Cameron Macintosh has been responsible for producing some of the West End’s most popular musicals over the years, including Hamilton, Miss Saigon and Les Misérables. A couple of weeks ago, he came under scrutiny regarding another of his great successes, as he unexpectedly announced “Andrew [Lloyd Webber] and I have had to sadly permanently shut down our London and UK touring productions of The Phantom of the Opera”. In an absurd turn of events, the following day Lloyd Webber responded to Macintosh’s article, explaining “as far as I’m concerned, Phantom will re-open as soon as is possible”, as Lloyd Webber’s ‘Really Useful Group’ also confirmed the returning production would be the “original version”. Confused yet?
The Evening Standard published a column by Macintosh, in which he criticised the government for continuing to keep theatres closed. In his words, “London and New York can’t function without theatres”. Now, Macintosh wasn’t exactly wrong. Across the pond, Broadway took its first major hit back in May, with the permanent closure of Disney’s Frozen, despite having grossed over $150 million at the box office over two years of performances. Elsewhere, SIX the Musical announced a new ‘drive-in’ UK tour in early July, only to be cancelled two weeks later by organisers, Live Nation Entertainment. While theatres have done their best to bring some much-needed optimism to theatre fans across the country, it has clearly been a struggle for producers to keep creating accessible theatre during this pandemic. Even Andrew Lloyd Webber, who worked hard to connect with fans through streaming his musicals for free on YouTube, admitted his recent attempt to host a socially distanced concert was “a sad sight”.
The most recent news on Phantom came from spokespeople for Cameron Mackintosh and the show, who confirmed it would be returning as “a brand-new physical production”. Coincidentally, this exact same phrasing was also used to describe the 2019 international tour production, which included a $10 million set intended to look “exactly like” the original West End production. So, while we know Phantom will indeed return to London soon, there appears to be a struggle behind the scenes, between the original musical’s integrity and speculation of a post-pandemic box office.
Alongside this, rumours began circulating in June that the West End production of Phantom may be replaced with a downsized version, with revised staging and choreography, originally put together by Harold Price and Gillian Lynne, in order to avoid paying royalties. This would not have been the first time Macintosh downscaled a long-running production – only last year, the original West End production of Les Misérables was closed for theatre renovations and replaced with the smaller, 25th anniversary touring version. Andrew Lloyd Webber initially responded to these rumours, stating he was doing “everything in [his] power” to keep the original Phantom on the West End, however these recent statements regarding the show suggest this matter has not yet been put to bed.
Cameron Macintosh and Andrew Lloyd Webber are two of the most powerful men in the West End, so any financial impact on them represent just a fraction of the struggles faced by smaller, independent theatres and producers. Multiple regional theatres, in areas such as Newcastle, Plymouth and Southampton, have already had to make large scarifies in redundancies, even permanent closure, in order to stay afloat during these difficult times. Despite the promised £1.57 billion from the government, it is likely that the West End we return to post-pandemic will look noticeably sadder, as less established but otherwise successful shows are pulled in order to cut losses.
However, the overriding issue with closing long-running shows like Phantom and Les Mis is that these are a constant success at the box office – it is highly unlikely any of these classic musicals will leave London anytime soon, simply because they are some of the most likely shows to make profit at this time, where others will barely break even. When theatres are allowed to open, no producer will want to take unnecessary risks that could cause them even more financial harm. With this in mind, it would not be hugely surprising if Lloyd Webber loses the battle to keep his original Phantom production over a cheaper set and smaller band, although I’m sure fans would be disappointed to see it go.
In spite of recent news, while Lloyd Webber and Macintosh are certainly taking a fair hit from this pandemic, the decisions surrounding the reopening of Phantom of the Opera are more a question of theatre politics than a serious concern for those who had tickets lined up for later this year. No, you will not have to wait for a Phantom revival 30 years down the line, but you might have to settle for some changes to the original.
Illustration: Heidi Januszewski