Webber goes legit with Stoll Moss buy

Playhouse sold for $140 mil

LONDON — Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Really Useful Group is becoming one of the biggest and most influential owners of legit playhouses in the world, following the company’s purchase Sunday of London’s Stoll Moss theater chain for more than $140 million.

The £87.5 million ($143 million) deal has been funded in partnership with London’s City-based NatWest Equity Partners and is expected to be finalized today. The sale ends months of speculation about the future of the Australian-owned Stoll Moss’ spread of 10 West End theaters, which is London’s largest.

The result — which took three months to formulate — will be a new joint venture known as Really Useful Theaters, co-owned equally by RUG and NatWest Equity Partners. It brings to 13 the number of West End playhouses owned either partly or wholly by RUG, which already include the Adelphi, the New London, and the Palace.

In spring, 2006, two of these theaters (the Queen’s and the Gielgud) will cede control to Cameron Mackintosh — once Lloyd Webber’s leading producer — as part of a pre-existing sale that was made in March.

This latest negotiation, Lloyd Webber said Sunday, “has enormous implications for keeping the theater in the hands that it should be kept in and not in the hands of pen-pushers and money-crunchers.” Though Lloyd Webber did not name names, many are thought to be American.

He was speaking on the stage of the London Palladium, among the jewels in the Stoll Moss crown. Others include the Theater Royal, Drury Lane and Her Majesty’s, the latter of which is home to Lloyd Webber’s ongoing “The Phantom of the Opera.”

“I won’t interfere too much in the running of them,” Lloyd Webber continued. “My job is to compose.”

Johnston and his existing Stoll Moss team are expected to manage the new company, complete with a board that will include non-executive directors appointed from RUG and NatWest Equity. An independent non-executive chairman has yet to be appointed.

Speaking Sunday on “BBC Breakfast With Frost,” Lloyd Webber addressed industry-wide fears that any RUG hegemony of theaters might lead to a dumbing-down of product.

Next month will see the workshop of Lloyd Webber’s latest show, “The Beautiful Game,” which for the first time pairs the composer with English writer-comedian Ben Elton (“Popcorn”). Robert Carsen, best-known for his work in opera, will direct.

Beyond that is a planned London workshop, under Really Useful’s auspices, for the long-gestating musical collaboration between the Pet Shop Boys and playwright Jonathan Harvey (“Beautiful Thing”).

In April, Really Useful resurfaces on Broadway, producing the Gale Edwards-directed revival of “Jesus Christ Superstar” at the Ford Center for the Performing Arts.

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