Parsing ‘Poppins’ pop

'Mary' alights in West End to rapturous reviews and boffo biz, joining growing lineup of hit tuners

LONDON — “Mary Poppins” is airborne in London, hoisted aloft by some ethereal reviews. But the main question making the West End rounds at the moment is just how high “Poppins” is flying, given co-producers in Disney, who, as usual, won’t talk cold hard cash.

That hasn’t stopped London legit from crunching the numbers for them, as Disney reps recite the by-now-traditional mantra that all figures are “unconfirmed.”

But let’s put it this way: It’s not every day you find a legit impresario disputing an impressive advance, as Disney’s “Poppins” partner, co-creator Cameron Mackintosh, was quoted as doing before the Dec. 15 opening. At the start of previews, Mackintosh told the Evening Standard it was wrong to report box office takings in excess of $22 million, saying only that the advance was “bloody good.”

One London impresario with reliable Disney contacts tells Variety the advance prior to opening was most likely in the realm of £9 million ($17.5 million) cash, with an additional £3 million ($5.84 million) in reservations. That would square with reports that the musical is pretty much sold out through Easter at the 1,658-seat Prince Edward, where tuner can take either side of $800,000 a week at capacity and should be ensconced for years.

The result: a gold-plated hit for Disney Theatrical Prods., which has five shows running in 15 productions at the moment worldwide, and the sort of serious smash not seen by Mackintosh since his glory days in the 1980s, when the British mogul in succession brought “Cats,” “Les Miserables,” “The Phantom of the Opera” and “Miss Saigon” to the global stage.

The climate couldn’t be better at the moment for “Poppins,” at home and abroad. The road market in the U.S. is thirsting for the sort of fare repped by “Poppins,” while the allure of the title over any individual performers in it means the show itself can be the star, as has been true of Disney ventures “Beauty and the Beast” and “The Lion King” before it.

The tearaway trade for “Poppins” also comes at the tail end of an autumn that has been kind, in commercial terms, to big tuners: “The Woman in White,” “The Producers” and “Poppins” collectively awakened a musically moribund West End that in recent years had seen show after show flop (from “Contact” to “Thoroughly Modern Millie,” among the higher-profile crash-and-burns).

Even “Jerry Springer — The Opera,” last season’s London critical sensation and winner of four best musical awards, caused nowhere near the box office stampede at the West End’s Cambridge Theater that some expected after its sold-out run at the National Theater.

“Woman in White,” the latest from the Andrew Lloyd Webber stable, has the lowest advance of the three latest entries, though the figure, hovering around the $8 million mark, hardly gives cause for complaint. “Its graph is still very strong,” says a partner in the production at the Palace Theater, where the Michael Crawford starrer played to a strong 97% for the week ending Dec. 12. (Broadway beckons in November.)

“The Producers” has been the surprise bonanza of the trio, with an advance near the $10 million mark for a show that, many thought prior to its U.K. preem, would prove too New York for Drury Lane audiences.

Much of the box office attention has focused on the limited stand through Jan. 8 of Nathan Lane, whose absence from the show for two perfs recently made headlines in a city that eight weeks earlier had little idea who Lane was. (It didn’t help that Lane’s first night out due to back problems coincided with a visit to the tuner from Prince Charles.)

As proof that musicals are where the money seems to be, consider the interest from various New York producing entities in John Doyle’s radical reappraisal of “Sweeney Todd,” in which the cast of the Stephen Sondheim revival doubles as its own orchestra.

Despite some softening at the London box office (show is hardly typical Christmas fare), the production now seems all but certain to transfer to Broadway.

And, as always happens when times are good (for which, read tickets are tough), the top price for local tuners is creeping up. “Guys and Dolls” will top out at £55, or $100-plus at current exchange rates, when the Ewan McGregor starrer opens in June at the Piccadilly; Tony winner Jane Krakowski is in negotiations to play Miss Adelaide.

Director Trevor Nunn’s staging of Victoria Wood tuner “Acorn Antiques” has sent out shockwaves for daring to charge more than $125 a ticket when the Julie Walters stage version of the popular TV sketch show bows Feb. 9 at the Theater Royal Haymarket. (The smallish venue is one of the reasons for the hefty price.)

The fact is, the £49 ($95) current top for “Mary Poppins” almost seems like one of the season’s real bargains. Those who can get a ticket may well feel like flying.

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