Brit tuner bow exceeds expectations, breaking Lloyd Webber dry spell

NEW YORK — Once the Queen of England awards you an honorary peerage, you’re a lord for life. On Broadway, though, your royalty status is always in flux.

That’s even true for Lord Andrew Lloyd Webber, the composer of long-running juggernauts “Cats” and “The Phantom of the Opera.”

The former king of Broadway is back with “The Woman in White,” the new tuner that opened at the Marquis on Nov. 17. But it comes after a fallow period of several years that has seen a decline in his hitmaker rep.

In 2004, Broadway saw the Lloyd Webber-produced “Bombay Dreams.” His stamp of approval didn’t prevent the Bollywood-inspired tuner, with music by A.R. Rahman, from underperforming at the B.O. and closing in eight months.

As a composer, he most recently visited Gotham with “By Jeeves,” which lasted just two months in late 2001. A revival of “Jesus Christ Superstar” fizzled in 2000.

A couple of Lloyd Webber’s more recent works, “Whistle Down the Wind” and “The Beautiful Game,” played in London but never made it across the Pond at all.

It may be premature to say “The Woman in White” marks the beginning of a turnaround, but it’s shaping up to be his biggest performer on Broadway in a decade. Lloyd Webber may no longer be the prince of Broadway, but he’s not exactly the pauper either.

The production roared out of the gate in its first weeks of previews, with up to 96% of capacity proving the Lloyd Webber brand can still draw crowds. Group sales are also going strong.

The first post-opening weekend took in about $500,000 in sales, bringing the advance for the $8.5 million tuner to $6.1 million.

That’s nowhere near the “Sunset Boulevard” advance, which, with Glenn Close in the lead role, reached a mind-blowing $37.5 million when the show bowed in New York in 1994. Still, producers have reason to be optimistic.

The mixed bag of reviews that hit newsstands Nov. 18 included some tepid notices, but also two out-and-out raves, one from the New York Post and one from the Daily News.

Producers weren’t expecting raves of any sort. “We didn’t get raves in London,” notes Sonia Friedman, producer of the show both on Broadway and in the West End, where “Woman” has done decent biz since it opened last fall.

Even the critics who don’t particularly like Lloyd Webber or the power ballads for which he’s known admitted that “Woman in White” is one of the composer’s most complicated, ambitious scores.

“These are, according to Andrew, the best reviews he’s ever gotten on Broadway,” Friedman notes.

The show also tells the kind of tale that most Broadway tuners don’t go after these days. Based on the 1860 Wilkie Collins novel, the twisty story of “Woman in White” includes a mist-shrouded English mansion, two sisters in love with the same man, a darkly violent nobleman and, of course, a damaged woman with a secret.

“We haven’t had a big, sweeping, Gothic romance mystery in a while,” says producer Bob Boyett. Not since “Jane Eyre,” which opened in 2000 and never caught on, playing 209 performances.

It doesn’t hurt that, after the bright music-hall comedy of “By Jeeves,” “Woman in White’s” Victorian potboiler storyline seems like a return to the period and the style of the phenomenally successful “Phantom.”

There’s also an enormous amount of goodwill in the industry for the production’s star, Maria Friedman. The actress, who is Sonia’s sister, was diagnosed with breast cancer two weeks before opening.

“This unbelievable machine, the Broadway community, took over and took care of her,” Sonia says.

Maria quickly had surgery to remove a malignant lump and was back onstage a few days later. She performed her role on opening night as planned and earned the kind of reviews, even from the show’s naysayers, that can only be described as a personal triumph.

Her story made news. In the week before opening, Maria appeared on “Today,” “Good Morning America” and “NBC Nightly News With Brian Williams.” On Nov. 12, the New York Times ran a front page story about her.

Lloyd Webber himself has begun to retake the spotlight as well.

“Phantom,” which opened in 1988, has seen a bump in sales since the release of the movie version, and will grab more attention when it becomes the longest-running show in Broadway history Jan. 9.

The composer also recently retrenched his presence in the theater world as a businessman. Earlier this month, he announced he would buy out the equity group Bridgepoint for complete control of his company, Really Useful Theaters.

The move makes him sole owner of eight West End theaters — and comes after months of speculation that Lloyd Webber would sell his half of RUT, rather than buy the other half back.

For “Woman in White,” what remains is to parlay the high media profile, the reviews and the Lloyd Webber brand into strong sales.

“We’ve got to get the music out there, position it as a big romantic musical,” Sonia says. Direct-mail CD samplers are being sent out to complement advertising on radio and TV.

Boyett expects tourists, both domestic and international, will be drawn in by the Lloyd Webber name — exactly the aud that’s kept “Phantom” afloat for nearly 18 years. If that prediction plays out, box office could see a significant bump over the Christmas break.

It’s early yet, but for Sonia Friedman and Boyett, it’s so far, so good. “We’re very pleased,” Friedman says. “It’s all positive.”

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