This week came the news that Stephen Ward, Andrew Lloyd Webber’s latest musical offering at the Aldwych Theatre in the West End, is being taken off next month for the usual classic reason – lack of ticket sales.
There’s little satisfaction to be had from the demise of a major creative offering, save perhaps for those of a churlish persuasion who might be ungallantly pleased that even Lloyd Webber, one of the most successful composer/theatre producers of the last fifty years, is capable of devising the occasional flop.
The fact is that all new creative endeavours intended for public consumption are hostages to fortune.
You can lavish all the ‘right’ ingredients into the melting pot – Stephen Ward had Lloyd Webber composing the music, blue-chippers Christopher Hampton and Don Black on lyrics, Richard Eyre directing – add a great cast, and (most of all) contribute months and months of unstinting hard work by everyone concerned … i.e. effectively do everything in your power to replicate the groundwork that resulted in your greatest successes … and still ‘bomb’ like a turkey when the safety curtains finally part and the band first strikes up in front of an audience.
It’s a completely different world from manufacturing industry. Nobody develops a new widget in a Midlands factory without inputting an equivalent amount of preparation, but when the blessed product hits the trade fairs or the salesmen’s circuit, its success or failure just doesn’t depend upon what the public decides to do in its precious spare time, often on a whim.
That’s why film, television, theatre and stand-up comedy are such beguiling corners of life to work in. When things go well, sometimes for all the ‘right’ reasons, but just as often for reasons you didn’t expect or intend, you can be on a rocket-ship ride to endless financial and critical success.
When they don’t, in defiance of all instincts and seeming logic, those involved sometimes find that their dedicated efforts count for nothing more than yet another thumping ‘nul points’, either to be played down or displayed proudly – tipping the hat to the ‘there’s no such thing as bad publicity’ rule – in their carefully-crafted curriculum vitaes.
In a small way, I’ve produced touring theatre shows which included music and songs, but I’d never describe myself as an expert. As a punter, I’m neither a regular West End theatre-goer nor a particular fan of musicals.
Given the above, you’re not going to find me saying ‘I told you so’.
Nevertheless, from the moment the Stephen Ward project was first announced – I just didn’t ‘get’ it.
My gut instinct was that it was a naff subject in principle, especially if it was going to have tunes attached.
On a supplementary level, I could just about imagine it working as a satirical farce, the more extreme and bizarre the better, but – as mainstream West End fare? – no chance.
There’s a small but dedicated theatre-going minority that acts rather like a group of ambulance-chasing lawyers. The moment a new theatre production opens to uniformly adverse reviews and/or else announces that it is to close due to lack of business, these specimens swarm towards it like locusts, the better to enjoy the spectacle of a ship going down. They collect metaphorical ‘last night’ attendances and disaster show programmes with as much dedication as any train or aeroplane spotter. No doubt Stephen Ward will soon become another deeply-valued notch upon their belts.