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Webber shakes up RUG

Co. keen on divesting four of 12 London playhouses

SYDNEY — Andrew Lloyd Webber has confirmed that his wholly owned Really Useful Group is under strategic review, with finance group Ingenious Media due to report at the end of March on directions the company could take.

RUG is said to be keen on divesting itself of four of its 12 London playhouses jointly owned with Bridgepoint Capital. One of which, the Gielgud, is skedded to be taken over by Delfont Mackintosh within the next year.

The company’s other divisions — publishing, film, recording and live theater — are also on the table.

Some London newspapers have estimated RUG’s total value at £500 million ($954 million), but Lloyd Webber, who wants to concentrate on composing, refuses to be drawn on specifics.

“I don’t want to be involved with the business side at all,” he tells Variety. “I’m not a good businessman.” But he is concerned that the copyrights of his 14 musicals and associated works end up in friendly hands, which is why the upcoming negotiations will not be simple.

One RUG asset Lloyd Webber believes is under-recognized is the company’s activities in Asia.

Under the stewardship of Tim McFarlane, Really Useful Company Asia Pacific has in 10 years expanded from a 10% share of the company’s live activities to 30%. Headquartered in Sydney, it is RUG’s fastest-growing division, and it has overcome the recent Asian economic slump and SARS epidemics.

Currently playing in Japan are “Cats,” “The Phantom of the Opera” and “Evita.” “Jesus Christ Superstar” played there last year. A world tour of “Cats” is under way through Korea, Scandinavia, Greece, Taiwan, China, Singapore, Hong Kong, Malaysia and parts of the Middle East. A tour of “Phantom,” which started in South Africa and is currently in Shanghai, will head to Seoul and Taipei this year. “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat” is playing in South Africa, a country RUC considers integral to the Asia region, and an Asian tour of one of the company’s newest musicals, “Bombay Dreams,” is planned for 2006.

“There is incredible demand for musical theater in the east in general,” Lloyd Webber says from Los Angeles. He recently toured Japan and attended performances of “Phantom” in Shanghai. “You almost have to see it first-hand to see how big it is. The ‘Phantom’ film (for example) is proportionately doing so much better in the east than everywhere else.”

This is welcome news for the company when audiences for musicals in the west are aging and in decline.

“The average age for ‘Cats’ in Japan is 32, which is significantly younger than audiences for most musicals in the west,” McFarlane says. The figures for Japan are reflected elsewhere in Asia, especially in Korea, while western audiences for musicals are typically 40-plus.

McFarlane says the appeal of musicals among some younger Asians stems from a broader desire to embrace western culture. However, he says the strategy for introducing Lloyd Webber’s musicals into the east has been gradual.

Except for Japan, where the uptake was rapid, there are three Japanese versions of Lloyd Webber musicals playing in what has come to be one of the company’s single strongest territories.

In Southeast Asia, an English-language tour of “Cats,” a show that’s less enduring than “Phantom” but has the advantage of requiring just one simple set, went first to Hong Kong and Singapore.

McFarlane says they “were two markets we initially targeted outside Japan, I suppose because at that time their economies were more advanced than the rest of Asia. (Also,) there were people who spoke English and were aware of musicals.” Those cities are also nonreligious, broadly harmonious, have a large population with good incomes and have theaters.

Contrast this with China, which, despite its massive population, has few theaters able to accommodate western musicals and a population that’s largely impoverished and doesn’t speak English.

So far, RUC has staged a concert of Lloyd Webber songs in Beijing and Shanghai. The two Beijing perfs were seen by 12,000 people, and subsequent telecasts have an estimated audience of millions. Subsequent English-language tours of “Phantom” and “Cats” have been highly successful, but, McFarlane marvels, this is just the beginning.

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