Playwright sings new tune in London

LONDON — Andrew Lloyd Webber is taking complete ownership of London’s premier musical venues. The composer told Daily Variety on Sunday that he is buying out the 50% share of Really Useful Theaters previously owned by joint-venture partner the equity group Bridgepoint.

Deal, which takes effect Nov. 30, was for an undisclosed sum and makes Lloyd Webber 100% owner of both Really Useful Theaters and his Really Useful Group. The composer founded the latter in 1977.

News came as something of a surprise. For months, industry speculation was the exact opposite — namely, that Lloyd Webber was seeking a buyer for his remaining venues, having in July offloaded four of RUT’s smaller playhouses to the new Nimax partnership.

“I was never really happy about that idea,” Lloyd Webber said of the speculation.

Describing Really Useful as “very much a family company,” Lloyd Webber was sounding glad to wrest control from venture capitalists.

“At least we have all the cards in one place,” said Lloyd Webber, adding that he would seek a “strategic partner” to look after the copyright of his 14 musicals to date. The future of those copyrights, too, had been in doubt.

For theater refurbishment over the next five years, the composer is earmarking £10 million ($17.5 million) — a figure “that is not enough in the long term; we need more than that.” At issue are many of the most desirable London homes for West End musicals, including the Palladium, Palace and Theater Royal, Drury Lane.

RUT has eight theaters at present, though that number falls to seven next year when the Gielgud reverts to fellow theater owner Cameron Mackintosh.

Lloyd Webber’s purchase also includes full ownership of See Tickets, RUT’s ticketing arm.

He said his decision was not prompted by Mackintosh’s increased West End presence, which includes the rival impresario’s recent takeover of Wyndham’s and the Albery from the Ambassador Theater Group.

“Literally, the opportunity was there,” Lloyd Webber said. “Whatever the future is, we can now take (control) completely in our hands.”

Lloyd Webber’s move, some say, followed valuations for the sale of Really Useful to an outside party that fell way below expectations. (U.K. impresario Michael Grade was reported to have been among the bidders.)

“I think the 2005-06 season, as far as we’re concerned, is not going to be a great one,” said Lloyd Webber in what might explain the rumored discrepancy. “There’s nothing in London that is genuinely sold out, as far as I’m aware, in the musical houses,” at least those owned by RUT.

So rather than sell under the odds, Lloyd Webber decided to buy out Bridgepoint.

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