. “I’ve seen the science from the tests, don’t ask me how,” he says. “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 law about it or you’ll have to compensate us’.”
The stakes could hardly be higher. It costs Lloyd Webber £1 million a month just to keep his six theatres dark. He has remortgaged his London home – a townhouse in Belgravia, which he shares with his third wife, Madeleine, mother to three of his five children – and has reportedly borrowed more than £50 million, although he refuses to confirm that figure today. According to The Sunday Times Rich List his personal net worth has tumbled by £275 million in a year, to £525 million.
More challenges lie ahead. 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 Misérables, is set to take over the refurbished Her Majesty’s Theatre from July 27; while a revival of Joseph 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] understand it. We’ve never taken any profit out of the theatres. I’ve always tried to put back in, which is why we’re in a muddle now because we never had a big reserve.”
For months, he has been a proactive but pliable collaborator with officialdom, on the inside track before news spilled out. Last year, he says, he “knew on February 2 from a source in Government that it was very likely there would be a lockdown. I got a coded message sent to me – ‘Happy birthday!’ – from someone at a meeting.” So Lloyd Webber gathered his staff and said: “‘OK, folks, we are going to have to close down, we have to get a doomsday scenario in place.’ And people said, ‘You’re off your trolley!’” Six weeks later, the Prime Minister advised the nation to “avoid pubs, clubs, theatres and other such social venues”, effectively bringing down the curtain on live entertainment.
Now, Lloyd Webber’s patience is being stretched to breaking point. “Unfortunately,” he says, “the Government regards theatre as a nice thing to have rather than a necessity.” Aside from Dowden, he has had no dealings with the top brass. “I don’t know Boris at all,” he remarks, with some acidity. “He has shown no interest in getting in touch.”
This is not the first time Lord Lloyd-Webber, 73, has criticised those calling for a delay in reopening.
Last week he said that he may take legal action if his theatres are not allowed to welcome back crowds at full capacity.